What is the difference between compulsive spending and the kind of spending most of us do?

My definition of compulsion is if you can’t control when you start or when you stop a behavior you have a problem. Most of us splurge occasionally, but compulsive spenders find the urge overpowering and frequent. Another common trait of “shopaholics” is that they buy things and never take the price tags off or wear them. Some people don’t even take their purchases out of the bag. It’s not about things. Spending is a way to medicate unhappiness, fear, anger and low self-esteem. It is an addiction the same as alcohol.

What creates the urge to shop?

Conditioning, environmental triggers and beliefs. Believe it or not, many people learn to overspend. Someone close to them provides a role model of compulsive spending and shows the way. Many people go shopping when they are bored. Once they find themselves in a setting like a mall that is filled with exciting temptations it is very easy to give in. The mall is a convenient hangout for teenagers. Some people don’t think of their plastic credit card as money. Like Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind,” they tell themselves that they will worry about their debt tomorrow.

Who has this problem?

Although we joke about women shopping, men do too. Sometimes men buy more of the big toys like cars and boats, but men also overspend on clothing and tools. Compulsive spenders are all ages and across all economic strata. One of my clients was a student who had little money so she binged at thrift stores. Many alcoholics and overeaters turn to spending as another way to soothe their inner pain when they give up alcohol or sugar.

What is the difference between compulsive spending and compulsive debting?

Compulsive spenders buy things to make themselves feel better; use pleasure to mask the pain of life. Although compulsive debtors appear to do the same thing, there is a hidden agenda to their spending. They are not aware that they spend in order to use up their money because they don’t think that they deserve success, wealth, or love.

Why would a person risk getting arrested for shoplifting or embezzling money just to have "things"?

There are two answers to this question. Some people unconsciously escalate in the hope of getting caught so they can get help. Others live lives that are filled with so much pain and dysfunction that they are oblivious to the consequences. When the urge takes over it is as if they are in a trance. They have to feed the hungry place inside, although things can never really fill that emptiness.

How does brain chemistry influence compulsive spending?

Craving begins in the brain when stress creates an imbalance between two important brain chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. When dopamine is stimulated it helps us get into action, to achieve our goals. Once we have done that the serotonin rises and gives us a feeling of satisfaction. Then we move on to something else. But when we are very stressed, either physically or emotionally, the serotonin can’t always rise enough to offset the drive of the dopamine. It keeps firing, “I want it. I want it.” That is what happens in a spending binge. A woman may like a certain sweater and then buy it in every color it comes in before she stops.

What is EFT?

EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) is a new, fast acting, often permanent, treatment for life problems. It is best described as acupressure for the emotions. It helps people relieve themselves of negative feelings and cravings by treating the energy meridians in the body. I teach people to stimulate eight energy points, mostly on the face, by tapping or touching them The stimulation goes to the brain and releases stress, calms emotions, and helps the thinking part of the brain to say, “No” to cravings.

What is Mall Therapy?

Mall Therapy takes place in a mall. The spender goes to a place of temptation with a friend who is not a binge buddy, to act as a helper. As they go through the mall, the spender answers a set of questions about her feelings and impressions. She rates the intensity of the urge to buy things and is directed to use EFT to eliminate those urges on the spot.

Is there anything a friend or spouse can do to help?

The most important advice I have for friends or family is what NOT to do. Don’t threaten, punish, cover up for, or try to bribe the spender into changing. It simply won’t work. If you cut up their credit cards they already know the number by heart! Some have credit cards that you don’t even know exist. Compulsive spenders are like alcoholics. They spend when they are upset. They will lie and cheat in order to be free to spend. The best thing you can do is understand that they are not bad or stupid people. They are people who are in a lot of emotional pain. Encourage them to find help for their problems. Debtors Anonymous is a good place to start.

Read my book, Born To Spend, to learn how to overcome compulsive spending now.

Author's Bio: 

Gloria Arenson, MS, MFT, D.CEP specializes in using EFT to treat stress, anxiety, trauma, depression, phobias, and compulsions. Her extensive knowledge of eating disorders and compulsive behaviors led her to write How to Stop Playing the Weighting Game, A Substance Called Food, Born To Spend, the award winning Five Simple Steps to Emotional Healing, and co-author Freedom At Your Fingertips. She is Past President of the Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology (ACEP).