12 Step Program: Shopping Addiction?

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, shopping addiction operates the same way as heroin addiction. Sure, the consequences are different, but how the two items interact with your brain is similar. With heroin, the consequences are financial ruin, shattered familial relationships, depression, and ultimately, severe medical problems or death. With a shopping addiction, everything except death is bound to happen. However, death is not out of the question as debt can cause pretty severe depression.

How does heroin work? Heroin is an opioid, a very powerful painkiller. Our bodies are packed with opioid receptors which are supposed to bind to endorphins, our natural pain-killing substances that are created when our bodies get injured or goes into shock. Heroin acts just as an endorphin would and binds to the receptors, giving a pain-killing effect. The result: A surge of pleasure and sensation, warmness, a sense of well-being.

How does shopping work? “What we believe and have evidence for is that people have the same kind of surge in brain chemicals when they anticipate buying something as when (an alcoholic) anticipates drinking,” says April Lane Benson, a psychotherapist who specializes in compulsive shopping and the author of “I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self.” “It’s the anticipation of pleasure that starts the brain rolling. You can see physical symptoms. People might sweat or their heart races.”


12 Ways to Spot a Shopping Addict

Unlike heroin addicts, shopping addicts may be a lot harder to spot.

Does the person in question:

  1. Juggle their bills, constantly floating them because they spent their money shopping?
  2. Get angry or upset when they can’t buy something they want, like a new pair of shoes?
  3. Go to the store to buy one pair of pants but walk out with five?
  4. Give false information to obtain credit?
  5. Bounce checks frequently?
  6. Keep their purchases secretive to avoid ridicule?
  7. Get distracted from their daily work because of debt?
  8. Get depressed if they don’t go shopping, and in turn, go shopping to feel better?
  9. Pay an excessive amount of money towards bills (33%+), not including mortgage or rent?
  10. Have a hard time having left over money at the end of the month, frequently declaring leftover money “spending” money?
  11. Return items out of guilt, caving to the pressure of being in the store and winding up buying other items?
  12. Buy things they want regardless of the financial sense it makes?

You may have a shopping problem if you said yes to a few of these. It may not be a problem, too. It really depends on a lot of issues. If you are concerned, contact a professional! If you aren’t asking these questions about yourself, you can ask them about someone else. Does someone you love have a problem with shopping?

12 Steps to Recovery from Shopping Addiction & Debt

  1. Join a group like DA (Debtors Anonymous) to gain a support structure with people facing similar issues.
  2. Create a budget. This will allow you to see all of your finances as an overview and convey the importance of not overspending.
  3. Create a plan to pay off debt. Plans should be specific and actionable. What debts do you have, how much do you owe, what are the minimum payments and interest rates, etc.
  4. Recognize the difference between need and want. When you go shopping, make a list of “need” items only.
  5. Recognize any impulses you may have. Was the impulse for a need or a want? You need to think each impulse through to create awareness. Do NOT beat yourself up over these impulses, just learn from them.
  6. Pay by cash. Credit cards are great tools for some, but if you have a shopping compulsion, get rid of your cards! If you need an emergency card, keep it at a family member or friend’s house.
  7. When you shop, bring someone with you that is not compulsive. They will serve as a “grounding” force to make sure you don’t go overboard.
  8. Separate the classification of who people are from what they own. She is not “Jill, you know… the blonde woman with the nice Mercedes?” She is now “Jill, you know… the woman from Church with the 3 adorable children?”
  9. Discount warehouses provide a great savings. But not for people who can’t control their spending! The sheer amount of products in these stores and good bargains may drive you to shop. Would you send a recovering alcoholic to Mardi Gras? A gambling addict to Las Vegas?
  10. Try and figure out why your impulses are there. You keep having an urge for fancy dinners. Is it because you associate that with love? What would meet that need but be healthier for you, mentally and financially? A picnic in the park? A homemade dinner?
  11. If you truly enjoy window shopping, do it after hours when all the stores are closed. Or do it without bringing a wallet. Either way, you get to look, but can’t buy.
  12. Finally, you have gained power over your spending. You control your spending, now… not the other way around.

These steps are not an “ordered” list. You will most likely be practicing all of these points simultaneously as they build off of each other.

From Debtor to Saver

These changes will not happen overnight, but they are necessary. Whether you are a compulsive shopper and reading this or you are reading this and know someone who is a compulsive shopper, this is a serious problem.

People often blame things like this on carelessness or lack of personal responsibility, but completely discount the fact that for some people it is a problem they are having a hard time dealing with. This does not mean there are no repercussions, as you very well know from your debt, but I wish you the best in taking care of the situation!

If you have dealt with compulsive shopping or know someone who has and would like to share some information, post a comment (anonymously if you would like) or contact me!

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MLR is passionate about saving for his future while maintaining a high quality of life. He currently resides in a great town, has a wonderful girlfriend, adopted the cutest puppy ever, and works for a Fortune 500 company.

has written 204 posts on MyLifeROI.com.

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25 Comments For This Post

  1. Brad Says:

    It’s interesting how many of our self-destructive behaviors tend to bear distinct similarities to other kinds of addictions. Ultimately if we weren’t getting some kind of “high” from it, we probably wouldn’t do it. So it makes a lot of sense to approach it the same way as any other addiction.
    .-= Brad´s last blog ..Some Thoughts on “Dollar Cost Averaging” =-.


    MyLifeROI Reply:


    Not only do they “bear similarities,” a lot of them are chemically the same as other classified addictions.

    One thing to note is that the studies are done on compulsive shoppers, not just people who “enjoy shopping.”

    You may know someone who frequently buys the biggest and greatest items, but that doesn’t mean they are compulsive :)


    Kelley Reply:

    I agree that people who shop get that “high” and that is what keeps them going back for more. But we also have to remember that then some individual go into a “low” period as well because they might have bought something or many things with out thinking. So after they think about what they have done that’s when that “low” might come into affect. So if a person is truely addicted to shopping then maybe it is necessary to go through with the same kind of treatments that you would use with other addictions.


    MyLifeROI Reply:


    Indeed. The addiction is a lot more mental than physical (unlike some drugs), but they will still need to go through some sort of “treatment” — whether its having a month straight of no spend days, or sticking to an envelope system, or something!


  2. MoneyEnergy Says:

    It really applies to all consumerism in general, which is maybe what you meant anyway – including buying gadgets, etc. and of course gambling operates on the same psychological rewards system. Addiction is hard, period. We are hardwired to be creatures of habit. So we must learn to outwit ourselves and put new habits in their place based on where we really want to go.
    .-= MoneyEnergy´s last blog ..What To Do With Your Money Just In Case Trends Forecaster Gerald Celente Is Right =-.


    MyLifeROI Reply:


    I didn’t really mean all consumerism. I view a lot of consumerism as the battle between marketers and people. Some consumerism may fall into the boundaries of compulsion, though!

    Your mention of gambling is a good one, though. Gambling is, as they say, “a tax on people who can’t do math.” But psychologically speaking, it’s hard to start and then stop when you are losing yet you see other people winning. “Why not me?” crosses your mind a lot.

    And you are dead on about building habits. Habits are HUGE. If you want to do something regularly, try really really hard for at least a month to form a habit. Force yourself to do it if you have to. Once it’s a habit, it’s a lot easier (as the definition of habit implies ;]).


  3. Charles J Gervasi Says:

    I like some products and services, but I can’t stand shopping. I can’t imagine how someone gets started. OTOH, I really like scotch, though, so I could see how someone gets started and then gets out of control. It’s funny how people get addicted to something like shopping that just seems completely boring.


  4. MM Says:

    Yeah, I’m pretty sure i have a really bad shopping addiction. It’s gotten progressively worse, especially with the more stressed or anxious i get I find that I have to go online and search for something I “need.”

    It seems like a lot of other information I’ve found doesn’t mention a heavy amount of returns like this article did. And I think that’s a very important factor…that’s me. I buy and I return a lot. In fact I just got a letter from a company, not going to mention the name, and they said if I don’t change my returning ways there going to not allow me to purchase from their store. Wow….

    Yeah I don’t know what i’m going to do, I try to be good but it’s difficult, near impossible. I find when i don’t shop I freak out. I need to buy. It’s so scary and so difficult.

    At least I’m a deal finder so I save a little money that way but I’m still spending money I don’t have.

    I have this horrible habit that if I return something because I don’t like it or can’t afford it that i some how trick my mind into thinking that Oh I saved money so now I have some to spend. Even though i know that it wasn’t there in the first place:/

    Currently i’m a marketing major and i cant help but think I’m a slave to what I study:/



  5. Lawrence Says:

    This is very intereting I never enve knew there was a 12 step shopping adiction program. I knwo some people that could use this for sure.
    .-= Lawrence´s last blog ..Apple iphone 3GS 32GB,Nikon D700,Noika N97 32GB, =-.


  6. quiet treadmills Says:

    Good post especially for young folks that do not know how to manage their money well.

    Spending money is not the problem. Excessive spending is the real problem.


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  8. Free News Site Says:

    Shopping is pleasurable, but the high doesn’t last that long. As soon as one desire is filled, there is another one rearing its head!

    Good to learn to balance your life, your finances and have simple healthy pleasures! Good luck to you all!


  9. greatstufflowprice Says:

    Thank you for these steps. When I was younger I would think nothing to taking the last few dollars in my pocket to get something. Even if I only had $10 I would find something that cost $10! Right now I am much better with spending but these tips are nice to keep around in case.



  10. Dawn Says:

    I suffered badly from shopping addiction after I split from my husband. For 5 years as soon as I got paid i would rush to the shops and buy items i did need, getting myself in debt. On the way home from the shops i was so excited to try the new items but 10 minutes after getting home I would think why the hell did i buy them and spend the rest of the week worrying about bills.
    Dawn´s last [type] ..Seasonal Affective Disorder


  11. Austin Says:

    Thanks for the great tips I really enjoy your blog. Well done


  12. MN Worried Says:

    How do I go about getting help for my Mother? She is really addicted to shopping, using her credit cards. She is trying to fill a void, goes shopping, & when she gets home, she’s depressed.


  13. Helen Says:

    I came across your site while searching for resources about shopping addiction. My siblings and I are planning an intervention on my mom. I won’t bore you with the details, but do you have any advice? TY


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I'm MLR. After graduating from college debt free, I decided to write a blog encouraging people to adapt responsible and sensible personal finance rules.

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