Raise your hand if you love shopping. Hey, as a natural spender, I’m right there with you. But there’s a huge difference between enjoying shopping and having a shopping addiction.
The first one is fine—as long as you’re staying in the budget with your spending each month. A shopping addiction, however, is a serious problem that will always lead to even bigger problems.
Even though it’s serious, I’ve got good news. Anyone can overcome a shopping addiction. If you’re a shopping addict, there is real hope. I mean it.
So, let’s break down what a shopping addiction is—the causes and symptoms—and then talk about how to address and fix it so you can have a truly healthy relationship with money.
Shopping Addiction Overview
I know people throw around the word shopaholic when they just mean someone who shops a lot. Or maybe someone who isn’t great at budgeting and spending within their means.
But all of this is very different from having an actual shopping addiction.
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Think about it. What’s an addiction? It’s an irresistible impulse or dependency. The American Psychiatric Association explains that addictions can distort our thinking and our actions. And we can even build up a tolerance to the thing we’re addicted to—meaning we need more of it to keep feeling the effects. What effects? Feeling good (a “high” or a “fix”), relieving stress, and forgetting problems are three big ones.1
Shopping Addiction Definition
Shopping addiction is a dependency on the effects and feelings shopping brings.
We aren’t just talking about poor spending tendencies. A few shopping sprees aren’t a good idea, but they also aren’t same thing as a legitimate shopping addiction.
Types of Shopping Addiction
Let’s look at a few of the most common types of shopping addictions.
Impulsive vs Compulsive Shopping
Impulse buying is when you purchase something you didn’t plan to. That can be small like gum in the checkout line or bigger like an expensive leather jacket that catches your eye in the display when you’re at the mall. The truth is, most of us do this, at least on those small items, once in a while.
Impulse purchases might seem harmless, but they can really add up—draining your wallet and even leading to buyer’s remorse. Plus, they show you aren’t truly controlling all your money.
Compulsive shopping, though, is a pattern of problems. Compulsive shoppers plan their shopping. It’s not on a whim, it’s with a reason.
That reason can be to ignore a problem or relieve stress—but, of course, compulsive shopping actually causes more problems and more stress. Why? Because compulsive shopping is a continual out-of-control behavior.
While impulse shopping is usually mindless, compulsive shopping is an addiction.
Okay, listen up: I love a good bargain. And I tell people all the time about how negotiating prices and getting good deals are great ways to save money.
But this is different. People with bargain shopping addictions shop for the thrill of the deal. They don’t need the item. They’re addicted to sales, to hunting down and finding things worth more than they pay for them, and to telling others what a great deal they got.
This kind of addiction is hurtful because you not only spend money you shouldn’t, but you also end up with a bunch of stuff you don’t even need.
You guys, a good deal on something you don’t need is a bad deal.
Circular shopping is all about the thrill of the purchase and the return. This kind of addiction (also called bulimic shopping) is when a person is caught in the cycle of constant buying and returning.
It might seem better off for your budget since you aren’t keeping the stuff—but this is still a bad money habit. And it’s a different kind of wasteful. You’re wasting the retailer’s time. And sometimes the things you return go straight into landfills! Yes, seriously. Some retailers find it more cost efficient to toss returned items than to restock them.
And once again, it all comes back to a lack of control. The constant cycle means your budget can’t ever really even out—and your emotions won’t either. It’s another bandage on a bigger issue.
There’s nothing wrong with collecting things you love—as long as you never sacrifice your financial goals or your financial security to do it. I love earrings just as much as the next girl, and I have the money tendency of quantity—so I like having a variety of different pairs. But I never spend more than what’s in my budget just to grow my fun earring collection.
But collectors with a shopping addiction aren’t thinking about having wise spending habits. They’re so obsessed with the idea of completing a collection that they don’t care about the money it will take to make this goal happen. It’s a super dangerous money mindset, and like other shopping addictions, it can only lead to trouble with your money and your life.
Trophy shoppers spend money because they want to be viewed a certain way and own the best things. This kind of shopping addiction can stem from a desire to find and own the perfect item, a need for recognition, or an obsession with comparison. A trophy shopper can see what others have and need that same thing—or they might even need to one-up others and find a better thing.
Not only is trophy shopping expensive, but living in constant stress of what others think about you is a horrible way to live. We can all feel that pressure every now and then—and certain things like social media can make it even worse (I’m looking at you, Instagram). But when that pressure turns into a full-blown shopping addiction, it creates a whole new level of worrying about your money and feeling like you never have enough—no matter how much you spend.
What Causes Shopping Addiction?
I touched on this a little already, but shopping addictions don’t come out of nowhere. The shopping is a coping mechanism for a bigger problem. And there’s science involved here.
Shopping releases dopamine (called "the feel-good neurotransmitter" by Psychology Today).2 But that feel-good hit doesn’t last long—which means a shopping addict heads straight back to the store as they try to keep that good feeling going, all while continuing to ignore their triggers, like:
If you constantly shop to ease stress, you’ll end up bringing on even more stress (especially financially). It’s a vicious cycle.
Shopping addictions often start off as retail therapy—shopping to forget about feelings. Then they blow up as the addict has to shop more and more to keep covering up those emotions.
I mentioned this one under trophy shoppers, but sometimes a shopping addiction starts because of an obsession with comparison and a deep-felt need to show off or keep up with the Joneses. Even bargain shoppers, who want to brag about their deal, might be motivated by comparison. They want to be better shoppers than anyone else.
Desire for Control
Some people shop because they feel out of control in life, and clicking “Add to Cart” feels like a way they can call the shots. But the only “control” happening here is out-of-control spending.
Loneliness or Emptiness
When you feel alone or empty, shopping is a major temptation. Again, that dopamine hit tells you it’s going to be okay. And that package on your doorstep says you don’t need to feel empty—because you have stuff. But purchases don’t fill the need for people or for wholeness, and the addiction will just continue.
Signs of Shopping Addiction
Here are three major red flags that show you aren’t just doing a little comfort spending or have a little trouble taming your spending habits. These are signs you actually have a real shopping addiction:
Lying About Purchases
You can lie about purchases without having a shopping addiction. But constant lying about spending is one of those red flags.
Listen, there’s only one instance that secret spending is okay: if you’re buying a present for your spouse! But even then, you should have a set spending budget and stick to it! The shopping itself isn’t a secret—just the purchase (until Christmas morning or your Valentine’s date night!).
Can’t Stick to a Budget
Budgets get a bad rap, but they’re just a plan for your money. They’re how you tell your money where to go, so you don’t wonder where it went! Budgets are super empowering.
But if you’ve got a shopping addiction, you can’t stick to your budget. And it isn’t just because you’re neglecting it—it’s because you’re constantly spending.
A healthy budget is all your income minus your expenses equaling zero. But if you can’t stop spending money, your budget will go into the negative. That means debt and falling behind with your money. All the time.
Constantly Shopping in Reaction to Stress or Emotions
We all feel stress, anger, sadness and other ranges of emotion. That’s just normal. What’s your initial reaction to those feelings? If it’s grabbing your phone and click, click, clicking your way to “Place Your Order,” that’s a major sign of a shopping addiction.
Symptoms of Shopping Addiction
You guys, I know this stuff isn’t fun. But that’s because a shopping addiction is a serious problem. I want to talk about a few of the symptoms of shopping addictions, meaning the bad effects that come when this isn’t taken care of. Then we’ll talk about the hope, I promise. Because there is hope!
Okay, those secret purchases, that constant spending—it can lead to financial infidelity. And if that sounds like a big deal, that’s because it is.
Financial infidelity is unfaithfulness with your money—sneaking around behind your spouse’s back and lying about your spending. It’s a huge break in trust and leads to huge money fights and even more issues in a relationship.
When you constantly spend money to relieve stress, you’re going to end up with even more stress. Busting your budget month after month is stressful. Bills piling up is stressful. And lying to a spouse or your friends about your real financial situation is stressful too.
Yes, a shopping addiction lowers stress for a couple minutes while you’re in that dopamine bliss, but you can’t escape the reality of what it does to your money. And that reality will bring even more financial worry and stress in the end. Which brings us to our next symptom.
You can’t be out of control with your shopping and in control of your money. A shopping addiction will lead to financial decline. Because debt is inevitable here. And the more debt you build up, the further behind you get every single month.
Like so many other addictions, the now becomes so much more important than the future. And when you have that kind of thinking with money, you’ll never get ahead.
Distance From Reality
Addictions separate people from reality, and the same is true for shopping addictions. The shopper isn’t connecting with the consequences of their actions—they’re just living in that moment. And the inevitable lies and possible boasting about purchases will distance you from people you love too.
How to Cope With Shopping Addiction
This is one of the most important statements I’ve made in this whole article (again and again): There is hope. If you have a shopping addiction, or if someone you love is addicted to shopping, please know—there is hope.
But this is a serious problem that needs a serious solution. You can’t just wish it away or pretend it’s not real. If you’ve got a shopping addiction, you’ve got to get to the root of the problem, dig it up, and get it out of your life. That’s the only way to move beyond the constant overspending, the need for more stuff, the growing debt, the lying about money, and all the other things that come with this addiction.
If you do all three of these things, you will see that hope, and you will start healing.
1. Get help.
If you’ve got an honest-to-goodness addiction, you should get professional help. And I don’t want you to feel shame about this. A good therapist is a gift. They give you the tools you need to deal with your emotions and stress in a healthy way.
Honestly, I recommend people go to therapy for mental and emotional health checkups, just like you go to your general practitioner. And if you were physically unwell, no one would shame you for getting help.
This should be the same thing. Don’t do this alone. Someone who understands addiction should walk you through this. Because you will get through it. You will! Don’t do this alone!
2. Get on a budget.
As you’re working on your recovery, you need to take back control of your money. The only way you can do that is with a budget.
We’ve got a free resource that can help. It’s called EveryDollar, and it’s the budgeting tool I use every month.
Listen, this isn’t a small thing. It’s a huge, important step, and it’s a necessary part of this process. Don’t skip it.
3. Get to work.
Recovery is work. I don’t say that to scare you, but to be honest. But the rewards of recovery are incredibly worth it!
Here’s something you can do right now to start moving in that right direction. Grab a copy of my latest book called Know Yourself, Know Your Money. These chapters dive into how your personality and your past affect your relationship with money right now.
Yes, a shopping addiction is serious—but you can overcome it. You can find joy in something other than the thrill of shopping. You can get your finances in order and get rid of debt for good. You can be the one calling the shots with your spending and your money.
You can do this.