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spend compulsively

Is your $pending out of control?

Mall therapy

For Lisa, it started when her job became more stressful and she began to feel anxious and depressed. Shopping was a pleasant escape and she was going more often and spending more. But, when she’d maxed out her credit cards and started hiding her purchases from her husband, her life began to crumble. Everyone spends too much from time to time, especially around the holidays, but you should know the signs of out-of-control spending.

Why do you spend compulsively?

“You not only have the negative reinforcement of warding off painful feelings, such as anxiety, anger, or sadness, but you also have positive reinforcement--a reward-- which comes from acquiring something that you enjoy or want,” says psychologist and author Pam Garcy, PhD. Some researchers call it an addiction, like alcoholism. Others consider it an obsessive-compulsive disorder. For some people, shopping can boost “feel-good” brain chemicals, reinforcing the behavior. Those with the problem frequently also have mood or anxiety disorders, substance abuse or eating disorders.

Signs you have a spending problem

  • You’re preoccupied with shopping and spending.
  • You buy things you don’t need and spend more than you can afford.
  • You shop when you’re angry, anxious or depressed.
  • You experience a “high” when shopping.
  • After you spend, you feel let down, anxious or guilty.
  • Your buying is causing you financial or legal problems.
  • Your spending behaviors are causing problems in your relationships.

Is there help for compulsive spending?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help. SSRI antidepressants combined with a mood stabilizer are sometimes prescribed. Often, treating underlying depression and anxiety disorders alleviates problem spending. When Lisa’s anxiety worsened, she turned to a therapist for help. By this time, both her financial situation and her marriage were in trouble. “With cognitive behavior therapy, she began to understand her behavior and to make friends with herself,” said Dr. Nancy O’Reilly, clinical psychologist. “CBT is very empowering in the ways it shows one how thoughts and emotions can be restructured in a positive way.” Lisa also took medications to treat her underlying depression. And she learned relaxation skills, such as meditation, to help cope with her anxiety.

Tips to help keep your spending under control

Whether you have a serious compulsive spending problem, or just want to rein in some destructive habits, these tips can help.

  • What’s in your wallet? Cut up your credit card and buy only with funds in your bank account. (Have someone else keep one in case of emergency).
  • Try to stick to a shopping list.
  • Avoid catalogs, TV shopping channels and Internet shopping sites.
  • Don’t shop alone. You’re more likely to overspend.
  • When you have an urge to shop, find another enjoyable activity.
  • Get mental health counseling.
  • Attend a support group such as Debtors Anonymous (Call your local mental health association for a referral).

What can friends and family do?

Help if your loved one is receptive to it, says Garcy. Provide feedback: “I’ve noticed that since you’ve been mad at your mom, you’re shopping more.” Try to be understanding of their struggle without condemning. Encourage them to consider treatment to learn better ways of coping without spending.