When I was younger, I had a shopping problem. In fact, I refer to myself as a reformed shopaholic, even though I was never diagnosed by a professional as having a shopping addiction.
I’m not sure what you have to do to qualify for the ‘official’ title, but I do know that my shopping habits had a significant, negative impact on my life. I also know that I couldn’t stop shopping—which is enough for me to say that it was a problem.
But here’s the thing. I didn’t recognise that I was out of control for years, and I don’t think I’m alone. For many people, it’s easy to sweep under the rug because mindless shopping is normalised in our society.
We all indulge in a little ‘retail therapy’ every once in a while, right? But where do you draw the line? If this thought has ever crossed your mind, then keep reading for seven common signs of shopping addiction and what you can do about it.
Is a Shopping Problem a Real Problem?
Psychologists have many names for a shopping problem: ‘Compulsive Buying Disorder’, ‘Pathological Buying’, ‘Oniomania’ and ‘buying addiction’. All of these words mean that a person’s shopping habits are ruling their lives.
But is it the same as a physical addiction, like people have with drugs or alcohol? Honestly, I’m not sure. I’m giving you my opinion as someone who has walked down this road—not as a professional.
But what I do know is that the outcome of compulsive shopping can damage your life, with severe consequences. It can be isolating, a source of shame, and it can cause far-reaching damage. So yes, I believe it’s a real problem that’s worth addressing.
How Do I Know If I Have a Shopping Problem?
Like many addictions, shopping is often an escape from underlying issues.
I know this firsthand. For more than a decade, I used buying shoes, handbags, and clothes to distract me from my insecurities and unhappy relationships.
Overall, I was frustrated with my life, and I wanted something different, but I wasn’t brave enough to take action. Instead, I went shopping—and if I wasn’t shopping, I was thinking about shopping.
I spent SO much time thinking about how my new purchases would make life better. Just imagine if I’d spent that time and money actually doing something to create change instead?
But unfortunately, I didn’t. Instead, I spent to the very upper limit of what I could afford, always hoping that a tax refund or a big commission cheque would bail me out.
Shopping didn’t always feel good for me (one of the signs I’ll get to later), but I latched onto my perceived identity of “Jen the Shopper” and brushed those warning signs away.
Those signs are worth paying attention to. So much good has come from overcoming my shopping problem. Getting familiar with what they are and how to stop them is the first step to living a life that isn’t ruled by shopping.
Sign #1: You Quickly Forget About Purchases
Most psychologists believe that the part of the process of shopping that triggers the adrenaline rush (or shopper’s high) is the transaction. It’s the constant buying that shopaholics get addicted to, whereas a regular shopper will feel happy taking an item home and putting it to good use.
Forgetting about what you’ve purchased can be an indication of an issue. If online orders that you’ve completely forgotten about arrive at your door, your closet is filled with unworn items, or you’ve got things still in their packaging or unused around the home, this can be a sign that you’re addicted to buying.
Sign #2: A negative experience sparks an urge to shop
The shopper’s high is real—so real that I used it to temporarily buffer feelings of low self-esteem, burnout and doubt. Whenever I’d feel bad about something, I’d use shopping as a way to cope.
The problem is that buying new things doesn’t help you in any meaningful way. It’s just a quick escape, and it doesn’t take long for that feeling to fade. When the negativity returns, so does the compulsion to shop, and the cycle starts all over again.
Sign #3: You feel guilt or remorse after you shop
Remember when I said shopping didn’t always feel good for me? That was because, deep down, I had a feeling that my habits were getting out of hand. After the shopping high had faded, I’d often feel regret or guilt about my purchases.
To hide the shame I felt, I overcompensated. I created a whole persona around loving shopping and loved to share my favourite saying: “You only live once. Buy the shoes!” But honestly, it was a farce. Like the funny kid at school, who uses humour to hide their loneliness, I used an exaggerated love for shopping to hide my fear.
To be clear, this is different from the sort of buyer’s remorse you get when you buy a gift for someone that’s missed the mark. It’s a more profound, almost unexplainable regret that you feel when the purchase is complete. Feeling empty or ashamed after your shop is a sign that you use your shopping as an escape, and you know it’s negatively impacting your life.
Sign #4: You try and conceal your shopping habits
This one is a red flag that so many people joke about. However, feeling the need to hide purchases from a spouse, family or co-workers is a sign that shopping is a problem in your life.
Next time you buy something and want to try and hide it, ask yourself why you might need to justify your purchase. Is it because you feel like you’re spending too much money? Are you filling your home with too much stuff? Are you shopping every day?
Hiding your shopping for these reasons (or any reason that isn’t a surprise gift!) means that there is shame attached to a purchase, even if you don’t feel it.
Sign #5: You feel anxious if you don’t shop
If you get itchy feet because you haven’t shopped on any given day, or you feel anxious about leaving the shops without buying something, then you could have a shopping problem.
This is why it was so problematic for me to tie my identity up with shopping. I felt like I wasn’t myself if I hadn’t shopped or wasn’t shopping. I also felt like a fraud if I went into a shop and didn’t buy something, which I know sounds ridiculous, but it was true.
At the height of my addiction, I shopped at least five days a week. And when I wasn’t shopping, I was planning my next shop by scrutinising my wardrobe or sifting through fashion magazines looking for my next purchase.
Sign #6: You feel like you can’t stop, even if you wanted to
I remember the day I realised that my spending was starting to get out of control. I’d recently returned from an overseas holiday with girlfriends, and when I got home, I crunched the numbers.
I’m still too ashamed to share the figure with you, but it was a lot. And what’s worse, I know that my friends had witnessed it. It was embarrassing, and I knew something had to change … but I just couldn’t stop. And I can see now this was a major red flag.
Sign #7: You’re unable to reach financial goals
As with other addictions (perhaps more so), financial struggles as a result of buying can be a sign of a shopping problem.
For a long time, I thought I was OK because I didn’t have significant debt. I was almost always able to pay off my credit cards, although some months would be harder than others. But little by little, things were getting worse.
I wasn’t saving for the future, and what’s worse, I felt financially trapped. I hated my job, and I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t because I needed the security to pay my shopping bills.
I think a lot of people fall into this category too. They’re not excessively in debt, so they think it’s all good because they’re getting by. But who wants to just ‘get by’ in life? If your shopping habits keep you from moving forward with your goals, then it might be a sign that something has to change.
Related Post: How Minimalism Helped Me Become Debt Free
How To Overcome Shopping Addiction
It takes a certain amount of strength and self-awareness to acknowledge that you have a shopping problem, mainly because people are quick to dismiss it as normal.
But, if you’ve read this post, you’re on your way there. You’ve acknowledged that there might be an issue, and now you know what to look out for. The next step is to take action to change your habits. Here are some tips that might help:
- Acknowledge the real cost of your purchases. It’s more than what’s on the price tag. The things you buy can end up costing you time, your relationships, and to some extent, your freedom. Is it worth it?
- Reflect on what you really want most. Think about what it is you truly value and want out of life. Chances are it’s not something you can buy at the shops. Use this knowledge to help you decide whether purchases are getting you closer to your goals or not.
- Know your triggers. If you know that you spend when you’re bored or impulse buy on your lunch break, then you can identify ways to prepare for these situations. Find a new healthy hobby to pass the time, or avoid going to the shops on your break.
- Get help if you need it. There’s no shame in seeking professional help if you need it. Replacing retail therapy with actual therapy can help you let go of your shopping problem and heal the issues you are trying to avoid.
Alternatively, check out one of these blog posts:
- How to Stop Online Shopping (Tips From a Former Shopaholic)
- How to Stop Buying Stuff You Don’t Need
- How to Be Happy With What You Have + Stop Wanting More
Remember, changing habits takes time. Be kind to yourself and know that you aren’t alone. Also, as someone that’s come out the other side, I can tell you that all the effort will be worth it.
Read my story: How I went from shopaholic to minimalist.