Whether it’s the latest gadget, a chic new piece of clothing, or even food, we’ve all felt the urge to splurge now and again. This comes as little surprise because we are constantly bombarded with online, print, and media ads that reinforce shopping mentality. Indulging in occasional spending isn’t necessarily a bad thing when it done in moderation and doesn’t disrupt family finances.
If your urge to shop becomes uncontrollable and if you are constantly spending beyond your means on things that you don’t need, a shopping addiction can be just as damaging as gambling or alcoholism. Fortunately, there are ways to break free from shopping addiction. If you have tried to quit spending with little or no luck, you may need the help of friends, family, or a supportive treatment program to kick the compulsion to shop.
Oniomania (compulsive shopping, or what’s more commonly referred to as shopping addiction) is perhaps the most socially acceptable addiction. Think about it: We are surrounded by advertising that tells us that buying will make us happy.
Shopping addiction, also known as compulsive buying disorder, or compulsive shopping, affects about 18 million adults in the United States. It’s described as the compulsion to spend money, regardless of need or financial means. While many people enjoy shopping as a treat or as a recreational activity, compulsive shopping is a mental health disorder and can cause severe consequences.
The American Psychiatric Association (APA) does not officially recognize shopping addiction as a distinct disorder, and considerable debate surrounds the legitimacy of the disorder.
People with this disorder may be addicted to a certain product, such as clothes or jewelry, or may also buy anything from food and beauty products, to stocks or real estate.
The person with a shopping addiction gets the same rush or high from making purchases as someone who misuses drugs gets from using. Once the brain associates shopping with this pleasure or high, the person with a shopping addiction will try to recreate it again and again.
Little is known about this addiction. ResearchTrusted Source is mixed, with some studies showing that women are more likely to have this addiction than men. Other research has shown that men and women have an equal risk of developing the disorder.
Some studies show that the average age of a person with a shopping addiction is 30. Other studies show that it happens between ages 18 and 20, when people are able to establish their own credit. However, more research still needs to be done.
Someone with a shopping addiction may hide their problem well, and sometimes the only ones who know about their problem are those closest to them. People with a compulsive buying disorder may hide their purchases or seem like they have plenty of money to spend on shopping.
Many compulsive shoppers convey an image of wealth and success, while in reality they are deeply in debt. If they are unable to stop shopping or have large amounts of shopping debt, they may have an addiction.
A person with a shopping addiction may:
- obsess over making purchases on a daily or weekly basis
- shop to cope with stress
- max out credit cards or open new ones without paying off previous balances
- feel intense euphoria or excitement after making purchases
- buy unnecessary things or purchase items that go unused
- steal or lie in order to continue shopping
- feel regret or remorse over purchases, but continue to shop
- be unable to pay off debt or manage money
- fail in attempts to stop compulsive shopping
Is It Normal Shopping or an Addiction?
So what is the difference between normal shopping, occasional splurges, and shopping addiction? As with all addictions, what sets shopping addiction apart from other types of shopping is that the behavior becomes the person’s main way of coping with stress, to the point where they continue to shop excessively even when it is clearly having a negative impact on other areas of their life.
As with other addictions, money problems can develop and relationships can become damaged, yet people with shopping addiction (sometimes called “shopaholics”) feel unable to stop or even control their spending.
This difficulty in controlling the desire to shop emerges from a personality pattern that shopaholics share, and that differentiates them from most other people. Often low in self-esteem, they are easily influenced, and are often kindhearted, sympathetic, and polite to others, although they are often lonely and isolated. Shopping gives them a way to seek out contact with others.
People with shopping addiction tend to be more materialistic than other shoppers and try to prop themselves up by seeking status through material objects and seeking approval from others. They engage in fantasy more than other people, and—as with other people with addictions—have a hard time resisting their impulses.
As a result, they are more susceptible to marketing and advertising messages that surround us on a daily basis.
While advertising, in general, is designed to exaggerate the positive results of purchase and suggest that the purchase will lead to an escape from life’s problems, certain marketing tricks are designed to trigger impulse buying and specifically target the impulsive nature of people with a shopping addiction.
People who gain pleasure and escape negative feelings through shopping sometimes call it “retail therapy.” This phrase implies that you can get the same benefit from buying yourself something as you would from engaging in counseling or therapy. This is an incorrect and unhelpful idea.
While the term retail therapy is often used in a tongue-in-cheek manner, some people, including shopaholics, actively make time to shop simply as a way to cope with negative feelings.
Although there are circumstances when a new purchase can actually solve a problem, this is not typically thought of as retail therapy. Usually, the things that people buy when they are engaging in retail therapy are unnecessary, and the corresponding financial cost may actually reduce resources for solving other life problems.
Online shopping addiction is a form of internet addiction, and people with social anxiety are particularly vulnerable to developing this type, as it does not require any face-to-face contact. Like other cyber addictions, it feels anonymous.
Compulsive vs. Impulsive Shopping
Impulse buying is an unplanned purchase that happens on the spur of the moment in reaction to the immediate desire to have something you see in a shop. Impulse buying is a little different from compulsive buying, which is typically more pre-planned as a way of escaping negative feelings. But again, people with shopping addiction may engage in both types of addictive buying.
The Controversy of Shopping Addiction
Like other behavioral addictions, shopping addiction is a controversial idea. Many experts balk at the idea that excessive spending is an addiction, believing that there has to be a psychoactive substance that produces symptoms, such as physical tolerance and withdrawal, for an activity to be a true addiction.
There is also some disagreement among professionals about whether compulsive shopping should be considered an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), impulse control disorder (like kleptomania, or compulsive stealing), mood disorder (like depression), or behavioral addiction (like gambling disorder).
How Shopping Can Be Like Other Addictions
There are several characteristics that shopping addiction shares with other addictions. As with other addictions, people who over-shop become preoccupied with spending and devote significant time and money to the activity.
Actual spending is important to the process of shopping addiction; window shopping does not constitute an addiction, and the addictive pattern is actually driven by the process of spending money.
As with other addictions, shopping addiction is highly ritualized and follows a typically addictive pattern of thoughts about shopping, planning shopping trips, and the shopping act itself, often described as pleasurable, ecstatic even, and as providing relief from negative feelings. Finally, the shopper crashes, with feelings of disappointment, particularly with him/herself.
Compulsive shoppers use shopping as a way of escaping negative feelings, such as depression, anxiety, boredom, and anger, as well as self-critical thoughts. Unfortunately, the escape is short-lived.
Items purchased during a compulsive shopping spree are often simply hoarded unused,10 and compulsive shoppers then begin to plan the next spending spree. Most shop alone, although some shop with others who enjoy it. Generally, it will lead to embarrassment to shop with people who don’t share this type of enthusiasm for shopping.
Shopping addiction can be difficult to manage, as making purchases is a normal part of everyday life. Everyone has to purchase food regularly, and things like clothing, personal products, and cars from time to time. But simply ceasing to buy can’t treat a shopping addiction.
Depending on the severity of the shopping addiction, the compulsive buyer may need to be “cut off” from cash flow.
Someone else may need to be in charge of their finances. In rare cases, a person with shopping addiction may need to check in to an inpatient addiction program.
Most often, a shopping addiction can be treated with behavioral therapy and individual counseling. The person with a shopping addiction must develop impulse control and also learn to identify triggers.
In many cases, shopping addiction may stem from deeper emotional issues or mental health conditions. If it stems from depression or other mental health issues, medication may help. A mental health expert can help determine if this is a possibility.
Treatment aims to interrupt the self-perpetuating cycle, face the issue, and develop new, healthy ways of thinking, feeling, and acting.
Also, creating a support network of friends and family and others with shopping addictions can overcome their issues and go on to live a healthy and fulfilling life.
If a shopping addiction is left untreated, compulsive shoppers will find themselves going deeper and deeper into debt. They may lose friends and the trust of loved ones in the process. They could even lose their home or property if they are unable to manage their money.
Someone with a shopping addiction may turn to stealing to support their habit, leading to arrests and criminal charges. Sometimes, they will only ask for help when they “hit bottom” and serious events occur.
To overcome the addiction, people with a buying disorder may need a family member or close friend to help them manage their money in the early stages of recovery. But ultimately it’s their responsibility to learn appropriate spending habits. The most difficult part of a shopping addiction is dealing with the financial results of addictive behavior.
Someone with a shopping addiction may need to file for bankruptcy, refinance their mortgage, or take on an extra job in order to pay off debt. Also, they may have a hard time finding a job or renting a home if they have a low credit score.
Like other addictions, a compulsive shopper can relapse. But with the right support, they can learn coping strategies and get back on the road to recovery. Despite challenges, a person with a shopping addiction can learn to manage the addiction and adopt healthier spending behaviors.
- Addictions. (n.d.)
- Black, D. W. (2007, February). A review of compulsive buying disorder. World Psychiatry, 6(1), 14-18
- Credit repair: How to help yourself. (2012, November). Retrieved from
- Debtors Anonymous. (2008). Retrieved Sept. 14, 2012, from
- Koran, L. M., Faber, R. J., Aboujaoude, E., Large, M. D., & Serpe, R. T. (2006, October 1). Estimated prevalence of compulsive buying behavior in the United States. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 163(10), 1806-1812
- Shopaholics Anonymous. (n.d.)
- Shopping. (n.d.)
- Workman, L., & Paper, D. (2010). Compulsive buying: A theoretical framework. The Journal of Business Inquiry, 9(1), 89-126
Grüsser SM, Thalemann C, Albrecht U. [Excessive compulsive buying or “behavioral addiction”? A case study]. Wien Klin Wochenschr. 2004;116(5-6):201-4. doi:10.1007/bf03040488
Zhang, C Brook, JS, Leukefeld, CG, De La Rosa, M, Brook, DW. Compulsive buying and quality of life: An estimate of the monetary cost of compulsive buying among adults in early midlife. Psychiatry Res. 2017;252:208-214. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2017.03.007
Babić R, Babić D, Martinac M, et al. Addictions without Drugs: Contemporary Addictions or Way of Life?. Psychiatr Danub. 2018;30(Suppl 6):371-379. PMID: 30235175
Lawrence LM, Ciorciari J, Kyrios M. Relationships that compulsive buying has with addiction, obsessive-compulsiveness, hoarding, and depression. Compr Psychiatry. 2014;55(5):1137-45. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2014.03.005