A Publication of WTVP

There is a new commercial on television right now—have you seen it? That’s right, the marketers would have us believe once again the answer to all of our problems, worries or the celebrations for all our joys—the next big thing—is it. And the best news of all, you can get it on a popular online auction site.

Today a spender need not even leave his/her home in order to engage in his/her favorite past-time. On my cable television system alone there are three 24-hour shopping channels, not to mention all the opportunities available through the web and 24-hour catalog shopping. Is it any wonder that University of Florida researchers have found the average compulsive spender is $23,000 in debt? And those same University of Florida researchers estimate that between 2 percent and 8 percent of the population spends compulsively.

But what exactly makes spending compulsive and not just “retail therapy?” According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, behaviors typical of compulsive spending and shopping include the following:

There are doubtless many individuals who look at this list and think, “Yep, I do that, that and that! Oh my goodness! I am a compulsive spender!” While the benefit of taking a personal inventory is significant, it is equally important to recognize this list describes patterns of behaviors which need to be examined over a period of time, not behaviors related to concerns about paying for gasoline and heating our homes over the winter. An individual who can identify with four of these behaviors ought to think about speaking with a professional about his/her spending habits.

In writing for the Allentown Morning Call, Gregory Karp posted an online article in March 2005 which cited a Stanford University study estimating up to 8 percent of Americans, or 23.6 million people, suffer from a compulsive shopping disorder. And about one-quarter of Americans have a compelling need to purchase that has not become destructive. So what the researchers from Stanford have found is that roughly 74 million Americans are compelled to purchase, but have not yet found the behaviors to be destructive. I find myself wanting to know more about this study. My questions include the following:

When assessing for compulsive spending, it is imperative to probe all areas of life of an individual because ultimately, all areas of his/her life will be affected. A detailed assessment of an individual’s spending behaviors will also include asking questions related to the following:

The level of destructiveness of a spending addiction can not be accurately measured until the mirror of reality is held up and the individual has the opportunity to examine all of his/her behaviors in it. It does the individual no good to examine only behaviors related to shopping/spending as if these behaviors occur in a vacuum. Think of compulsive spending as an addiction closely related to pathological gambling in its appearance and consequences, but with similarities to chemical addictions as well.

For the individual with a spending addiction, shopping becomes less about pleasure and more about trying to avoid pain. Much as the person who suffers from alcoholism no longer consumes alcohol for enjoyment but out of a need to prevent withdrawal, so it is for the compulsive spender—spending is done not for pleasure but out of a genuine need to elevate mood. According to Donna Boundy, author of When Money is the Drug, spending money is what gives the compulsive spender his/her high. “It’s like gambling in many ways. Shopping allows you to escape from your real life. You are bombarded with sensory stimulation and your fantasy life is given full expression,” Boundy said. “You can imagine that your life will be better with that new pair of boots or that living room set. Spending can serve as an antidepressant for some people.”

Problems for compulsive spenders arise when they spend and then experience tremendous guilt and anxiety due to their spending. They think, “I have blown it again. I was supposed to use that money to pay rent. Now it’s gone. Again!” The individual recommits to him/herself not to do it again, but when the stress builds up, back to the mall or shopping channel he/she goes. This is exactly like the cycle an individual with an addiction to alcohol or other drugs experiences. The individual drinks or uses drugs to escape, sobers up and feels guilty and remorseful, promises not to do it again, and then the pressure builds up again until it is too much to handle and the individual falls back on the only coping strategy he/she knows.

I have worked in the social service field since leaving classroom teaching in 1990. Most of that time has been spent in the addiction and mental health field. I have yet to meet an individual who has developed an addiction to either a substance or a behavior who was not at first attempting to medicate a feeling he/she did not want to feel, or escape a situation in which he/she did not want to be in. The heartbreaking truth is that no matter how hard an individual tries to escape his/her reality by these efforts, he/she is doomed to fail. The dance of destruction will continue until an addicted person realizes (through intervention or crisis) he/she has no ability to control his/her use or behavior. For this reason, compulsive spenders are entering addiction treatment at increasing rates and finally receiving the help they need to get their lives back in control.

At the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, individuals with spending addictions are treated with patients who have other addictions; they have much to learn from each other. No matter how they got to treatment, their lives had become unmanageable and they were in desperate need of a new way of living. Treatment for the individual with a compulsive spending addiction involves not only learning a new skill set but also finding a trusted person to take over financial control of his/her life for a time. Much as the compulsive gambler must abstain from interacting with money, so must the compulsive spender. This is not to say the individual with the spending addiction abdicates his/her responsibility for dealing with his/her financial matters; only the issue of financial control is taken away until such a time as all parties agree having money is no longer a trigger for the patient.

It is vitally important for someone with a spending addiction to have the emotional support of his/her friends and family, and to have those involved in his/her treatment know and understand the efforts the patient is making so as not to unwittingly sabotage any progress. As with any addiction, compulsive spending is a primary, progressive disease, not simply a symptom of an underlying condition. Left untreated, a spending addiction can cause untold financial, emotional and physical devastation. Help is available. If you are concerned about your own spending habits or those of a loved one, do not hesitate to seek out resources. The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can be reached at 1-800-522-3784 or at TPW

Libby Zivalich is a Corporate Services Clinician at the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Proctor Hospital.