Stay away from the mall, say Hallelujah!
Personal debt in the U.S. is at an all-time high. It's time for an impassioned reminder of a few golden rules.
NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - Preaching from the pulpit of St. Mark's Church in lower Manhattan one afternoon, the Rev. Billy Talen looks and sounds a lot like the evangelists on Sunday morning television.
He's loud. He's passionate. He's backed by a gospel choir. His congregation, rapt, nods at his every word. As his sermon reaches a crescendo, cries of "Praise be!" and "Hallelujah!" ring through the nave. As he brings it home, the group responds in joyous unison, "Amen!"
But there's a big difference between Reverend Billy and Billy Graham. For one thing, his "reverend" credentials are debatable. And he doesn't promulgate the sort of religion most people practice in church.
Reverend Billy, you see, is the founder of the Church of Stop Shopping. His congregants are the shopping-afflicted. Talen and others who try to help people control their spending are striking a nerve and find themselves in high demand.
Why? America has a shopping problem. For the first time since the Great Depression, the savings rate has fallen into negative territory. Indebtedness to credit-card companies has reached $9,300 per household, and rising interest rates will only make the problem worse.
"People are walking around in a daze," says Talen, a playwright who dreamed up the church as he watched Manhattan's storied theater district slowly become a mall.
"They're feeling a kind of knowing emptiness and they don't know why. So they keep buying more and more, trying to fill the hole in the soul. We say: Stop shopping and start living."
The message is registering. Talen's cross-country crusade attracts crowds everywhere, from the Mall of America to Times Square. He was recently filmed for a documentary that's set to be released later this year (possible title: What Would Jesus Buy?).
Other religious leaders - including some who have actually been to divinity school - are conducting similar events where they preach the promise of better living through less shopping.
It's hard to pin down exactly how many people need this kind of help, but it's a lot. For years, the only clinical measure that helped gauge how much of the population suffered from too much shopping was a scale developed by Ronald Faber of the University of Minnesota and Thomas O'Guinn of the University of Illinois.
According to their research, between 2 and 8 percent of Americans suffer from compulsive buying, a psychiatric disorder. Not only are these people seriously preoccupied with buying things, their lives and finances suffer because of it (so much so that the medicines prescribed to combat the disorder are generally covered by health insurance).
But research by Professor Nancy Ridgway and two colleagues at the University of Richmond shows that many more than that - an additional 5 percent to 13 percent - are prone to excessive buying. (I, for one, believe the numbers are higher.) These people don't have a clinical disorder. They just shop too much.
Attention, male shoppers: You're not innocent in all this. There is growing consensus among experts that men too can commit excessive buying. Particularly if you accumulate something you call a collection - airplane models, power tools, sousaphones - you need to examine the effect your hobby is having on your finances and your life.
Search deep in your soul, say amen and answer this question: Could you use some help cutting down on purchases?
If you have a preoccupation with buying things, you buy impulsively or you have positive feelings while buying and negative feelings later, it's time to get religion.
1. Assess the problem
First, you have to figure out if your excessive buying is weighing on your life, and to what extent. Until you realize you're spending $150 a month on birthday gifts for the parties your children attend, it's tough to alter that behavior.
A personal cash-flow statement should do the trick. How much do you have coming in every month? How much is going out, and where is it going? Are the minimum payments on your credit cards keeping you from saving? A good rule of thumb is that you should save 10 percent (including what you put into retirement accounts) of what you earn. Start with 3 to 5 percent and work your way up.]
2. Log time as well as money
Sure, tracking spending helps you figure out your weak spots. But Donald Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa, suggests tracking your time as well.
"It's helpful for people to realize shopping has become too great an interest for them, that they're spending time on what is essentially a selfish behavior," he says.
If you find yourself complaining that you don't have time to exercise, you might find it enlightening that, say, you spend an average of four hours a week traipsing through the shops on Main Street.
April Benson, a Manhattan psychologist who runs a program called Stopping Overshopping, suggests keeping track of each trip to a store. After a two-week sample period, look for ways to be more efficient. Is the dry cleaner next to the supermarket? If so, don't make a habit of going to one on Wednesdays and the other on Thursdays.
3. Change your tool kit
Get rid of the tools that help you to buy excessively. This includes the obvious - credit cards (keep one for emergencies), debit cards, ATM cards - but also catalogues (call and ask to be removed from mailing lists), warehouse club memberships, subscriptions to magazines that you have stopped reading and anything else that's getting in the way of your ability to stop shopping.
4. Establish roadblocks
Benson recommends never shopping alone - take a friend who will question your desires. Here's another trick: Each time you go to a checkout counter, recite the words "Can you put these items on hold for 10 minutes?"
As Reverend Billy would say, "Back away from the product." Step outside. When you return, you'll often find yourself putting something back.
Editor-at-large Jean Chatzky appears regularly on NBC's Today. Contact her at email@example.com.