Buy Now and Pay Later: The Hidden Problem of Compulsive Shopping

January 18, 2007 at 2:11 pm  •  Posted in Obsessions And Compulsions by  •  0 Comments

By Holly E. Dreger, MSW, LCSW

Who Is the Compulsive Shopper?
What Does Compulsive and Out of Control Spending Look Like?
The Impact of Compulsive Shopping
What Help Is Available?



I bumped into a woman at the grocery store last week. Betty* (not her real name), who appeared to be about 50 years old, stood in front of me, poised and ready to write out a check for her groceries, which consisted of two cans of cat food and a light bulb. When the clerk totaled up her order, Betty asked for ‘cash back’. She smiled as she handed the clerk the check for $45.00. Betty offered that her husband ‘doesn’t need to know’ that she sometimes needs ‘a little more money’ for ‘retail therapy’.

This kind of secretive behavior is  more common than you might think. In fact, it is a hidden compulsion for many. Known as “retail therapy” by the initiated or oniomania, (the scientific term for compulsive shopping), spending more than you should is an ultimately destructive process, where ‘shoppers’ continue to spend despite knowing adverse consequences, such as difficulty paying the bills incurred during fits of spending. It is also a progressive problem and tends to worsen over time.

Who Is the Compulsive Shopper?

Women are more likely to shop compulsively, but recent trends show men are fast becoming obsessed as well. It might start out subtly, such as when someone finds that they temporarily ‘feel better’ after making a purchase. The sense of better well being might be fleeting, but the shopper soon learns that whenever they might feel anxious, disappointed, angry, or sad, going out and buying some simple item temporarily transports them away from their uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes people spend in response to feelings of loss, childhood deprivation or due to feeling low self worth.

What Does Compulsive Shopping and Out of Control Spending Look Like?

Some signs and symptoms of compulsive shopping include:

  • Shopping or spending money after you’ve been feeling angry, lonely, depressed or worried;
  • Finding yourself spending more and more time trying to pay bills to accommodate your spending (e.g. using one credit card to pay another; selling personal items to make payments or to impulse spend)
  • Getting into arguments with significant others about your spending and shopping habits
  • Actually feeling a ‘high’ or rush of euphoria at the time of purchase
  • Lying to others about how much you are really spending
  • Feeling ashamed or guilty after spending money  and perhaps returning the purchased items
  • Feeling literally lost without your credit cards
  • Going shopping for a gift for another but always buying something for yourself
  • Charging items that you probably would not have purchased with cash

Persons who can identify with three or more of the above might have a problem. Often, the reason why someone develops a shopping problem is related to an underlying issue, such as feeling out of control, being depressed, or being angry. Many people with a shopping problem report feeling a sense of power and control when able to shop and obtain the material things that society tells us we ‘must have’. This sense of power, however, is an illusion with extremely destructive consequences on self, relationships, and financial futures. Additionally, many compulsive shoppers struggle with other issues, such as problems with food, drug or alcohol abuse, or anxiety and depression.

The Impact Compulsive Shopping

Compulsive shoppers often go into debt—and fast. Many overspend on all their credit cards, and soon are unable to pay the smallest balances. The problem then spreads to the people in their lives: spouse, parents, children, friends or co-workers. Watching your financial life spiral out of control can only increase feelings of low self worth, with bankruptcy often the outcome of this continuous overspending.

What Help Is Available?

Please know  if you have  a compulsive shopping problem, you need not feel ashamed or try to hide the behavior. Hiding the behavior will only make it grow worse, and further trap you into compulsive spending. The most important thing you could to do is admit that you might have a problem and seek help. Healing an addiction begins when you take the ‘covert’ and make it ‘overt’. In other words, the truth must come to light before you can become free of your addiction.

If someone you love has a compulsive shopping problem, gently confronting someone you love with a compulsive shopping problem can help them know that they can get help for this addiction.

Additionally, help is available in the following places:

  • groups, such as Debtors Anonymous    (  can help you feel less isolated
  • weekend workshops on how to stop overshopping (
  • therapists  and counselors
  • self help resources, such as books and online communities
  • medication
  • spiritual supports

If you’re tired of feeling trapped by your own behavior, call today. Help is available.


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