Are You a "Shop-aholic"?

by Kathy Sena

Shopping Should be Fun, Not Costly to Family’s Finances

ShoppingIt isn’t pricey Manolo Blahnik boots or Prada handbags that tempt Michelle Delgado to grab her wallet and car keys and head out for some recreational shopping. It’s the less costly items – lipsticks, books, the latest CDs – that lure the 40-year-old mother of two from Simi Valley, California, when she’s at the store.

“I’m a huge Target shopper,” says Delgado, who considers a leisurely stroll through the department store’s aisles to be a great diversion when she has a few hours to herself. But those Target trips can be dangerous to the family budget, she says. “I go there for necessities – household supplies, toiletries,” she explains. However, paper towels and sandwich bags are not where Delgado’s shopping stops. She might find a discounted outfit that’s a must-buy for her 8-year-old daughter or a lipstick in just the right shade. “Each item by itself seems pretty inexpensive,” she says. “Then when I check out and the total is $96, I start thinking about how I really want to stick to a budget more.”

Delgado isn’t alone, of course. “Americans shop for recreation. It’s a part of our culture,” says Jonni McCoy, author of the books; Miserly Moms and Frugal Families.  The nation’s culture largely accepts consumerism – whether for necessity or luxury – as OK. At the same time, the financial stability of families is becoming increasingly unsure as credit-card debt rises and personal savings remain low. If a shopping spree damages a family’s budget or ability to pay bills, it’s time to re-consider the habit, McCoy says.

McCoy, whose “Ten Tips for Financial Success” puts recreational shopping off-limits, says shoppers who are worried that they are spending too much money can curb their habit by spending time thinking before they buy.

“Start using the ‘need or want’ strategy,” McCoy suggests. “Before you spend a single dollar on anything, ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this item, or do I just want it?’”

If a shopper finds herself mentally trying to justify a purchase at the store, the buy probably doesn’t fall into the “need” category, McCoy says. “All these excuses just add up to wasteful spending,” she says. “You can probably get by without another sweater or a new pair of jeans, so just buy what you absolutely need and pass on those items that aren’t necessities.”

Learning to categorize potential purchases as a “need” or a “want” is fairly simple, but stopping yourself from buying something you don’t need is more difficult. Eileen Gallo, a Los Angeles psychotherapist specializing in money issues, says various psychological factors contribute to the impulse to spend money. If a consumer finds herself frequently feeling compelled to spend money shopping, she should seek professional counseling, Gallo says.

At its worst, compulsive shopping can threaten marriages, destroy a family’s credit rating and jeopardize its financial future. To gauge your shopping habit, go over the following list of signs and symptoms of compulsive shopping. Experiencing four or more of these situations can indicate a problem with shopping and spending, according to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery at Proctor Hospital in Peoria, Ill.

The signs and symptoms of compulsive shopping

  • Shopping or spending money as a result of being disappointed, angry or scared 
  • Spending habits that cause emotional distress or chaos in one’s life
  • Arguing with others regarding shopping or spending habits
  • Feeling lost without credit cards
  • Buying items on credit that would not be bought with cash
  • Feeling a rush of euphoria and anxiety at the same time when spending money
  • Feeling that spending or shopping is a reckless or forbidden act
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, embarrassed or confused after shopping or spending money
  • Having many purchases that are never used
  • Lying to others about what was bought or how much money was spent

Perhaps most important, experts agree, is reminding yourself what money and shopping should really be all about. “It’s important to think of money as a tool, not an emotional release,” McCoy says. One way to do that is to acknowledge that impulse shoppers play right into the hands of marketers who take advantage of shoppers’ emotions, desires and fears. “Market research shows that for every minute we spend in a store, we spend two dollars,” McCoy says. “We are inundated with impulse-shopping messages.”

Boredom compels many women to the mall, says Jon Gallo, an estate-planning attorney, who along with his wife Eileen, lectures on the psychological and emotional issues of money. The pair also wrote Silver Spoon Kids: How Successful Parents Raise Responsible Children. “Take the kids to the library,” says Jon Gallo. “Volunteer with your family. Take a yoga or spinning class.”

McCoy agrees. “Challenge yourself to find other ideas for recreation with your family,” she says. Hike in the local mountains, go kick a soccer ball around at the park or pack a picnic and head outdoors. All these activities can provide positive distraction and help keep the shopping urge at bay.

Not only does spending too much money for the wrong reasons affect a family’s budget, it’s also modeling the wrong message for children, Eileen Gallo says. Children watch how their parents handle shopping and spending. “We have to stop and think what messages we’re sending our children. Are we telling them we always have to have the latest thing?” says Eileen Gallo.


For more information on compulsive shopping, curbing spending and debt reduction, visit these Web sites:

Columbia Unitersity's Health Question-and-Answer Web site, “Go Ask Alice - Information on addiction to TV home shopping along with links to other helpful sites.

Consumer Credit Counseling Service

Debtors Anonymous – Includes a “debt quiz,” signs of compulsive spending and information on local DA meetings.

National Foundation for Credit Counseling– Information on reducing consumer debt.

Miserly Moms –Includes money-saving tips, information on budgeting and debt and support groups

Stopping Overshopping – Site of author April Lane Benson, Ph.D. and her book, I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. Includes information on compulsive buying, available treatment and additional resources.

Kathy Sena is a freelance writer and mom.. She admits to spending a bit too much time browsing at, while procrastinating on writing assignments.