Are you a shopaholic?

“Ok. don’t panic. Don’t panic. It’s only a VISA bill. It’s a piece of paper; a few numbers. I mean, just how scary can a few numbers be?”- Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic.

One of my favourite lighthearted reads is the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella. Although I could never really relate to the main character, Becky (who lacks control shopping for designer clothes and shoes, whereas for me, books are more my bag), I’ve always appreciated the warm humour and gentle finance lessons – even if Becky never seems to learn from them (I guess if she did, the series would have come to an abrupt finish!).

But what is a ‘shopaholic’? Is there really such a thing as an addiction to shopping – or is it a word people simply use as an excuse? And how do you know if you are a shopaholic?

It’s not only Becky who is obsessed with buying clothes. Business Insider reports on one ‘shopaholic’ who checked himself in to rehab after spending $638,412 on designer clothes over a three-year span.

What is a shopaholic?

Shopaholics are defined by Chhavniwala, Gan, Ghazali and Rajasingam as ‘compulsive shoppers who derive a significant amount of utility from engaging in the act of shopping. This behaviour is a form of addiction because shopaholics have a compulsion to shop,  they  are  unable  to  stop  and  are  prone  to  continue  even  if  it  brings  about  adverse consequences such as debts, hoarding and failed relationships.’

The terms ‘shopping addict’ and ‘shopaholic’ are pretty much interchangable, the word ‘shopaholic’ deriving from ‘alcoholic‘, which itself simply meant in its original formulation ‘of or pertaining to alcohol’ (alcohol + the Greek –ikos, in the manner of or pertaining to). But does shopping really have an alcohol-like effect on us?

Shopping and addiction

In addition to Kinsella’s bestselling book series, and the movie based on it, there is also a Norwegian television program called ‘Shopaholic’, and a Hong Kong film ‘The Shopaholics’. Yet Grant and Kim call compulsive shopping or oniomania a ‘virtually unknown‘ mental illness.

Oniomania comes, once again, from Greek – ὤνιος “for sale” and μανία “insanity” (I’m currently attending a Greek introductory course and enjoying getting to explore these meanings!). Dittmar (2004) reports that 30% of compulsive shoppers describe the act of buying itself – regardless of what was being purchased – as providing a buzz.

‘Some people are skeptical about the reality of over-spending addictions, but they are very real, and can ruin a person’s finances, relationships, and life’ says Business Insider. ‘Rarely is compulsive shopping taken as seriously as addiction to substances like alcohol and drugs or other behaviors, such as compulsive gambling’ agrees addictions expert, Elizabeth Hartney, PhD.

Hartney agrees that despite its fame thanks to books and movies like ‘Confessions of a Shopaholic’, shopping addiction remains a ‘poorly understood‘ condition – trivialized in the media, and largely written about in journals on marketing and consumer research rather than psychological journals. To date, just as for various ‘cyber-addictions’, there is not enough of a record of strong evidence for addiction to shopping (including online shopping) to be considered a stand-alone disorder or DSM-listed condition.

Yet Hartney emphasises that this does not mean such problems do not exist, or are not taken seriously by the psychiatric community, and the financial community.

The jury is still out on whether, and if so, how shopping addiction should be classified. Psychological diagnoses and criteria are beyond the scope of Enrichmentality, but as Hartney points out, ‘Addiction and compulsion are both terms that have entered our everyday language’ and may be misunderstood or confused.

Addiction vs. Compulsion

Hartney outlines two key differences between ‘addiction’ and ‘compulsion’:

  1. An addiction includes pleasure, whereas a compulsion, at least in obsessive-compulsive disorder, does not.
  2. A compulsion is usually accompanied by an awareness that the obsession is not real, whereas people with addictions quite often feel they are just having a good time.

According to Hartney, questions to ask that may be indicative of a shopping addiction include:

  • Do you frequently ‘binge shop’?
  • Can you not help spending?
  • Do you experience a strong urge to buy?
  • Do you use ‘retail therapy‘ to deal with stress?
  • Do you feel disappointment, stress and guilt after shopping?
  • Do you hide purchases because you fear others will think what you’ve bought is irrational?
  • Do you respond to direct mail offers?
  • Do you buy things you don’t need even though you cannot afford them?

Do you identify as a shopaholic?

‘Of recent years’ says Dorothy Rowe, in her excellent book The Real Meaning of Money, published over two decades ago, ‘the word ‘addiction’ has become extremely popular in the USA as a fatuous explanation of why a person does something over and over again. In addiction to alcoholics and drug addicts were shopping addicts and chocolate addicts’

The words ‘shopaholic’ and ‘shopping addict’ are certainly in common use, even more so now than when Rowe was writing.

According to Rowe, ‘This use of the word not only provides a convenient excuse for those people who do not want to take responsibility for their behaviour, but it prevents a clear understanding of how our body can adapt to the ingestion of substances which give a sense of relaxation so that ceasing to ingest these substances causes considerable distress.’

As Hartney summarises, the pop culture image of a compulsive shopper is a ‘cheerful, superficial young woman concerned with little more than the latest shoes and handbags. The popularity of the “Confessions of a Shopaholic” books and movie speaks to the appeal of this image.’

Of course, as the example above illustrates, problematic shopping affects both men and women, and not every tale ends in the ‘happily ever after’ of Sophie Kinsella’s books. As it so happens, Becky marries a very rich, very understanding man, has enviable jobs that bring in a lot of cash, rich friends, and encounters understanding bankers and shop assistants. For most people who spend too much, financial and marital stress are probably more likely outcomes.

Aside from the stereotypes, attractive or otherwise, there are other issues with labels like ‘shopaholic’. As Markman points out, there is a danger in labeling others or yourself: ‘When you say that someone is a bully, you not only mean that they tend to bully other people, but also that—at their core—they are the kind of person who bullies others’.

Similarly, if you label yourself as a ‘shopaholic’, and you don’t have a strong belief that personalities can change, you may be sending yourself the defeatist message that you are a shopaholic at your core.

Labeling theory, associated with stereotyping and the notion of self-fulfilling prophesy, is the theory of how our self-identity and behaviour may be influenced by the terms used to describe us. While there are many potential negative effects which stem from being labeled, or labeling yourself, particularly with a problematic label, one potential positive is recognising the issue and making an effort to change and/or to seek help.

This is the difference between using a word like ‘shopaholic’ as an ‘excuse’, as Rowe says, and recognising a set of behaviours (along with their causes and effects) and taking steps to change them.

The language of buying, buying, buying

As the Business Insider article concludes, with a quotation from Terrence Shulman, founder and director of the Shulman Center, ‘There’s a lot of prompts in society to “BUY BUY BUY!” and so it’s something most people will have to monitor for the rest of their lives. ‘

If shopping and spending are issues for you – try to steer clear of messages that just prompt you to buy – consider your internet usage (check out these tips for monitoring your social media), remove yourself from mailing lists and catalogues, and put a ‘no junk mail’ sign on your mail box. In addition, Shulman recommends curtailing use of your credit cards, creating a budget or spending plan, and figuring out what other activities you can channel your energy into. You can also find a support group.

In addition to reducing your exposure to messages to buy, buy, buy, why not switch on to messages that encourage you to SAVE, SAVE, SAVE? If you use social media, use it to follow people whose wellbeing you aspire to, not whose manufactured lifestyle looks nice on the screen. Even better, join a community of like-minded people. Read more blogs and news articles that promote the kind of lifestyle you want rather than being primarily driven by advertising. In short, don’t just remove the negative messages, replace them with positive ones.

“We all fail to appreciate each day just how much we already possess. Light, air, freedom, the companionship of friends.” Sophie Kinsella, Confessions of a Shopaholic.

ShopaholicBarDo you identify as a shopaholic?
What’s your image of a ‘shopaholic’? Do you think shopping addiction is a real condition?
Share your thoughts in the comments!

Today’s featured image is from the streets of Athens, featuring a bar seemingly called ‘Buy or Die’ – encapsulating the notions of consumerism and addictive substances in one! This very strong ‘BUY, BUY, BUY!’ message caught my eye after seeing a shop with the slogan ‘Buy now or cry later’ in Budapest. 

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4 thoughts on “Are you a shopaholic?

  1. I think it’s okay to buy anything you want if you have the money to spend. There are people who are compulsive buyers and try to cover their insecurities by buying material things that they don’t need even if it cause them some debts. This is so alarming! Why don’t you just live within your means and buy only the things you think are necessary.

    1. Thanks for your comment Jhoei. My grandmother used to say that the worst place to live is beyond your means – and I think she (and you!) are right about this.
      I don’t agree that it’s always okay to buy anything you want if you have the money for it, though. Firstly, from a financial point of view, there are financial concerns – you might have the money now, but by spending it on useless trinkets (jewelry, jetskis etc) you may be robbing your future self (when you need health care, or for your retirement, etc). Secondly, there are considerations beyond the shopper as an individual – the extensive slave labour involved in making the cheap consumer items we enjoy today, the environmental and social costs that come with some people buying waaay too much. And there are psychological issues as well – having too many things means we tend to respect our belongings less, look after them less well, and feel stress from having too much clutter. So I think there are arguments to reduce spending even if you have ‘money to burn’, so to speak! What do you think?
      Thanks again for your comment, and hope to see you on Enrichmentality again!

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