Compulsive Shopping & Spending Disorders… The Next Frontier of Addiction Treatment!

Terrence Daryl Shulman
— Conscious Mind Journal Staff Write
Excerpted from the Conscious Mind Journal – April 2007

Money is a more taboo subject than sex. Think about it: most of us talk
more openly with family and friends about our love lives and its
specifics than we do about the details of our financial lives. We may
know who's sleeping with whom but do you know how much your family
members or friends earn per year? How much their house or car cost? How
much they have in the bank or invested? Despite the blossoming number
of books, magazines, radio and TV shows devoted to wealth and financial
topics, we're still a little sheepish on divulging details, lest we
seem to be boasting or failing to measure up.

In my work as an addictions therapist over the last decade, it is
crystal clear that many people have deeply conflicted relationships
with money, wealth, spending, and consumerism in general. I've worked
with clients who grew up in both financially and emotionally deprived
families who felt owed "something for nothing" to make up for it. I've
worked with clients born with the proverbial "silver spoon" in their
mouths, who were "spoiled." I've worked with clients with
obsessive-compulsive disorders who couldn't seem to bring themselves to
spend certain amounts of money on things due to a deep fear that they
would go broke or feel guilty of sinful extravagance. I've worked with
clients who'd go on spending binges and even stealing binges. And I've
worked with clients who had, at best, a juvenile relationship to money:
no sense of reality about income, savings and expenditure.

Until I got into recovery myself in 1990, I had a very conflicted
view about money and the people who seemed to have it: I was a
saver/miser yet constantly craved money and things but was diligently
suspicious of money and things as corrupting forces. I had problems
with shoplifting and employee theft—stealing allowed me to have my cake
and not have to pay for it—but I also developed no real sense of
accountability to my income and my need to save, invest, and plan for
the future. Why should I have? As long as I was stealing, I had a false
sense of security that no matter how hard times got, I could always
steal as a survival skill. I am grateful times have a-changed. My
recovery forced me to get real about money and goals. While I still
lean more toward scarcity consciousness and frugality rather than
excessive spending or shopping, I have been learning more and more
about how our relationship to money, wealth, spending and shopping is a
source of wounds–and potential healing–that permeates our lives
individually and in relationships. I even have a family member who we
have been worried may be a compulsive shopper. He's even begun to
consider this himself.

There's been a lot of attention on "The Secret" of late. I, too,
have jumped on the bandwagon and appreciate the basic message of
self-authorship and focusing on what we want (as if we already have it)
rather than on what we don't want. Still, one of the criticisms of "The
Secret" which I tend to agree with is that it may unwittingly (or
intentionally) encourage an over-emphasis on material desires and on
the acquisition of money in particular. Even if we come into money or
lots of things, research has shown that many don't know how to use or
hold wealth wisely—often when it comes too quickly.

In the U.S. we often hear that the divorce rate has consistently
hovered around 50%. Recent studies have shown that the primary reasons
couples argue and split is related to money and spending issues. A
friend or mine who is a divorce attorney informed me that January is
the busiest month for divorce filings. Maybe it's the New Year
syndrome; maybe it's partly due to the stress of the Holidays just
past–much of which is due to overspending.

A recent Stanford University study estimates that nearly 6% of the
U.S. population (that's about 17 Million people) suffers from
"compulsive shopping disorder." Perhaps surprisingly, men apparently
have CSD at about the same rate as woman. CSD is much like other
addictive-compulsive disorders (be it gambling, shoplifting, etc.) in
that there is a recurrent behavior that is out of control, progressive
and detrimental. For those with CSD, increased debt and financial
troubles, lost time, relationship conflicts, lying or hiding purchases,
and highs followed by depression, shame and anxiety typically are

And yet, as with most new research, it will take a while for
compulsive shopping (or spending) disorder to be treated seriously by
most persons. The tendency remains to treat money or shopping issues as
just that:–money or shopping issues rather than as mental health
issues–where, at most, it would be advised to merely cut up one's
credit cards, stay out of stores or off the computer, and seek out
recipes for better budgeting or financial advisors. All of these may be
of some help but, often, without viewing these problems through the
eyes of addiction and recovery, relapse is likely and the opportunity
for further insight and healing is lost. Clinical therapeutic issues
such as deprivation, grief and loss, repressed anger, depression,
anxiety, and low self-esteem are often at the core of CSD.

We also live in a very consumer-oriented society. It is hard to
avoid temptations at every turn to spend or keep up with the Joneses.
After 9/11, the President essentially told the country "don't worry, go
shopping." It is unfortunate that our political leaders, CEO's, and
even our own parents often don't model good budgeting and healthy
relationships with money. For many, it seems that a cycle of
overspending as income dwindles has become the rule rather than the
exception. We have a whole genre of "chick lit" (young female-oriented
literature) that chronicles the joys of consumption shopping and has as
its model a series of tongue-in-cheek books on "shopaholism," most
notably "Confessions of a Shopaholic"–soon to be released as a major
movie. A bright note: opening around Thanksgiving, Morgan Spurlock's
docu-film "What Would Jesus Buy?" documents our increasingly
consumerist obsessions.

I stumbled recently upon a couple of ads that stood as further
evidence of the joking manner in which we as a culture push "retail
therapy." One, an Annie Sez national chain clothing store, has this tag
line: "more than a store, it's an obsession." Another ad was in the
December 2006 local Detroit area monthly magazine Hour Detroit: a
two-page centerfold ad of various stores for a particularly trendy town
had the banner "O Come All Ye Shopaholics!" Can you imagine a series of
taverns, bars and saloons running an ad that read "O Come All Ye
Alcoholics!"? How about a consortium of casinos running an ad stating
"O Come All Ye Pathological Gamblers!"? You get the picture.

I encourage each of us to think about our own relationship with
money, shopping, and spending and also consider those around us as well
as the culture we live in and the messages–subtle to glaring–that
bombard us each day. Take the Valencia Compulsive Shopping Scale test
found our website
to learn more about this growing issue. Education and prevention are
keys. Research, books, and articles are increasingly providing us with
knowledge and wisdom that can transform our relationship to money,
shopping, and spending for the better. Some of us will experience deep
healing and growth and also be able to pass on better modeling to those
around us.

We can turn life around one step at a time toward a more stable,
healthy, and joyous relationship to money and things. Let it begin with
each of us.

For more information on Terrence Shulman and Shopping & Spending Disorders