6 Signs Your Impulse Buying Is a Shopping Addiction—and How To Get Help

If shopping is harming your well-being and your bank balance, it’s time for a serious assessment.

You're scrolling through Instagram when you see the perfect pair of joggers. They're kind of pricey, but, hey, you "need" them. They arrive a week later, and it turns out they're not so perfect or life-changing after all. They end up stuffed in the drawer next to the hoodie you had to have a few weeks ago. While many of us have fallen prey to the impulse purchase a time or two (or three), how do you know if your once-in-a-while whim-buying is a bigger problem?

"Perhaps the most troubling trend of shopping addiction," says Kristin Roelofson, MSW, LSW, at Thriveworks in Pittsburgh, "is when one's personal finances run out and the person seeks loans, begs to borrow money from others, steals cash or credit cards, sells household items, engages in precarious behaviors to acquire money, or steals items."

6 Signs Your Impulse Buying Is a Shopping Addiction and How To Get Help , High angle view of woman with shopping bags sitting on blue background
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Take the Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale

Stealing is an extreme indicator of a greater issue, but you might notice smaller signs. Roelofson says mental health professionals often use an evidence-based tool for gauging whether shopping habits have become something more insidious. You can take this 28-item questionnaire to gain an assessment. The questionnaire evaluates six signs of shopping addiction:

  1. Constantly obsessing about shopping
  2. Shopping to improve your mood
  3. Buying more items to achieve the same previous levels of satisfaction
  4. Shopping so much that it impacts your daily responsibilities
  5. Buying to the point that it affects your well-being
  6. Trying to cut back on shopping but not having success

"The presence of a shopping addiction is likely among individuals that demonstrate four or more of the aforementioned indicators," Roelofson explains.

Recognize the four stages of shopping addiction

Shopping addiction is also called compulsive buying disorder (CBD), according to research published in the journal World Psychology. CBD is characterized by four stages that occur before, during, and after you make your purchases. If these stages feel familiar, that could be an indication that your buying is less of an occasional fancy and more of a compulsion.

The first stage is anticipation. During anticipation, you might have a preoccupation with obtaining something specific or the act of making the purchase. The second stage is preparation. Roelofson describes preparation as "planning one's personal shopping experience, including researching a specific item, seeking out sale prices, and determining how and where to shop—in store versus online."

Next comes the actual shopping stage, which can provide a euphoric "shopper's high," Roelofson says. Finally, the last stage is spending. "The shopper may experience the excitement in anticipation of receiving the new item purchased," she adds, "and/or disappointment with oneself for spending again."

Help for shopping addiction

Support groups such as Debtors Anonymous and Spenders Anonymous, as well as individualized therapy, can help with shopping addiction. "In therapy," Roelofson says, "'the person has the opportunity to work with a professional to acknowledge the problem, assess its severity, and identify causes, triggers, and risk factors."

A therapist will develop a customized treatment plan based on your personal needs. One common way to treat shopping addiction is through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Through CBT, you and your therapist counteract problematic thought processes. Roelofson gives the following example of a problematic belief surrounding shopping: "I can buy this now and figure out the money later on."

Curbing impulse buying

Even if your buying behaviors are based on impulse rather than compulsion, you may still want to cut back. Maybe your home or closet is cluttered with things you really don't need or want. Or maybe you've decided your credit card could use a rest while you pay off a balance. Roelofson offers a few tactics for curbing the urge to add to cart.

  • Unsubscribe from store email newsletters.
  • Wait a day longer before making a purchase you've had your eye on.
  • Practice gratitude for what you have.
  • Make a budget and stick to it, while allowing for some "fun money."
  • Try a "no spend" challenge for a specific period.
  • Create and maintain a savings account that makes it harder to withdraw money.
  • Avoid paying with credit cards.
  • Remove stored credit cards from digital devices.

"It is important to be intentional and consistent with these efforts," Roelofson says. It's easy to quickly fall into old habits.

Keep in mind that impulse buying can sometimes be about a fear of missing out (you know, FOMO). So if that's a root cause of racked-up charges, give a wish list a try. When you "favorite" something or add it to an online shopping cart, but don't buy it, you know it's there and you can always go back to it later if you truly, truly decide you can't live without it. Many times, the feeling will pass—and you'll have saved a dent in your budget.

"Let your emotions subside before you decide," Roelofson says.

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