Dr. April Lane Benson is an expert on compulsive shopping and the author of To Buy or Not to Buy. Here, she explains why people shop to fill an emotional void and what they can do about it.
Q: What is compulsive shopping?
A: It’s when you spend so much time, energy and money shopping and spending that it’s impairing your life in a significant way. Somebody could even be a compulsive shopper without even spending any money; they could just be obsessed with thinking about it.
Q: What are some of the symptoms?
A: As with any other addiction, they’re preoccupied with thoughts of spending, buying, returning and purchasing on the Internet. They often have interpersonal problems as a result of this addiction. They start fighting with their spouse, children get neglected, and they have occupational problems. Maybe they’re on probation at work because they’re shopping on the Internet all day long instead of working. Or they have to take two or three jobs just to pay minimum payments on credit cards for things they bought but don’t need and don’t use. For some people, it takes the form of compulsive gift giving, and they don’t see it as compulsive shopping if it’s not for themselves.
Q: Why do people shop compulsively?
A: They shop compulsively for the same reason they do anything compulsive. For some people, it has to do with an emptiness inside they need to fill up. For other people, it may have to do with a particular threshold – they shop because it makes them feel more alive or because it’s a way of calming them down. It can be a way to keep up an image of wealth and power or to keep up with the Jones’. It can be a way to express anger at a spouse they stick the bills with, or at parents. Others shop because they feel out of control in other parts of their life and it’s a way to feel in control. There are many reasons people do it.
Q: Why do we connect shopping with an emotional activity?
A: When we shop, we think that what we buy is going to make us feel better because advertising seems to suggest that. If you buy this Clairol hair colour, you’re going to drive that same car and you’re going to be surrounded by the same men showering you with Casablanca lilies.
Q: How big is this problem?
A: We have two studies from the last five years. The 2006 study done at Stanford suggests that 5.8 percent of the population could be classified as compulsive buyers; and, interestingly, it showed that the problem was equally divided among the genders. A more recent study that came out in the last six months, and the most conservative results suggested that 8.9 percent were compulsive buyers. We’re talking about a lot of people.
Q: It surprises me to hear that the problem was split between men an women. Don’t most people associate emotional shopping with women?
A: Yes. Men do image buying; they’re the ones who want a fancy car. And more men are now shopping on the Internet.
Q: Is there anyone who’s particularly vulnerable to this behaviour?
A: There are a lot of common family scenarios, like someone who’s grown up with things being used as substitutes for love. Love is shown by the buying of things. Rather than feel what it felt like not to get time and energy and attention, the child in the next generation will identify with the parent who did that and think that they’re showing love in that way. But it’s really a way to not feel the feeling.
Or, another scenario is someone who grew up with a lot of financial deprivation and has made a vow that they will never feel that way again – when they get a job and they get money, they want to spend to make up for lost time.
Q: What are some of the worst consequences if this behaviour gets out of control?
A: One terrible consequence is that you can end up in jail. We also know that suicide has been linked to debt. Families break up; there are a lot of divorces over money and spending.
Q: So how do you start to change this behaviour?
A: They should start by becoming mindful, and noticing when it happens. What triggers them? Maybe keeping a little notebook. In the back of my book, there’s a perforated card that people tear out; it has six questions on it: Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it? That’s a way of exploring the impulse and giving the person time to think through the purchase and time to bear the impulse. If you’ve asked and answered those questions – especially in writing – you have a pretty good idea of whether this is going to be a compulsive purchase or not. And you’ve seen that you don’t need to go right ahead and buy the minute you have an impulse.
Q: Is it important to introduce substitute coping mechanisms for when you feel emotionally empty?
A: You have to look at what is the underlying authentic need that’s propelling the impulse. Are you feeling the need to take care of yourself? Are you feeling the need to reward yourself? Are you bored and in need of stimulation? Are you lonely and in need of company? Once you’ve figured out what you need, then you can tailor an activity to that need rather than just distracting yourself.
Bonus Q: How can shopping less improve our lives?
A: Because it helps us cultivate true wealth – which are those non-financial assets which are different for every person that enrich and enliven us, like connecting with community, communing with nature, spending more effort and energy on relationships, and the pursuit of ideas and experiences. We even have research that suggests that when people use their disposable income to purchase experiences instead of things, they have a lot more satisfaction for a number of reasons. One, experiences are not so subject to comparisons. Two, the memories tend to improve over time – whereas, when you buy a thing, especially one you don’t need and won’t use, you sure don’t feel good about it afterwards. And three, experiences tend to be done in a social context; compulsive buying is often done alone and furtively.
Effective help is available, and there is a lot on my website. I’d also like to add that you can never get enough of what you don’t really need.