Dealing with Shopping Addiction During the Holidays

Dealing with Shopping Addiction During the Holidays
by on December 2, 2015 in

Traditions during the winter holiday season often involve gift-giving and, therefore, shopping. For those with a “shopping addiction”, or compulsive shopping and spending tendencies, the holidays can be an especially risky time. What exactly is a “shopping addiction?” Who might be at risk and what can they do to reduce their risk?

Warning Signs of Compulsive Shopping and Spending

The American Psychiatric Association lists the following traits as warning signs of a potential problem with shopping and spending:

  • 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 a person exhibits four or more of these traits, their shopping and spending has reached a point where it is causing trouble in their daily life and should therefore be addressed as a potential mental health issue.

From a clinical standpoint, compulsive shopping and spending is a form of impulse control disorder. It has similarities with addictive disorders, in that it involves a pattern of chronic, repetitive behavior that is difficult to stop and can easily result in harmful consequences.

Causes and Consequences of Shopping and Spending Compulsion

Compulsive shopping has become more prevalent in recent years due to the ease of availability of obtaining credit cards or debit cards and the tendency toward a cashless economy. Few people pay for purchases in cash these days. Credit cards or debit cards are necessary for online shopping, which has grown 9% in the last year, while in-store shopping fell 6%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s October 2015 Retail and Food Services Sales Report.


The Disconnect: The prevalence of credit cards and their get-it-now but pay-for-it-later system encourages people to make more purchases more often because there is a disconnect between gain (the reward of obtaining a desired item) and pain (the financial burden incurred).

Some research link the origins of compulsive shopping tendencies to emotional issues, such as low self-esteem, feelings of loneliness or lack of affection, and a tendency toward perfectionism. Others see compulsive buying as part of a status-seeking tendency, where obtaining new items, especially those used as social markers (pricey logo clothing; designer products), brings a sense of self-worth. Some social psychologists also view compulsive shopping as an attempt to validate a weak sense of personal identity, by exaggerating one’s image as being more affluent than one really is.

Whatever the cause, over-shopping and over-spending can lead to serious consequences, including:

  • Financial issues: incurring debt and/or the loss of credit
  • Emotional issues: becoming dependent on the behaviors of buying or spending to alleviate negative feelings or to lift a depressed mood
  • Relationship issues: problems with interpersonal, family and/or occupational relationships as others express concern about, or object to, the buying or spending behaviors.

Avoiding Compulsive Buying and Spending While Holiday Shopping

You may not see yourself as a compulsive shopper or spender. Nonetheless, the holiday season can push even those us with a slight “shopaholic” tendency to over-extend ourselves and have regrets when the bills arrive in January. But if you plan ahead and practice even a moderate amount of self-discipline, you can enjoy the excitement of the season and the joy of giving, without breaking your budget or having regrets.

Here are some sensible shopping and spending tips:

  • Review your holiday gift-giving policy.

Is each person on your gift-list really necessary? Are the nieces and nephews grown-ups now? If so, perhaps it is time to renegotiate the family gift-exchange policy. Trim your list and consider non-material gifts, such as offers to babysit for harried parents, or to cook or clean for the elderly.

  • Avoid the holiday shopping frenzy by shopping early.

Avoid the holiday shopping frenzy by shopping early in the season when selection is best. You will be less likely to over-spend if you have more choices are not under time pressure.

  • Know your shopping weaknesses and strategize to minimize temptation.

Do you go overboard when you shop the stores? Do the displays pull you in and trigger your “must-have-it” buttons? If so, consider doing more online shopping. On the other hand, if the privacy of online shopping encourages your overindulgence, then maybe the stores are a better option for you. If you feel the need for support, shop with a friend or spouse who will gently remind you of your intentions to shop wisely and not over-spend.

  • Leave credit cards at home and use cash.

For most of us, there is a real difference in the feeling of handing over a $100 bill and getting back a few cents, versus swiping a credit card and signing our names, in order to purchase goods of the same value. We tend to register the financial impact more if it hits us immediately. Use this knowledge to keep yourself in check and stop spending when your cash is gone.

  • Avoid emotional shopping triggers.

Never shop when tired, stressed, lonely, bored or depressed. Recognize the emotional needs that shopping may be fulfilling for you and make a commitment to address these needs in a more appropriate, and less costly, way. You might consider speaking with a counselor or joining a support group to address the underlying issues associated with your tendency to overspend or over-buy.

  • Consider starting a new tradition of charity gift exchanges.

Along with non-material gifts such as providing services (babysitting, cooking, cleaning), you might want to think about starting a tradition of a “donation-exchange” with some people on your gift list. By donating to a charitable organization in one another’s names, instead of giving material gifts, you de-link the ideas of gift-giving and shopping/ buying in your mind. You therefore reinforce your intention to refrain from using shopping and buying as a mood regulator, while still being able to feel the positive feelings that come from gift-giving.

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