Spending too much, too often, goes by several names: “shopping addiction”, “over-shopping” or “overspending”, “compulsive shopping”, and “oniomania”. People even designate themselves as “shopaholics”.


Donald Black, a doctor and professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, describes compulsive shopping and spending as “inappropriate, excessive, and out of control. Like other addictions, it basically has to do with impulsiveness and lack of control over one’s impulses.” He explains that, in the United States (and many would say, in most affluent western nations), shopping is embedded in the culture, so often impulsiveness comes out as excessive shopping (Hatfield, H., 2004).

Everyone needs to spend money sometimes, and at certain times of the year, such as the Christmas holidays, people are particularly prone to rack up bills as they try to find those perfect gifts for loved ones. But compulsive spenders behave in a way similar to other addicts. People who “shop til they drop” often run their credit cards up to the limit: not just once or twice a year, but frequently. They believe that if they bring home a good collection of packages they will feel better, but as with other drive (compulsion) disorders, compulsive shopping or shopping addiction makes a person feel worse. A 2006 Stanford University study found that compulsive spending affects about six per cent of the population (17,000,000 in the United States), and that men and women suffer equally (Healthy Place, 2008).

Signs and symptoms

If you are extending support to someone who appears to be destroying their life with out-of-control spending, some questions you can ask them are:

  • Have you ever gone on a shopping spree or spent money because you were feeling disappointed, angry, or scared?
  • Are you ever upset after a shopping session, or when you are thinking about your spending habits? Have others been upset by your spending?
  • Have you had arguments with people close to you about your shopping or spending habits?
  • Do you sometimes feel lost or vulnerable going out without your credit cards?
  • Do you sometimes buy items on credit that you would not buy if you had to pay cash for them?
  • Do you often get a rush of euphoria, possibly mixed with anxiety, when you are spending money?
  • Do you feel guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, or confused after you have been shopping or spending money?
  • Have you ever lied to others, especially those close to you, about purchases you made or how much money you spent?
  • Do you think a lot of the time about money?
  • Have you ever had periods where you spent a lot of time juggling accounts or bills in order to accommodate your spending? (American Psychiatric Association, n.d.)
  • If the person you are supporting says “yes” to four or more of the above behaviours, they may have a problem with shopping or spending.

The maintaining cycle of (spending) compulsivity

Health professionals sometimes talk about “maintaining cycles”: that is, sets of behaviours which continue to repeat cyclically, despite the client’s expressed wish for them to end (Helen Palmer, communication to author, 1997). Let’s take a moment to show how these can occur with spending addiction.

The Cycle:

  1. The person feels “down”, angry, lonely, discouraged, or somehow “less than”.
  2. The person decides to go shopping (substitute “binge eat”, “have a sexual experience”, “get drunk”, “get high on drugs”, or “gamble”) in order to assuage the painful feelings.
  3. The shopping (or other) behaviour brings a feeling of happiness and power, temporarily chasing away the bad feelings. The person feels gratified.
  4. When the person comes off the shopping (or other) high, the painful feelings may return, probably even stronger than before.
  5. Because the shopping (or other) behaviour has been associated with pleasure and gratification, the person returns as soon as possible to the behaviour: meaning another spending spree (or drinking/drugs/gambling/sex/overeating session).
  6. The person again experiences the high, followed by after-effects of remorse, guilt, and other difficult emotions (on top of the now probably “squashed down” original bad feelings).
  7. In order to escape the difficult emotions, the person is driven even more strongly back to the spending (or other destructive) behaviour.
  8. As the habit develops, so does tolerance, where the brain chemistry re-wires itself to only allow the release of its “feel good” chemicals with higher and higher levels of the shopping behaviour: that is, more time and money spent on shopping (or gambling, eating, out-of-order sexual experiences, alcohol, or drugs).
  9. The price of maintaining/increasing the spending (or eating/drinking/drug-taking/ sex/gambling) “at all costs” becomes increasingly obvious: depleted bank accounts, ruined relationships, destroyed careers and unemployment, physical and mental health consequences, and legal trouble.
  10. The person felt bad about themselves before, but (back at Step 1 now for another run of the cycle) life is now unrelentingly unbearable. In full grip of the spending (or other) obsession/ addiction, the person must continue the cycle of “shopaholism” (or other behaviour) – that is, going onward to Step 2 – doing it until physically unable; the cycle carries on.

Healing maintaining cycles: not a takeaway job

One of the counter-intuitive aspects of maintaining cycles is that they are not broken (healed) by taking away something. Addicts often lament, “Oh, if I could just have these cravings (or these bad feelings about myself, or these urges to gamble/ spend/ view pornography) taken away! Life, and conquering the addiction, would be so much easier.” It would seem so, but unfortunately in this case the ruling maxim is, “Nature hates a vacuum.” That is, if we take away parts of the cycle, there is a vacuum, which our psyche rushes to fill with something else, which may be equally undesirable. Surprisingly, the best way to get out of a maintaining cycle is to add something into it – at some strategic step which interrupts the cycle.

Think about times when you may have been caught in a repetitive rut with behaviours you didn’t like in yourself, but which you somehow managed to keep repeating. It could be anything from setting up unhealthy relationships to a habit of procrastination to staying up late and then drinking too much coffee the next day. See if you can map out the steps in your cycle. Hint: you can start at any stage in the cycle and then keep adding “the next step”, writing each as the next point in a circle; when you see how your last step leads back into your first one (completing the circle), you have understood the cyclical nature of it. Once you can draw it as an infinite circle of behaviours, you can work out at which point in the circle you can be most effective at interrupting the cycle. You do this by adding in a behaviour (or attitude or belief).

You can think of it as a circle of dominoes placed equidistant from one another, but within reach of each other, in a circular pattern. When your maintaining cycle is in full swing, all you have to do (or all the addict has to do) is engage the action(s) at one stage of the cycle and the rest of the dominoes fall, one after the other. However, if you place a heavy block in between two of the dominoes, the domino right in front of the block will fall onto the block, but the weight of the block will hold it stationary, preventing the rest of the dominoes from falling.

Similarly, a weighty (strategic) action added into the cycle acts as the block, keeping the rest of the dominoes (compelled behaviours) from coming into play. Exercise: Draw a maintaining cycle of your own on a blank piece of paper. Once you have identified all the steps, have a go at coming up with a “block”: an interrupting action or attitude. Then make notes about what you have discovered.

Concluding thoughts

Research has shown that many compulsive spenders also suffer from mood disorders, substance abuse, or eating disorders: an unsurprising fact, given that we have just demonstrated how the regressive cycle of behaviour is the same for any of the addictions or compulsive behaviours. Often the extent of the financial damage is discovered only after the spender (drinker/ drug addict/ gambler, etc.) has accumulated a huge debt that requires a radical change in lifestyle to resolve (American Psychiatric Association, n.d.)


  • American Psychiatric Association. (Undated). In: Shopping: What are warning signs of compulsive shopping and spending? Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery: Proctor Hospital. Retrieved on 11 May, 2012, from: http://www.addictionrecov.org/Addictions/?AID=34
  • Hatfield, H. (2004). Shopping Spree, or Addiction? What happens when shopping spirals out of control, and in some cases, becomes an addiction? WebMD, Inc. Retrieved on 8 May, 2012, from: http://www.webmd.com/mental-health/features/shopping-spree-addiction?page=2
  • Healthy Place: Trusted mental health information. (2008). Addictions Community: Shopping addiction: over-shopping, compulsive shopping. Healthy Place: Trusted mental health information. Retrieved on 8 May, 2012, from: http://www.healthyplace.com/addictions/shopping-addiction/shopping-addiction-compulsive-shopping/