Compulsive shopping and spending are defined as inappropriate, excessive, and out of control," says Dr. Julia Samton Manhattan Board Certified Neuro Psychiatrist. "Like other addictions, it basically has to do with impulsiveness and lack of control over one's impulses. In America, shopping is embedded in our culture; so often, the impulsiveness comes out as excessive shopping. "Sometimes referred to as "shopoholism," shopping addiction can wreak havoc on a person's life, family, and finances. Dr. Samton explains why online shopping can be so addictive, what the warning signs are, and how to stop the cycle of spending.
"No one knows what causes addictive behaviors, like shopping, alcoholism, drug abuse, and gambling," says Dr. Samton. "Some of the new evidence suggests that some people, maybe 10%-15%, may have a genetic predisposition to an addictive behavior, coupled with an environment in which the particular behavior is triggered, but no one really knows why." While the origin of addictions remains uncertain, why addicts continue their destructive behaviors is better understood. "Individuals will get some kind of high from an addictive behavior like shopping," says Samton. "Meaning that endorphins and dopamine, naturally occurring opiate receptor sites in the brain, get switched on, and the person feels good, and if it feels good they are more likely to do it -- it's reinforced."
So what are the telltale signs that online shopping has crossed the line and become an addiction?
"There are certainly a lot of commonalities among shopoholics and other addicts," says Samton. "For instance, while alcoholics will hide their bottles, shopoholics will hide their purchases."
What else should a concerned family member or friend look out for when they think shopping has become a problem?
Spending over budget. "Often times a person will spend over their budget and get into deep financial trouble, spending well above their income," says Samton. "The normal person will say, 'Oops, I can't afford to buy this or that.' But not someone who has an addiction," explains Samton he or she will not recognize the boundaries of a budget.
Compulsive buying. "When a person with a shopping addiction goes shopping, they often compulsively buy, meaning they go for one pair of shoes and come out with 10."
It's a chronic problem. "A shopping addiction is a continuous problem," says Samton. "It's more than two or three months of the year, and more than a once-a-year Christmas spree."
Hiding the problem. "Shopoholics will hide their purchases because they don't want their significant other to know they bought it because they'll be criticized," says Samton. "They may have secret credit card accounts, too. Because this problem affects mostly women, as alcoholism affects mostly men, husbands will all of sudden be told their wife is $20,000-$30,000 in debt and they are responsible, and many times, this comes out in divorce."
A vicious circle. "Some people will take return purchases back because they feel guilty," says Samton. "That guilt can trigger another shopping spree, so it's a vicious circle." And in these people, debt may not be an issue because they're consistently returning clothes out of guilt -- but a problem still exists.
Impaired relationships. "It is not uncommon for us to see impairments in relationships from excessive spending or shopping says Samton."Impairment can occur because the person covers up debt with deception, and emotionally and physically starts to isolate themselves from others as they become preoccupied with their behavior."
Clear consequences. "It's just like any other addiction -- it has nothing to do with how much a person shops or spends, and everything to do with consequences," says Samton. "We often get the question around the holidays that because a person spent more money than she intended, does this make her an addict? The answer is no. However, if there is a pattern or a trend or consequences that occur with excessive shopping then the person may be a problem spender -- the hallmark is still loss of control. If they are no longer in control of their shopping but their shopping is in control of them, they've crossed the line."
Reasons for Online Shopping Addiction
Online shopping is addictive for the same reasons offline shopping does: a person gets a quick thrill from the acquisition and fails to make a connection to an actual impact on the wallet.
"On the Internet, it's not real money," says Samton. Worse, because people don't cap their online experience by leaving with clothes or CDs or books, they find they need to make a larger number of buys to reach that shopping high.
Online auctions are even more addictive, their lure lying in the excitement of bidding, strategizing, and one hopes, ultimately outbidding others. It becomes less about the item and more about the competition.
The sheer variety of items offers further temptations - a person can head to eBay to pick up some old books and end up bidding on videos, antique dolls and duct tape. There's also the cozy feeling of community bonding in related chat rooms devoted to china dolls or Star Trek merchandise. The auction experience even becomes a confidence booster for some patients who admit they just like reading compliments posted under their user profile.
Also, there is a growing availability of Internet access in homes, at work and in even retail locations. With the growing access to this tool of shopping, the impulse to shop whenever or wherever a person may be is greater. The impulse or trigger to this addiction is right at your fingertips most of the day making it harder to find other ways to avoid this addictive behavior.
Signs of Online Shopping Addiction
So what's the difference between the occasional online splurge and the indication of a real problem? The signs of an online shopping addiction are similar to those for other compulsive disorders:
Addicts neglect jobs or families.
When they're not online shopping, they're often thinking about it.
They overspend and regularly buy things they don't need just to get the buzz.
They lie about their purchases.
They rack up major bills.
Shopping Addiction Help
Shopping Addiction Test
Some important questions to explore in determining maladaptive compulsive spending are:
Key: almost always, once in awhile, infrequently or not at all
1. Do you buy things you want even if you know at that moment you do not have the money to pay for it?
2. Is it difficult for you to save money?
3. When you have some extra cash that you could save, instead, you think of other things you would like to buy?
4. Do you cheer yourself up or give yourself a reward by "going shopping"?
5. Does more than a third of your income go to pay credit card bills, not including rent or a mortgage payment?
6. Have you had to move credit lines because you typically don't have the money to pay off your credit line?
7. Do you pay the minimum balance on your credit card most of the time?
8. Are you inclined to keep buying more of your favorite things - clothes, makeup, cd's, books, computer software, electronic gadgets - even though you do not have a specific need for them?
9. When and if you have to say "NO" to yourself, or control yourself from buying something you really want, do you feel intensely deprived, angry or upset?
It is important to realize that like any other addiction, genuine compulsive online shopping is a disease. Treatment focuses on management of the behavior, which can be difficult when so many people use computers and the Internet in their everyday work. It helps to:
Identify what the triggers are
Identify what makes a person want to spend online, whether it's boredom, nervousness, or habit
Setting time and spending limits
Clear your credit card numbers and customer information from online shopping accounts so that spending isn't too easy
About Dr. Julia Samton
Dr. Julia Samton is Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology and is currently the Director of Manhattan Neuropsychiatric, P.C. Dr. Samton is a voluntary faculty member at New York Hospital Weill Cornell and Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
Through an individualized combination of psychopharmacology, psychotherapy, and behavioral counseling, Dr. Samton is dedicated to helping her patients lead more satisfying lives. At Manhattan Neuropsychiatric, Dr. Samton also provides neuropsychological testing to diagnose and treat ADHD, guide career selection, and help optimize professional and academic achievement.
Dr. Samton first became interested in psychology and theories of the mind at a young age after exploring the writings of Freud from her father's old University texts. Since then she has always been fascinated with how the brain impacts emotions and decided to pursue dual residency training in neurology and psychiatry. Her unique background allows her to understand the biological basis of behavior, mood, and affect, and have a greater perspective on emotional development.
Dr. Samton graduated Summa cum Laude from the University of Vermont, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. She attended Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and completed her residencies in Psychiatry and Neurology at New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center. Following her training, she served as an Attending Physician at New York Hospital, where she developed and ran the Neuropsychiatry Consultation and Evaluation Service, the first of its kind in New York City. During her position at New York Hospital, she was an investigator on several research protocols examining traditional and alternative approaches to medical and emotional disorders.
After developing an expertise in academia, Dr. Samton founded Manhattan Neuropsychiatric, where she continues her clinical and scientific endeavors. As a voluntary faculty member at New York Hospital Weill Cornell and Lenox Hill Hospital, she takes part in medical student and resident education and serves as a mentor to students and young physicians interested in the field of neuropsychiatry. She also supervises residents in matters related to psychopharmacology and psychotherapy.
Dr. Samton resides in New York City with her husband and two children.
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