Spending Addiction

Spending Addiction (or Shopping Addiction, Compulsive Shopping, Compulsive Spending) is a compulsive and mood-altering behavior that involves making unnecessary, emotion-driven and negatively impactful purchases. While not a distinct condition recognized medically in psychiatry, a Spending Addiction involves many of the symptoms, behaviors and dynamics found in disorders which are. Overspending and overshopping is now being considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Symptoms of Spending Addiction

Spending Addiction is similar in many ways to Substance Disorders and Pathological Gambling—both categories of medical diagnoses that involve compulsive and emotionally-driven behaviors which alter mood and cause negative consequences in one’s life. Some of the symptoms shared by these disorders and a Spending Addiction are:

  • Engaging in the behaviors even when there is a desire to refrain
  • Mental preoccupation with the behaviors
  • Progressively doing more of the behaviors
  • Feeling discomfort or distress when abstaining
  • Having binges of the compulsive behavior
  • Having periods of mood alteration such as feeling “high” when doing the behaviors
  • Failing to meet responsibilities and obligations due to the behaviors
  • Continuing the behaviors despite negative consequences

Mental Health Disorders

Problematic spending is common in those who have clinically significant anxiety and depression. It can be considered a symptom of other mental health conditions such as a Depressive Disorder and other Mood Disorders such as a Bipolar Disorder as well as Anxiety Disorders, Borderline Personality Disorder, Eating Disorders and Impulse Control Disorders. In all mental health disorders in which it occurs as a symptom problematic spending or shopping is considered an impulsive, self-destructive and self-sabotaging behavior that occurs when moods become unstable and/or anxiety levels become elevated.

The Lifestyle and Coping Mechanisms of a Spending Disorder

Those who have a Spending Addiction can come from any socioeconomic background or class and is common among both sexes. Research suggests that 5-6% of both men and women may have a Spending Addiction and that all who do share common characteristics which result from the effects of a Spending Addiction and attempts to cope with it. These lifestyle aspects, lifestyle consequences and coping efforts are similar to those found in Substance Disorders and Pathological Gambling. These may involve:

  • Secrecy, leading a ‘double life’
  • Using ‘thinking errors’ to support the behaviors (justifying, blaming, rationalizing, for example)
  • Avoiding those who confront the behavior
  • Associating with those who condone or otherwise enable the behavior
  • Social, legal, family, occupational, financial, mental , emotional and spiritual consequences
  • Isolation
  • A sense of powerlessness, hopelessness and helplessness
  • Unmanageability
  • Violating one’s own ethical and moral standards
  • Self-loathing
  • Strained relationships
  • Guilt
  • Denial
  • Shame
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Problems recognizing and coping with feelings
  • Loss, grief and trauma resulting from the behavior

Causes of Spending Addiction

The causes of a Spending Addiction vary among those who are affected. These may be related to mental health problems, trauma or efforts to cope with loss, grief or other situational stresses. Some of the causes of a Spending Addiction may be:

  • Attempts to cope with a sense of emptiness
  • A need for excitement
  • Perfectionism
  • An inability to cope with negative feelings
  • A history of deprivation
  • Compulsion
  • Impulsivity
  • Significant loss
  • Efforts to ‘numb’ overwhelming emotional pain
  • Efforts to cope with rejection or abandonment

Loss of Control

A spending Addiction causes a feeling of being out of control and creates unmanageability in one’s life due to its negative consequences. There is a ‘vicious cycle’ involved in a Spending Addiction in which the addiction itself creates a loss of control which increases anxiety that then leads to more problematic spending in an effort to reduce the anxiety. Some of the indicators of loss of control are:

  • Buying things indiscriminately—the purchased items are not as important as the act of purchasing
  • Buying sprees or binges in which there is a feeling of not being able to stop
  • Bewilderment or remorse after making unnecessary purchases

Consequences of a Spending Disorder 

The consequences of a Spending Disorder can range from mild to severe but generally progress along this continuum over time. Mild consequences can include increased levels of anxiety and depression, increased use of credit and avoidance of other activities, neglect of responsibilities and relationship problems. Some of the more severe consequences can include financial ruin, damaged credit, bankruptcy, criminal activity, incarceration, homelessness, divorce, unemployment and suicidality.

Treatment for Spending Addiction

Although Spending Addiction is not officially recognized as a medical or psychiatric disorder there are several types of treatment techniques that can address the problem. These cover a range of modalities typically used for other mental health concerns and conditions as well for the treatment of addictions. Effective treatment may involve individual and group counseling that targets healthier coping with anxiety, depression and poor impulse control. Family and/or couples counseling may be used to support the Spending Addict in recovery and to address the related relationship problems caused by the addict’s behavior. Medication that reduces anxiety, depression and/or impulsivity can be effective for some. The types and combinations of medicines are individualized to target the particular array of symptoms each affected person has. Medications that have helped some with a Spending Disorder include anti-depressants and mood stabilizers although a medical evaluation may indicate the need for other types of medicine. Effective treatment plans may include a combination of modalities such as counseling, medication and the use of self-help groups 

Recovery Supports

There are community, self-help and support groups that can address a Spending Addiction. Typically these are based upon the structure and principles of other self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. These groups are free and run by its members. There is an emphasis upon relying upon the support of the group, working with a sponsor and using the 12 Steps.  Such groups include Debtors Anonymous which specifically deals with problematic spending that leads to unsecured and unmanageable debt; and Shopaholics Anonymous and Compulsive Spenders Anonymous.

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