Do You Shop Till You Drop? Control That Compulsion

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woman lying on a couch behind multicolored shopping bags
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It's the stuff of many sitcoms: A young woman, stressed-out from work or saddened by a breakup, takes off for the mall to drown her sorrows in a new pair of shoes. I'd venture a guess that many of you reading this right now have done something similar at least once in your life.

Not you? Well, then, have you ever charged something you couldn't afford to pay for in cash? Or understated the cost of a purchase to your significant other? What about impulse buys? Online shopping and "conveniences" like one-click buying make it easy for even the most disciplined shoppers to slip up.

Most of us have overspent at least a few times, maybe more often than we care to admit. But when does this kind of behavior cross the line from a slightly embarrassing vice to a troubling addiction? And what causes it?

According to Psychology Today, like other addictions such as alcoholism, compulsive shopping starts as an attempt to feel better about ourselves. And it works, for a while. But the effects wear off quickly, and compulsive shoppers feel bad about their spending. So what do they do to feel better again? Shop. The cycle continues and can easily lead to debt, conflicts with a spouse, and guilt. More bad feelings, more spending to compensate.

So Are You a Harmless Shopaholic or Compulsive Spender?

If the description above sounds crazy, chances are you're in the clear. But if it resonates with you, even just a little, here's how to tell if you might have a problem.

If you can identify with four or more of the following warning signs, taken from the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, your shopping sprees may have turned into something more serious:
  • Shopping or spending money as result of feeling disappointed, angry, or scared.
  • Shopping or spending habits causing emotional distress in one's life.
  • Having arguments with others about one's shopping or spending habits.
  • Feeling lost without credit cards.
  • Buying items on credit that would not be bought with cash.
  • Feeling a rush of euphoria and anxiety when spending money.
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, or confused after shopping or spending money.
  • Lying to others about purchases made or how much money was spent.
  • Thinking excessively about money.
  • Spending a lot of time juggling accounts or bills to accommodate spending.
If you're married, pay special attention to your spending habits, especially if you've ever hidden a purchase from your spouse or lied about its true cost. So-called financial infidelity can be devastating for a couple. In a recent survey conducted by, 20 percent of those in relationships admitted to spending $500 or more without telling their partner. A few -- 6 percent -- even admit to having a secret credit card or account.

One good strategy for partners is to set a "splurge" limit for impulse buys -- say, $100 or $500 -- that fits comfortably into your budget. Any purchase over that amount has to be approved by your partner.

What Can You Do?

If you think you have a problem, don't wait to get help. The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery is a good place to start. also offers many resources, and can help those whose shopping has put them in dire straits financially. If, like me, you just want to make sure your spending stays in check, here are a few tips that have worked for me.
  • Follow the 24-hour rule. When shopping online, I'll often load up my cart and then close the window. If I am still thinking about the item 24 hours later, I'll go back and reassess. Most of the time, the urge has passed. This is even more effective when shopping at brick-and-mortar stores. I'll put any impulse items on hold, then go back the next day if I really want them.
  • Budget in your sprees. I'm on a budget, but if I don't plan to spend at least a little money on frivolous items, I find that all that fiscal responsibility backfires eventually. Much like with dieting, too much deprivation can lead to a binge. Planning to spend a modest amount on, say, clothing or home decor (my personal pitfalls) each month helps prevent a rash of overspending later.
  • Share your statements. If you know a spouse or friend is going to see how much you're spending, it'll make you think twice before pulling out that credit card. Even a computer can provide accountability. I use the budgeting tool Mint, and just knowing I'm going to have to see my shopping charges pop up on my laptop the next day helps keep me from pressing "buy."
  • Make the Unsubscribe button your friend. I can't tell you how many times I've bought something on a whim because I got a great discount code in my inbox. Unsubscribing from retailers' email lists is probably the most effective deterrent I've tried. Same goes for any shopping blogs you follow.
  • Watch the company you keep. It's fun to shop with friends, but doing so can cost you. One 2013 study reported that 62 percent of women spend more money when they shop with friends. When my super-stylish friend and I hit the stores, it's hard to resist buying that outfit she raves over. I now meet her at a coffeeshop, far away from any tempting boutiques. Even better, resolve to shop only with someone who hates to do so. An impatient spouse or child (I take along my 8-year-old son) makes it very easy to limit your time at the mall.
Robyn Gearey is a Motley Fool contributor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Check out The Motley Fool's one great stock to buy for 2015 and beyond.
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