Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Colleen Lennon, LCSW
Add to cart, add to cart, add to cart, buy, buy, buy, feel a high or sense of relief, go deeper into debt, hide the evidence, experience feelings of shame, anxiety, and/or depression, repeat the process over again.
Compulsive buying is characterized by a repetitive need to make purchases with the motivation to obtain a sense of relief from stress or negative feelings. Compulsive buyers will often feel a sense of relief or an improvement in mood once a purchase is made, but these feelings are usually fleeting and are typically followed by shame, remorse, anxiety, or guilt. For a compulsive buyer, the need to buy becomes a preoccupation which is often intrusive and unwanted, and the purchases made tend to be on items that are not needed or cannot be afforded. The amount of time spent shopping also becomes longer than originally intended. Compulsive buying often has negative financial consequences, and it can lead to significant impairment or issues in daily living, social functioning, professional lives, and relationships.
Compulsive buying can take many forms and have several different motivating aspects.
Individuals who compulsively buy can range from emotional spenders who are trying to gain relief, to individuals who become involved in a constant buy-return cycle, to compulsive deal hunters, to “revenge” shoppers, to hoarders and individuals who purchase or collect multiple items that are not needed. The frequency also differs among compulsive buyers, from daily shoppers to the occasional “binge” shopping.
With the ability to shop from anywhere and at any time via the internet, the continual increase in availability of items through online shopping, and the overall societal pressures to “keep up” with peers and trends, compulsive buying continues to be perpetuated and easier to hide. It is believed that the prevalence of compulsive buying is around 5-6% in the United States alone. Although compulsive buying can occur in any gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or at any age, individuals who are diagnosed as compulsive buyers typically are women with an onset around the age of 30 years old. Compulsive buying can often be viewed as shameful, something the person should be able to control, and even as an addiction, which can further perpetuate the desire and need of the individual to hide it from others or avoid seeking help.
Just like with any other disorder or concern a person may have, it is important to acknowledge and accept it, talk about it, and ask for help. It may not be an easy process or necessarily comfortable at first but it will be better in the long run in terms of overall well-being and life satisfaction. Compulsive buying, if left untreated, can lead to significant negative financial issues, strain on and conflict in relationships, impairment in social and professional functioning, symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, and legal consequences. Compulsive buying is usually attributed to poor self-regulation and impulse control issues. It has been shown that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been successful in helping individuals with compulsive buying to alter negative thought processes, develop healthier buying behaviors, and learn better impulse control and coping skills.
Compulsive buying should not be viewed as a condition that one will never be able to control or change. It is possible for someone to be able to resist the urges to buy, create better spending habits and behaviors, and improve their ability to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression in a healthier way.
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Source: Klontz, B.T., Britt, S.L., & Archuleta, K.L. (2015) Financial Therapy, Theory, Research, and Practice. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.