Compulsive Shopping: Is It or Isn’t It?

Compulsive Shopping: Is It or Isn’t It?

compulsive shopping habits, shopping addiction, two women shoppingWhat a perfect time for a review, now that credit card statements are in from the holidays.  So, to help us figure out how well we did, I’ve asked Kim Shorr to “guest write” an article for us.  I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the Comments section below, and share the article itself with your friends!

A Guide to Managing Compulsive Shopping Habits or Addiction

By Kim Shorr

It’s all about rewards.

I’m not talking about credit cards, I’m talking addiction. And it’s no longer limited to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. In today’s world, you can be addicted to just about anything – food, gambling, sex, the Internet, exercise – you name it, you can abuse it!

What is compulsive shopping or spending? How can something like spending money be an addiction? What is so appealing about spending money and acquirement that makes some of us do it over and over until there is nothing left to spend?

Although compulsive shopping is not yet an official condition according to the American Psychiatric Association (although it is likely to be included as “Compulsive Buying Disorder” in the DSM-V), its existence is clinically acknowledged and professional treatment is available for it. Compulsive spending is generally characterized by a preoccupation with shopping or spending, spending that causes or increases significant debt, devoting significant time to shopping, negatively affecting relationships.  It tends to be more problematic around Christmas time (Black, 2007) but, unfortunately, external buying triggers exist around virtually every other holiday and event throughout the year.

Compulsive shopper or not, you probably dove a little deeper into the Christmas spirit after perusing the holiday section at Target or humming along to Christmas tunes at Starbucks.

Shopping can be a thrill, that’s for sure. And Valentine’s Day will be no different. All of the senses are bombarded with colors, music, scents, and displays all carefully selected and arranged to get the buyer in a specific state of mind. That alone can make a buyer feel euphoric before any money is spent, and adds to the anticipation of the purchase. This physical shopping experience is also, for the compulsive spender, an escape. And like any other addiction, if the escape becomes a habit, that can lead to the neglect of other aspects of life.

How can one be addicted to spending money? The answer lies in rewards and reinforcement. Research tells us that positive reinforcement is much more effective at guiding long-term behavior than negative reinforcement. You are spending money, but instantly receiving a reward for it at the cash register! Unfortunately, immediate gratification is also a cornerstone of addiction. When you mix instant gratification with positive reinforcement, a guilty pleasure indulged once in a while may become a chronic habit that can unravel one’s life.

A common misconception regarding addiction is that it is solely pleasure-seeking. In reality, the long-term abuse of anything, be it substances or shopping, is a mechanism to avoid pain rather than seek pleasure. The root of any addiction is to numb, avoid, or ignore that in one’s life that cannot be faced or handled appropriately.

Like any other habit or addiction, there are varying degrees of severity, or significant impact on one’s life. Listed below are a few ways to gauge your spending habits as well as ways to overcome a compulsive shopping addiction.

1) Reflect on the times you choose to shop and spend.

  • Are they usually after a stressful day at work, on the weekends, or every day?
  • Are you spending within your means?
  • Do you spend more than you plan to?

2) What are you spending on?

  • Do you find yourself buying things you do not need?
  • Do a lot of your material items still have price tags on them?

3) Invite others to help you reflect. We are often not the most accurate judges of our own behavior.

  • Ask someone close to you on his/her opinion of your shopping addiction.
  • Have you been honest with others about your spending habits, or do you find yourself stretching the truth about how much or how often you spend?

4) Check your budget. Check your budget again.

  • It is easy to rationalize purchases in your head. Get the numbers down on paper so that you will see exactly how much you spend.
  • Creating and updating a budget also holds you accountable for your spending decisions.

5) Evaluate your state of mind when you are not shopping or spending.

  • Do you find yourself thinking about shopping when you are not?
  • Monitor your feelings and thoughts using a journal.

6) Find a professional.

  • If your spending habits have caused you significant financial, legal, professional, or personal problems, you probably have a compulsive shopping problem. The good news is that like any other addiction, it is very treatable with the help of a trained professional and support from your loved ones.



Kim ShorrAbout the Author: Kim Shorr received her master’s in forensic psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, and has experience in counseling, assessment and case management. In addition to writing and research, her interests include natural living and politics.”


  • Interesting. Living on a homestead now, and considering myself an urban homesteader for decades prior does not create a lifestyle conducive to addictive shopping. That being said, I love good food and will usually splurge any time I have access to special gourmet items that help me round out the tastes of my days.

    • Just checked out your FB bio, Lorrie, to read more about your homestead concept. Honestly? If some special gourmet items bring you pleasure … with the balance you’ve created as a lifestyle, something tells me it doesn’t qualify as compulsive! 😉

  • Great post! I’ve noticed that living in a more rural setting has helped greatly in opting out of consumerism ;). It’s so very important to check in with yourself when spending to assess what is the motivation – you’ve got some great tips here.

    • It’s a bit of “out of sight, out of mind,” isn’t it, Moira? So much of what we don’t need comes through the door as an impulse purchase. And for some, breaking the habit starts with not putting ourselves in that environment …

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh

    Good information here. This line is so true – “Unfortunately, immediate gratification is also a cornerstone of addiction.” Compulsive shopping is another outlet to relieve pain and to not have to face reality. For many, it’s just a bad habit, for others, it’s clearly an addiction. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Cathy, I’ve worked with several women who got a “high” from the act of shopping, then felt lousy when they got home with a full trunk and the feeling was no longer there. Then come the guilts and (hopefully, but not often enough) a trip back to return what was purchased. The key, of course, is getting at the “why” of the behavior …

  • cathsj

    Great post. I now know that a sign that I need to leave the store is that I become overwhelmed or scattered. Time to walk away to ask myself if I can live without it.

    • Cath, I’m glad Kim’s article pointed out a sign you can be on the lookout for. It’s chock full of valuable morsels!

  • Wow, who knew…thanks so much for this post – very insightful!

    • Great article, isn’t it, Elizabeth? I’m thrilled that Kim shared her knowledge with us!

  • Excellent post! I used to be a compulsive shopper a long time ago. When I went for an oil change and came home with a Lexus, I knew something was wrong! LOL! I now, only shop for articles that I need, not a bandaid for some of my feelings.

    • Kimberly Shorr

      Alexandra, it is great that you were able to recognize the warning signs of your compulsive shopping before it became a full-blown addiction. The “why” part of compulsive spending is just as important as the “how much!”

  • I am definitely not addicted to shopping…but I love to find a bargain. I used to buy things I didn’t need because it was such a good deal. I no longer do that. In fact, I don’t enjoy shopping and only do it when necessary. Great post!

    • Meryl, a lot of us have watched our shopping patterns change over the years … whether caused by circumstances or awareness. What’s great is when we get past those patterns that weren’t so healthy for us!

  • As a recovering alcoholic I know all too well how easy it is to use something for instant gratification and as a way of avoiding reality. Thankfully I can see the dangers of compulsive shopping and I’m very careful about any purchase. In these days of budgeting and belt-tightening my first question to myself is always ‘Do I really need this?’
    Great post Kim. Thank you!

    • I love the journey you’ve taken, Carolyn, to bring all facets of your life to a kinder, gentler place. And I know how keenly aware you are of each step you’ve taken. Thank you for sharing that knowledge with us through your own wonderful writings!

    • Kimberly Shorr

      You’re welcome! It’s great to hear feedback from those in recovery from the more “familiar” addictions of alcohol and other substances. It’s great that you are able to recognize addictive thinking and hold yourself accountable when spending/shopping. Thank you for sharing!

  • Yikes you got me.. shopping is what gets me every time.. I spend way too much!

    • Hmmm, Elizabeth … any chance what you read in Kim’s article might move you from awareness to action? If so, let us know how that causes other (undoubtedly fabulous) shifts in your life … 😉

    • Kimberly Shorr

      Elizabeth, if you feel that you overspend, I encourage you to reflect on your spending habits. Your insight is the first step to action! 🙂

  • Years ago being a single mother I was blessed with the lessons of learning to live within my means. Addictions I think we all have but I am gratful I didn’t have to overcome this one!

    • We all have a weakness for something, as you say, Anita. I think the recent economic downturn led many people to revisit their decision-making process around purchases, just as you did when you were a single mother. But not everyone was able to learn the lesson painlessly …

  • Great post, Kim. It is all too common to spend money to feel better. I loved that you had a questionnaire to determine if it really a problem,

    • As lay people, it’s so valuable to have a well thought out questionnaire that can point us in the right direction, to take the first steps if indeed we do have a problem …

  • Once again another great post… and yes thinking about our behaviors and the when and why’s are important and Compulsive anything is NOT Healthy

    • Carly, you’re right about the word “compulsive!” Really grateful to Kim Shorr for sharing such an understandable map of what compulsive shopping is and isn’t!

  • Such a great topic, so important.

  • I do love a good shopping trip…but I learned many years ago only to indulge when there is cash to do so…if credit is required and if other sacrifices, like groceries are demanded…no shopping! Live with out it!

    • It comes down to making choices, Carl … hopefully healthy ones! Seems YOU have it figured out … 😉

  • This is an excellent explanation of the problem and your assessment suggestions are terrific. I often see this in the people with whom I work. And for some, it becomes a replacement for their alcohol or drug addiction as they struggle to stop the drinking or drug use and turn to shopping, instead, believing it’s not that big of a deal.

    • You’re right, Lisa, shopping “seems” innocuous compared to other behaviors. Yet it can tear lives and families apart. That’s why I was so thrilled to have Kim Shorr write this article for us!

  • Great post Kim. I know a lot of people, mostly women, who use shopping almost like a drug. Thank you for asking the right questions and talking about this important topic.

    • Thank you, Catherine, for introducing me to Kim Shorr. The information she shared with us here through this article is invaluable!

  • Know a lot of women who do this. Important topic; your suggestions are great. Will share your post!

    • And many women who shop compulsively don’t realize it’s a behavior that can be changed. It’s not “something you have to live with” …

  • MarVeena

    Excellent post! It is easier than ever to shop without leaving the house. I will re-post for friends who might need a wake up!

    • Thanks, MarVeena! The more people who can be made aware of the dangers of our-of-control shopping, the better. I appreciate your help in spreading the word …

  • Mary Lou Floyd

    Your 6 points are something to think about. I don’t think I’m an addict although I’ve only recently been able to say no to an item that’s a great bargain but contributes little if any added value to my life. Since a number of us are looking to downsize, the real measure I now use is if I can’t think of a place where I would put an item in my home or a place where I can wear an outfit I put them back on the shelf or rack. I need less stuff not more. Thanks.

  • My favorite tip is tip #3, because indeed, people around you can give perspective on your habits that you may not be attuned to. And changing anything requires self-awareness, first and foremost.