Do You Shop Too Much? Understanding--and controlling--the primal urge to splurge
(MONEY Magazine) – Marie LaTortue loves shopping the way Michael Jackson loves plastic surgery: truly, madly, deeply. Every few months, Marie goes on a binge, hitting the malls in a state of giddy determination, dropping hundreds of bucks on clothes and shoes she knows she'll never wear. "The adrenaline just starts pumping," the Fort Lauderdale hairdresser says. "When I see a blouse I like, I have to get every single color. I just have to."
The two dozen bags of clothes in her bedroom (most with tags still on them), the 139 pairs of never-worn shoes in her closet--these are just the side effects of her not-so-magnificent obsession. The 30-year-old wears the same few outfits to work so her colleagues won't realize how much is hidden away at home. "I really think it's a sickness," she says, laughing occasionally as she tells me all this, but she's really not kidding.
Marie scares me a little. Not because what she's saying sounds alien to me, but because I can see a bit of myself in her.
No, I don't cruise the malls in search of designer duds. I wouldn't know where to put them: My apartment is spilling over with stuff accumulated over many years of "bargain" hunting: hundreds of books I've never opened (except to write my name inside); stacks of CDs I've played but once; a vast assortment of paint-by-numbers landscapes that seemed so wonderfully kitschy when I found them on eBay. So far, the financial damage from my little binges has been minimal. But if my tastes were a bit more expensive, or my buyer's remorse a tad less intense, I'd be in real trouble.
So when I ran across a news story on a psychiatrist at Stanford who was successfully treating compulsive shoppers with the antidepressant Celexa, I knew I needed to find out more. Not just because it was a good story but because I needed to know if I was in danger of becoming one of them myself.
I spoke with a small army of experts and self-admitted compulsive shoppers across the country. They soon dispelled any lingering notion that shopaholism is a make-believe disorder afflicting only bored housewives and Sex in the City types. The addicts I spoke with conformed to stereotype in one respect: Almost all were women. (Experts say that 90% of all compulsive shoppers are women.) Otherwise, they were a diverse bunch--white, black, Latina; some in their fifties, some in their teens; some married, some single; some earning good money, others scraping by. Many had accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in debt to feed a habit that troubled and bewildered them.
When Marie tells me she sees her shopping addiction as a "sickness," she's closer to the mark than she may realize. Many researchers are coming to believe that compulsive shopping is a mental disorder as real, and often as devastating, as drug addiction or pathological gambling. While few of us will ever need to pop a pill to steer clear of the mall, the emerging body of research on shopping addiction can teach everyone something about the inner shopaholic in all of us.
It's hard to imagine a disorder as quintessentially American as compulsive shopping. (In the wake of Sept. 11, President Bush famously urged consumers to keep spending--and many credit that spending for preventing a double-dip recession at a time when most businesses are still sitting on their wallets.) But it was a German--psychologist Emil Kraepelin--who first defined excessive shopping as an illness, calling it "oniomania" after the Latin onos, or price. Kraepelin named the disorder nearly 90 years ago, but until recently, it has been only dimly understood. As recently as a decade ago, University of Minnesota sociologist Ronald Faber recalls, "it was treated a lot like alcoholism was in the 1950s, seen as kind of a joke."
Like alcoholism, notes Chicago psychoanalyst Robert Galatzer-Levy, compulsive shopping represents a case of "the ordinary pleasures of living getting out of hand." Just as nearly every alcoholic starts out as a social drinker, a shopping addict starts out as a recreational shopper--bringing a little color into a gray day by picking up a pair (or three) of shoes. The problem arises when what was once a pleasure metastasizes into an irrational compulsion that becomes, in the words of University of Cincinnati psychiatry professor Susan McElroy, "irresistible, intrusive and/or senseless." Hard-core compulsive shoppers may literally find it difficult to think about anything else. Still, the disorder has more in common with impulse-control problems like binge eating and pathological gambling than it does with obsessive-compulsive disorder; while OCD sufferers find relief, not pleasure, in compulsive rituals like hand washing or ceiling-tile counting, many compulsive shoppers (like gamblers) feel a distinct, if fleeting, high when they give in. This rush keeps them coming back for more--and more and more.
"There's no feeling that compares with the feeling I get when I hand over my credit card," says Lauren Land, a 25-year-old Kentuckian struggling to control her compulsions. Walking through the mall with four or five bags in hand, Land feels a strange sense of importance and power. Can't buy a thrill? Actually, you can--on credit, no less.
But the thrill is fleeting. Like drug addicts, compulsive shoppers often report feeling acute withdrawal symptoms when they can't get to the mall. "If I don't go shopping and spend the amount I want to spend, I don't feel well," Marie LaTortue confesses. "I go through a really deep depression."
Chad Pitt, a 25-year-old night DJ at an Orlando radio station, confesses that he hits the malls "four days out of the week, sometimes five or six. It's kind of a daily ritual." So far, Pitt says, his not-quite-daily ritual has left him more than $100,000 in hock to the twin gods of MasterCard and Visa. (Yes, that's five zeros you see there.) On days he can't make it to the mall, he finds himself feeling "bittersweet," thinking not about his considerable debts but about the deals he may be missing.
Cara DeRose, a 34-year-old teacher in New Jersey, enjoys splurging on clothes, vacations and elaborate redecorating schemes. Her husband, she says, has grudgingly bailed her out again and again. This past January she went over her limit--with him--charging up some $11,000 on her American Express card in a post-Christmas jag. He forced her to cut up her cards and enroll in a debt-management program. But she hasn't quite gone cold turkey just yet. Recently, she pulled out the credit card her husband agreed she should keep for emergencies. "I just needed to feel like I could spend money," she explains. "I probably ran up $1,000 on the card in a matter of just a few days."
Two words pop up again and again in almost every shopaholic's story: credit and card. While credit cards don't cause compulsive shopping, they certainly function as enablers--and make it easier for undisciplined spenders to get into big trouble in a big hurry. Lorrin Koran, a Stanford psychiatrist and a prominent researcher in the field, says most of the shopaholics he sees developed their addiction in their early twenties, not long after they got their first real jobs--and their first credit cards. (The jobs, and paychecks, are optional. Credit-card companies now regularly send solicitations to kids in high school.)
It isn't just compulsive shoppers who have trouble with the plastic; we all do. There's something about credit cards that causes the brains of otherwise sensible people to turn to mush. Gary Herman, director of counseling services for Consolidated Consumer Credit, notes that people who use credit cards tend to spend 20% to 30% more than they would if they spent cash. And many of us are happy to live in denial about the extent of our debts.
Research by University of Maryland economist Larry Ausubel shows that consumers tend to dramatically underestimate the credit-card debt they're carrying, with card users typically owing more than twice what they think they owe. In many cases, it's a lot: From 1992 to 2002, the average credit-card debt owed by American households surged 157% to roughly $8,400. Many folks maintain these balances even when they have money in the bank they could use to pay them off.
What gives credit cards the power to cloud our minds? Call it the unreality principle. Credit cards "decouple" the pain of paying for things from the pleasure of buying them, MIT economist Drazen Prelec says, making it psychologically easier to splurge. "That makes the sting of payment less," he explains. "It kind of loosens you up, especially for luxury items where you might feel some guilt, feel this is something out of your budget."
Some compulsive shoppers are all too aware of this insidious effect. "It's like the things you buy on credit are free," Lauren Land notes ruefully. "You don't feel it until six months down the road."
THE PROMISE IN A PILL
At Stanford, a team led by psychiatrist Koran has been studying whether the antidepressant Celexa may help some shoppers get a grip on their obsessions. (While the study was funded by Forest Laboratories, makers of Celexa, Koran says it was he who approached the company with the idea of the study.) Early results look promising: More than 60% of the two dozen compulsive shoppers Koran and crew treated responded rapidly to treatment with Celexa.
Koran says he was astonished by the response he saw from patients who'd been struggling with the disorder for decades, accumulating massive collections of useless things (one participant owned 2,000 wrenches) and tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. "It meant they didn't turn on the shopping channel anymore," he says. "It meant they could go to the mall and not buy things they didn't need. It was a tremendous relief."
Still, Koran acknowledges that his small study, while suggestive, is hardly definitive proof that compulsive shopping can be cured with a pill. Donald Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa and a pioneering researcher in the field, suggests that for most compulsive shoppers, tough love may be far more effective than pills. His advice for those in the grip? "Cut up your credit cards, get rid of your checkbook, don't shop by yourself."
That can be hard. Christi Pecenco is struggling to pay off $32,000 in debt she'd accumulated on 13 different cards by the time she turned 25. Now 28, she's in a debt-consolidation program that's pared her plastic down to one debit card. The problem? She works on Chicago's Magnificent Mile--a shopper's paradise but a recovering shopaholic's worst nightmare.
Pecenco tries her best to resist the temptations lurking outside her office door. Lately she's been taking lunch breaks at her desk to avoid the stores on Michigan Avenue. "If I browse at all, I have to buy something," she says. "I've grounded myself." She's not sure she'll maintain this discipline once she's out of debt consolidation and armed with credit cards again: "When Neiman Marcus has its Last Call sale, with designers 60% or 80% off the normal prices, I cannot promise you that if I had a credit card, I wouldn't rack up $500."
UNDER MOUSE ARREST
Compared with the consuming passions of those I spoke to, my troubles seem trivial. I wish I could find that reassuring, but I can't. I keep remembering Dr. Galatzer-Levy's comments about ordinary pleasures getting out of hand. I'm all too aware that what starts as a pleasure can become a habit--and then a seemingly irresistible compulsion.
Land confesses that sometimes while driving home from work, "the steering wheel just turns," and she's at Payless, adding to her already enormous collection of shoes. "It doesn't seem damaging," she sighs, "until I get home and realize I've spent $50 on plastic shoes."
I don't have to struggle to stay out of Payless. For me, it's the Internet. Even as I write this, I hear the siren song of my favorite sites--Amazon, Powells, Half.com. In my e-mail inbox: an alert from quirky music retailer Djangos .com, informing me that a double-disk compilation of early-'70s James Brown funk is in stock. Granted, I've already got a half-dozen disks' worth of primo Brown, but that 12-minute version of "Make It Funky" is awfully tempting.
In my early days scratching a living as a freelance journalist, I felt deprived because I couldn't afford anything. Now, with a few bucks in the bank, I find myself feeling deprived because I can't have, well, everything. Instead of taking pleasure in the things I've got, I too often obsess over the things I ain't got.
I resist James, for now. But I can't promise I won't be back tomorrow to buy the disk. I take it one day at a time; that's all I can do.