The 5 phases of compulsive spending take you through the highs of an actual addiction. And if you’re a compulsive spender, you’re not alone on this rollercoaster ride. The 5 phases of compulsive spending are what make it so compelling. It’s not just one moment. It’s the whole process. Donald W. Black, author of A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder, notes that there are 4 phases of compulsive buying: “1) anticipation; 2) preparation; 3) shopping; and 4) spending.” We add a fifth phase, which is remorse. These are stages that are also seen in other addictions (now known as use or process disorders).

5 Phases of Compulsive Spending


This is the stage of the thoughts and feelings, including preoccupation and urges to use. This may begin the process of euphoria. You see commercials on TV, or Facebook ads and start thinking about purchases. You are excited about the possibility of buying something, or everything.


This stage is where the compulsive shopper makes plans to go shopping. Here he/she/they think about the process by getting ready to go – dressing, getting money available, and thinking about which stores to go to. You may also spend hours and hours researching items to buy in Ebay, or your favorite online stores. This takes up a lot of your time. The feelings of euphoria heightens at this phase.


This is the main event. You have researched  the product for hours online, or walked the mall. You may be online and ready to pay.There is often a sense of excitement, fun, gratification. You have a “high,” and even a sense of euphoria that comes with the fulfillment of your “mission” to get something.


The is the time when the piper has to be paid. This is the follow-up to the main event, paying for the goods/services. This may happen immediately, or it may hit home when the bills come in, every month a little worse than before.


While Donald Black incorporates this into phase 4 in his article, we believe that this is a separate phase. Remorse, guilt, shame, depression, anxiety, or other negative thoughts and feelings are a whole phase unto themselves and also takes up a lot of emotional time and energy. Sometimes during this phase, the spender may decide to return the items to the store, give them away, hide them, sell them, or discard them as a way to try to appease the feelings brought on by the compulsion to spend.

11 Spending Triggers That Tempt Us All

  • Craving to get something just because…
  • Desire to reward yourself for something (“I did a nice thing for my neighbor so I can treat myself”)
  • Desire to do something to make yourself  look better so you buy clothes, makeup, perfume or cologne
  • Coping with painful emotions (“I’m stressed about work so ‘retail therapy’ will help me feel better” or “Shopping will help me to get out of this depression”)
  • Believing that spending, even if compulsive, is better than drinking or drugging
  • Needing to impress the neighbors/family/friends/coworkers and others with new things
  • Always wanting something new because the buy-it-now culture values things over everything else
  • Falling for ads that tell you how much better you will be or perform or feel with the product
  • Being drawn into online shopping, or TV home-shopping channels
  • Believing that purchasing something on sale is a bargain so you have to have it
  • Being made to feel important by salespeople whose sole goal is to get you to buy something

How Is Compulsive Spending Defined

The definition of addiction (Substance Use Disorder or Process Disorder as the basis of this compulsion.  “An addiction is an unhealthy relationship with or to a mood-altering, substance, event, person, or thing which has life damaging consequences” (author unknown).

WebMD states that compulsive shopping is: “An obsession with shopping that significantly interferes with the functioning of the individual. The signs are a preoccupation with shopping; anxiety when not shopping; a constant need for a shopping ‘fix’; shopping to excess that results in debt and family or marital discord; and the frequent purchase of items that go unused.”

If you, or someone you know has a problem with compulsive spending,  check out Debtors Anonymous or Spenders Anonymous.

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Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson, D.Min., ACSW, LMSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience in the fields of mental health, addictions, and co-occurring disorders. Her other specialties include grief and trauma, women’s issues, chronic pain management, holistic healing, GLBTQ concerns, and spirituality and transpersonal psychology. Dr. Anderson has been educated and trained in the fields of education, social work, and spirituality, and she holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (non-denominational/interfaith) specializing in spirituality.

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