The holidays can make even the most sensible, financially literate person feel like they’re spiraling down a rabbit hole of compulsive spending and impending debt, so it’s no surprise that this time of year can inflict even more stress for the estimated 18 million Americans who exhibit compulsive spending year-round and suffer from Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD). That’s nearly 6% of the American population. These shoppers experience overwhelming and irresistible urges to buy that persist despite the numerous adverse and devastating consequences that overspending can cause.
Compulsive Buying Disorder is characterized by excessive shopping cognitions and buying behavior that results in distress or impairment, and it’s found worldwide, including such places as the U.S., Canada, England, Germany, France, and Brazil. Though women are more commonly stereotyped as compulsive spenders, CBD does not discriminate: In the U.S., 5.5% of men suffer from compulsive buying behaviors, which is only somewhat fewer than the 6% of women who suffer. The age of onset of CBD appears to be in the late teens or early 20s, with a mean age at onset of 30 years. It is likely that the age of onset corresponds with emancipation from the home and the age at which people first stablish credit accounts.
So what constitutes a compulsive spender? Ask yourself these questions: Do you often feel preoccupied with shopping and buying? Do you go on frequent buying binges? Do you use shopping as a way to handle stress? Do you spend more time shopping than you intend to? Do you experience guilt or remorse about shopping? Do you find yourself hiding purchases from your spouse or your family or friends? Are you encountering excess debt, partner or family conflict, or participating in illegal activities because of your shopping and buying habits?
Clinical symptoms of Compulsive Buying Disorder include:
The impulse to buy actually stems from an emotional need. Most people don’t realize that impulse buying is related to your state of mind. Impulse buyers can be triggered to spend due to anxiety, unhappiness, depression, boredom, shame, impulsivity, low self-esteem, perfectionism, obsessions and compulsions, a desire to belong, and numerous other emotions. What makes one spend impulsively is unique for each and every person, and the true psychological source of a person’s compulsive spending tendencies can be very difficult to pinpoint. Buying provides temporary relief from negative emotions, but most people find that they feel remorse or disappointment once they make a purchase and their need is rarely filled by the activity.
The behavior of compulsive spending is not currently a diagnosable mental health condition; it is not found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the bible that psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use to make diagnoses of mental health conditions. Compulsive Buying Disorder is often linked to other psychological conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to addiction. Some researchers identify compulsive buying as an obsessive-compulsive tendency, while still others view it as an impulse control problem due to the short-term gratification and dismissal of long-term consequences associated with the behavior. Compulsive hoarding is particularly closely linked to CBD.
According to “A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder” by Donald W. Black (World Psychiatry, 2007 Feb; 6(1): 14-18), there are four distinct phases of CBD:
It’s no surprise that 85% of those who suffer from Compulsive Buying Disorder express concern with their compulsive spending related debts. 74% report feeling “out of control” while shopping, and 92% try to resist their urges to buy but are rarely successful. When a person suffering with CBD experiences an urge to buy, the urge will result in a purchase 74% of the time. 68% report that CBD has negatively affected their relationships (Source: “A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder”).
Impulse buys add up. They keep people from achieving their real goals if spending habits get out of hand, which can be quite quickly. Because many, if not most, impulse buys are purchased via the use of credit, the debt incurred can be magnified by interest and finance charges. Impulse purchases are rarely, if ever, budgeted for, resulting in the buyer not being able to cover the costs of his or her purchases, which can then result in not being able to pay the debt or making late payments to cover the debt. Enter the costs of late fees. Before long, the compulsive spender is spiraling down the rabbit hole of debt, which leads to a set of consequences all on its own.
Compulsive spending can result in a lot more than the stress of debt. People with CBD can find themselves having difficulties in interpersonal relationships. Due to embarrassment, compulsive spenders often prefer to shop alone unless their companion is one who either enables the spending or is a compulsive buyer him or herself. Compulsive spenders often find themselves hiding their purchases from their partners and/or family members. The excessive spending frequently results in arguments or conflict if the behavior is found out.
Individuals suffering from CBD are often found in a state of emotional turmoil. Not only can their state of mind cause compulsive spending behaviors, but the compulsive spending behaviors usually cause a state of mind in which the person feels depressed, anxious, frustrated, angry, let down, fearful, and a wealth of other negative emotions. Their minds are in a constant state of stress, worrying about how they will pay for their purchases, as well as whether their partner or family member will learn of the overspending.
There are a number of tactics you can try if you believe you’re an compulsive spender and wish to stop. Once you’ve identified yourself as an impulse spender, try to figure out what triggers the spending. Are you feeling bored? Restless? Are you buying in order to cheer yourself up (aka “retail therapy)? As a means to reward yourself? To achieve a sense of belonging?
Following are some tips to stop impulse spending:
If you think you have a compulsive spending problem or may be suffering from Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD), know that there’s hope. Recognizing that you may have a spending problem is the first step in recovery. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life in a state of stress caused by overspending.