Confessions of a Compulsive Shopper
Her obsession strained her marriage and left her family with more than $50,000 in debt. Now Kristine Rogers has a plan to get her life back on track.
(MONEY Magazine) – Kristine Rogers is an addict. The 36-year-old suburban mother of four doesn't drink, gamble or take drugs, but she is an addict nonetheless. Her compulsion is shopping, and her very particular obsession is Gymboree clothing--cute, colorful outfits for the 12-and-under set that, in Rogers' hands, have catapulted her family into an emotional and financial tailspin.
Rogers first recognized she'd crossed the line from merely being an enthusiastic shopper to genuine illness about 18 months ago, when Gymboree held a clearance sale in which every item was priced at $7.99. "I was literally shaking, trying to get my daughter dressed to get to the store," Rogers recalls. "I went to three or four different stores that day, I had a friend on the phone going to a Gymboree near her to buy for me, and I had my mom online ordering too. I grabbed clothes my daughter didn't need. I bought four of the same coat in different colors." By the end of the day, Rogers' compulsion had cost her $800.
At the height of her addiction in 2003 and 2004, Rogers estimates that she spent $400 a week and eight to 10 hours a day, every day, shopping for Gymboree outfits on the Web. "Online, it felt like Monopoly money," she says. She'd log on at 3 a.m., stay on until her kids woke up, then start all over again once the older ones left for school. "I'd get a rush, a physical high," she says. "It got so bad that just thinking about shopping, I'd start shaking."
Maxed-out credit cards, more than $50,000 in shopping-related debt and the slow realization that she chatted more with other Gymboree-obsessed moms than she did with her own family finally convinced Rogers that she needed to kick her habit. Last November she started a Gymboree-addiction recovery website; by June she had cut down to purchases of $150 or so a month. She thinks the worst is over but adds, "I don't know if I'll ever be normal." Meanwhile, her family struggles to untangle the financial mess her obsession has wrought.
Kristine Rogers is not alone.
Compulsive shopping affects up to 8% of the U.S. population, and 90% of those shopaholics are women. Some, like Rogers, zero in on one product or brand. Some shop in binges, others are equal-opportunity buyers who snap up whatever catches their fancy whenever the impulse occurs. Many focus their buying on someone else's behalf--in Rogers' case, her youngest daughter, Skylar, 3. "Compulsive gift giving is a way of buying love, and you don't have to feel so guilty about overspending," says psychologist April Benson, editor of I Shop, Therefore I Am.
The consequences, however, can be devastating, as Rogers and her family have learned. Like many addictions, shopaholism can break the family bank, especially if purchases are made mostly with plastic. Relationships also suffer, as many shopaholics become both secretive and single-minded--their habit takes precedence over work and family, often leading to the loss of one or both.
Whether one is a compulsive shopper depends on the feelings accompanying the act as well as the quantity purchased, the amount spent and the consequences. Habitually shopping to make yourself feel better is one possible sign of addiction. Consuming to the point of harming yourself--financially, socially, professionally--is another. Being unable to stop, despite these ramifications, is yet another. (See "Five Signs You're in Trouble" at right.)
THE LONG WAY DOWN
For most of the past three years, Kristine Rogers has manifested all of these symptoms. Before that she didn't have the financial means. Rogers grew up in a middle-class home outside Chicago, a few miles from Yorkville, where she now lives with her husband Ari Epstein, 34. But she hit hard times at 18, when she got pregnant and married her high school sweetheart. By 25 she was divorced with three kids--Kyle, now 17, Tricia, 15, and Alyssa, 10--and struggling to support her family with a series of low-paying jobs. In 1995 she was studying to become a paralegal when she had another setback: She couldn't pay $12,000 in medical and repair bills she'd incurred in a car accident and ended up filing for bankruptcy.
Five years later she met Epstein, a recruiter at the legal staffing company where she worked. They got married in 2001 and decided they could afford to have Rogers quit her $38,000-a-year job and to live on Epstein's $140,000 income. A year later Skylar, the future object of her obsession, was born.
Rogers began shopping in earnest soon after. She started out innocently enough, perusing eBay for hard-to-find Christmas toys. She got hooked on buying online and was particularly taken with the coordinated head-to-toe outfits on the Gymboree website. Within six months Rogers was a full-blown addict, drawn as much by the community of shopping chat rooms as by the fabulous wardrobe she was amassing for her daughter. "All these stay-at-home moms find a connection," she explains, "but then it spins out of control."
For the first few months, her husband didn't notice his daughter's bulging closets or the household's bulging bills. Credit-card statements came in, Epstein sent checks out, and that was that. Rogers felt increasingly guilty and remorseful as her purchases and her time away from the kids increased. Still, she couldn't stop.
Eventually Epstein caught on. "I remember thinking it was insane," he says. "She was always on those websites. I just didn't get it. Why did we need all those socks and hair bows?" Although he didn't confront his wife, she felt his watchful eye and began hiding her purchases. Eventually, though, their rapidly shrinking bank account convinced Epstein he had to say something--first calmly, then with threats to shut down her accounts.
Last summer the situation came to a head. The couple had borrowed $28,000 from Epstein's mother several months before to help pay off more than $30,000 in credit-card debt. But within six months, they were in the hole again for $26,000. When Epstein's mother called to ask about a small payment to her that they'd missed, he flipped out. He ran to Skylar's closet and pulled out a new Gymboree dress. Then, he says, "I took a pair of scissors and hacked at it. I just couldn't handle it anymore."
TWO TO TANGO
Not all of the couple's financial woes, however, can be traced back to Rogers' love affair with Gymboree. In 2002, Epstein had switched recruiting firms to take a managerial position. The move unexpectedly resulted in a cut in pay, from $140,000 to $70,000, when the recruiting market dried up and his anticipated commission income didn't materialize. But the couple continued to live as if he were still earning six figures--eating out at expensive restaurants once or twice a week, taking in Cubs games and attending big-name rock concerts.
Rogers thinks her husband's expenditures make up a big part of their debt. He counters, "She makes it sound like I'm reckless. I might have spent $400 on baseball tickets or $150 on dinner once in a while, but now I don't buy anything."
With blame swatted back and forth as fast as an Olympic Ping-Pong ball, it's not surprising that no one in the family was keeping track of the finances. "I haven't balanced my checkbook in four years," confesses Epstein. Add a staggering $600 to $700 a month in bank overdraft fees to their mountain of debt.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
As painful as the dress-shredding incident was, the confrontation was an important turning point, forcing the couple to acknowledge their financial and emotional crisis. In the aftermath, they began taking action to turn their lives around. In January, Epstein, a former lawyer, took a new, higher-paying job as the division manager of the legal recruiting department for a major employment firm. Rogers started her Gymboree recovery site, offering advice and "no buying" contests to other shopping addicts. She's since slashed her Gymboree spending by nearly 90%. In May she went back to work part time as a paralegal. She also took over balancing the checkbook, and their overdraft fees are now largely gone.
But the last few years have taken their financial toll. The couple are saddled with five maxed-out credit cards at interest rates as high as 28% (punitive rates levied as a result of too many missed payments), unpaid utility bills totaling more than $1,500 and a house that they rent, and they have scant savings. In June, Rogers and Epstein agreed that a meeting with Kevin Holland, a C.P.A. and financial planner in Naperville, Ill., was a good idea.
Despite the couple's dire financial straits, Holland is optimistic that they can pay off their credit-card debt within five to seven years and even save enough money to buy a home. Here is what he recommends.
Cut Expenses Further The more cash Rogers and Epstein can free up to put toward their credit cards, the faster they'll climb out of debt and start saving for the future. While Holland found that the family is not living extravagantly, he did target a few areas for cutbacks: entertainment and dining out ($7,500), dance lessons ($5,000), cell phones ($2,400) and his health-club membership ($950). "For a while at least, try living as if you're just coming out of high school and are dirt poor," he recommends.
Renegotiate Debt Holland says the couple should first pay off their $1,500 utility bill so their power isn't cut off. At the same time, they should try to bargain with their credit-card issuers to reduce those punitive interest rates, and perhaps their outstanding balances as well. Epstein reveals he once made a deal with MBNA, to which they now owe $12,000 at 28% interest, and the company agreed to knock off a sizable amount of his debt if he'd pay at least $200 every month. When he missed a payment, MBNA rescinded the offer. Holland says Epstein should see if they'll reinstate the offer. "Then you go to the other credit-card companies and tell them what MBNA did for you." If the couple gets the rate down to an average 18% from 28%, they'll save $17,000 in interest and pay off their debt nearly two years sooner.
Save for the Future Next year, when Epstein becomes eligible for a 401(k), Holland urges him to contribute enough to qualify for his company's match. "Do whatever it takes--it's free money," the planner says. The couple should also supplement the $50,000 in life insurance Epstein gets for free at work. Holland suggests they each get a 15-year level-term policy with a $500,000 death benefit. The cost: about $30 a month for both.
Stay Sober None of the moves that Holland recommends will help, however, if Rogers relapses. To keep straight, Rogers must stay off Gymboree websites and out of the stores for the next several months, until she has a handle on her obsession, advises financial coach Kathy Miller, author of Too Busy to Budget. "If you're a recovering alcoholic, you wouldn't go into a bar. The principle is the same," she says. Miller also encourages Rogers to keep up her website, noting, "It's a good transition for her to go from being someone who needs help to being someone who can offer help."
Rogers herself is cautiously optimistic about her recovery. Recently, she stood at the entrance of her garage and surveyed the lineup of 18-gallon plastic tubs that contain hundreds of Skylar's outgrown coordinated outfits, carefully folded. "Looking at all this stuff reminds me of my addiction," she says, her voice choking. "I just want to get rid of it all."
The Bottom Line
To get the family's finances on track, Rogers must refrain from further splurges and, with Epstein, look for ways to cut expenses. The extra cash will help them to repay debts faster and to start saving for future goals.