Compulsive spending is not what happens when people indulge for occasions like birthdays, Christmas or other holidays. Problem spending is something that occurs year round. Relentless, buying with no real need or purpose is the reality. If you recognize yourself as someone who “needs” to shop, you are are not alone. In fact, studies find that about 1-10% of the U.S. population suffers from this disorder, with the majority (50-90%) of problem spenders being women.

What Is Compulsive Spending

There are varying definitions of compulsive spending but most include the following symptoms:

  • A strong desire/urge to shop and spend
  • Impulsiveness
  • Buying things that aren’t needed
  • Getting a high from spending
  • Consequences for the spending

Process addictions include gambling, eating disorders, sex addictions, and other behavioral addictions.   

An addiction is defined as an unhealthy relationship with, or to, a mood-altering substance, event, person, or thing which has life-damaging consequences.

With this definition, we see that there is an unhealthy relationship to spending, a mood-altering event (there is a high associated with the spending), and consequences that cause problems. If you or your loved one meets the criteria from these definitions, then you are looking at a problematic and addictive behavior.

What Causes Compulsive Spending

Like substance addictions, there may be varying causes of this addiction. Some researchers believe there is a biological/genetic component; some feel it is related to a problematic childhood, especially one of deprivation; it may be related to various mental illnesses (as noted above); as a way to feel good about yourself; as a coping skill for difficult emotions; having a strong need for excitement/euphoria; being a materialist (you love things); and the influence of this culture’s focus on buying/spending (materialism) with the media’s glamorization of various products.

16 Warning Signs Of Compulsive Spending

  • spending to relieve distressing feelings such as depression and anxiety
  • impulsiveness
  • feeling “high” when thinking about shopping or when buying things
  • lying about or hiding the shopping/spending
  • justifying the behavior to yourself or others
  • feeling guilt, shame, or anger at yourself after spending
  • preoccupation regarding shopping
  • having numerous credit cards – many of which have been maxed out
  • buying unneeded products or services (such as getting a massage every day)
  • hiding bills or being the person who does the bills and not showing this to the partner
  • compulsive watching TV home-shopping channels or looking at products on the internet which can lead to the compulsive spending
  • fear of losing your car or home because of chronic spending
  • others tell you they think you have a problem
  • fighting with family or friends over your spending
  • stealing/hoarding the goods/seeing the clutter in the home

12 Deadly Consequence Of Compulsive Spending

  • family secrets by hiding the behaviors and the products
  • family fights regarding the spending
  • relational concerns due to not being present or not participating in relationships because of escaping into addictive behaviors
  • having a house full of clutter
  • spending significant time thinking, planning, and spending (preoccupation)
  • financial problems such a maxing out credit cards, poor credit ratings, using up savings, and going into debt
  • missing work/being preoccupied at work about the next shopping spree
  • physical health problems such as sleep deprivation or over/undereating due to stress and preoccupation about the spending
  • emotional issues such as anxiety, depression, guilt, shame, and stress-disorders and not participating in healthy ways to cope with the feelings
  • intellectual losses by choosing other behaviors instead of learning, reading, having intellectual discussions, etc.
  • spiritual concerns such as violating own moral/values code; neglecting to participate in healthy spiritual activities such as meditation, prayer, being creative, playing, or being in nature.

While the DSM-V (the bible of diagnoses of mental health and substance use disorders) does not include compulsive spending as a separate addiction (only gambling is listed as a process addiction), many therapists do see this as an addiction. Also, this compulsive behavior may be related to these DSM-V diagnoses: impulse-control disorder, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and some personality disorders.

Please remember that if you or a loved one has this disorder, there are ways to help you, so don’t despair.

If you have a problem with compulsive spending, check out Recovery Guidance for a free and safe resource to find addiction and mental health professionals near you

Check out Debtors 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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