Shopping is an addiction that can have huge financial implications, but often it’s one that is smiled upon, talked about in an amusing way, and not recognized for the problem it actually is. It’s not against the law, it doesn’t imperil your neighbors or passersby, but it can ruin families and put lives in shambles.
April Lane Benson, Ph.D., a psychologist and an expert in the study and treatment of compulsive buying disorder, has written a book called To Buy Or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.
To Buy Or Not To Buy
The stereotypical shopaholic is a female leaving a department store with overstuffed shopping bags or ordering compulsively from QVC late at night, but men, too, can be just as out of control purchasing multiple watches, cars, tech gadgets or any number of male-oriented items.
April writes that many people don’t even recognize they have a problem until negative consequences begin to occur: they either lose their job or are put on probation because of long shopping breaks at lunchtime or spending work hours to shop online; personal relationships falter; financial obligations from over-shopping become unmanageable. April says, “There are emotional consequences, anxiety, guilt, shame, and personal development consequences: Somebody is using so much of their time, energy, and/or money shopping and buying that it’s not available for other things like travel, cultivation of hobbies, talents, relationships with other people, with nature. “
There are no rewards connected with over-shopping because at the end of it all the bill must be paid, the need is never filled, and it all ends up being more of a punishment.
She adds that because consumption fuels our economy and there is no stigma attached (such as there is with alcoholism or drug use), a shopping addiction is often harder to acknowledge. The triggers for this behavior are many: seeking control or feelings of self-worth, filling an emotional need, covering up anger, guilt, loneliness— the list goes on. Identifying what drives you is the first step and from there, getting help to overcome and control your behavior.
How To Stop
Using April’s book as a personal rehab program is a good way to begin recovery. She lays down easy and painless steps, such as how to realize that credit cards are the prime enablers and, for the hard-core shopaholic, just cutting them up is not the answer because there are always cash and debit cards available for the user.
Aside from the advice in her book, April has developed an interactive and personalized program that can be found on her website shopaholicnomore.com, which uses text messaging to act as a motivating and inspiring monitoring system. The way it works, according to April, “is someone gets between two and five texts a day, perhaps more at holiday time when triggers are much more likely to be present. One of their messages every day is tailored particularly to their overspending profile. They’ve filled out a survey, and that informs what texts we send them. In addition, they can text the system 24/7 to get immediate help. If they have an impulse, if they’ve started shopping in a bricks-and-mortar establishment or if they’ve started shopping online, they immediately get a text back, some of which are linked to one-minute audios that we’ve produced that help them take that all-important pause.”
So if you recognize yourself and are at this moment feeling that buying itch, scratch it by buying this book. It may be the best purchase you ever made.
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Steve Pomeranz: I always say there are two basic ways to get on your path to financial security. You’ve got to save and invest wisely. Of course, for many of us saving is hard to do. Either you have to make more money or reduce your spending. The way I say it is either you raise the bridge or lower the water. However, there are some who spend in such a way that experts recognize it as compulsive behavior.
Let’s address this today with my next guest, April Lane Benson. April is a psychologist and expert in the study and treatment of compulsive buying disorder. She’s also the author of To Buy Or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop. Hey, April, welcome to the show.
April Benson: Steve, thanks so much for having me.
Steve Pomeranz: How does one know whether their shopping behavior actually is problematic?
April Benson: There are a number of ways to know. The most succinct is if you are buying or shopping so much, or even thinking about buying or shopping so much, that it’s negatively impacting your life in a serious way. We think, of course, financially as the way it impacts people the most. However, there are a number of other negative consequences.
Steve Pomeranz: What are they?
April Benson: People have problems at work. They are often put on probation because they are going out for these long lunch hours because they get mesmerized by the stores or they are buying online during the day. They have to work two or three jobs just to pay the minimum payments on credit card bills, pay for stuff they didn’t need and use. There are interpersonal conflicts, fights with spouses, between parents and children. There are emotional consequences, anxiety, guilt, shame, and personal development consequences: Somebody is using so much of their time, energy, and/or money shopping and buying that it’s not available for other things like travel, cultivation of hobbies, talents, relationships with other people, with nature.
Steve Pomeranz: Sure, I understand. I would think that a lot of people really aren’t thinking about their state of life, and they may also be in denial because it feels good to do these kinds of behaviors. It’s not just the buying behavior, it would be any kind of compulsive behavior that you have to do, and yet it has its consequences. What is the first step for someone to take in order to realize, “Hey, I may have a problem here”?
April Benson: I will definitely answer that. The one thing I’d like to say before that relates to what you’ve just said, Steve, and that is what’s different about this is this is called the smiled-upon addiction because consumption fuels our economy. It makes it sometimes harder to really acknowledge and try to get help for. That said, acknowledgment is really the first step. There’s so much denial around this and shame around this. Being able to look at it squarely and say, “I have a problem with this” is an enormous step.
From there, one has to know something about what it’s all about. What is the function that this is serving in your life? Is this about exacting revenge from somebody? Is this about trying to be more in control? Is it about belonging to an appearance-obsessed society? Is it about avoiding something in your life? You need to know something about what’s the function, how it all began, what triggers it in the present, what the consequences are. You need to learn about your ambivalence, and you need to think about your vision for the future. How would you like to have lived your life at the end of it, and is the way you’re living now going to get you there, and, if not, what changes you need to make.
Finally, you need to understand what it is you’re really shopping for. It’s not that ace pair of black boots. It could be love and affection, the need to belong, the need for self-esteem, the need for the esteem of other people. Teasing out what you’re really shopping for and finding a way to get that is really the ticket.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is April Lane Benson. She’s a psychologist and an expert in the study and treatment of compulsive buying disorder. Her book is To Buy Or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.
In the purpose of lack of time that we have, let’s get into some of the specific ways that people can help themselves to get started. Let’s start with credit cards because that gives you excess buying power, a leverage of over and above what real dollars you may have, and you can also get trapped into this idea of paying minimum monthly expenses and so on. Briefly, what can a person do if they find themselves buying too much with their credit cards? Is that a way to start the healing?
April Benson: It’s definitely a way to start. Cutting up credit cards, not using credit cards. The pain of paying is so minimized with credit cards that if people can use cash and a debit card, that goes a long way. There are also a number of other kinds of resources. There are blogs that help people get support. We have a text messaging program where people get texts every day to try to motivate and inspire them.
Steve Pomeranz: I want to talk about that in a minute.
April Benson: Sure.
Steve Pomeranz: Go ahead.
April Benson: Avoiding credit cards is enormous, and it’s not everything because one can find other ways. I work with people who use other people’s credit cards, borrow money. I do think that avoiding the use of credit cards is an enormous first step, and I think empowering yourself by understanding. Debtor’s Anonymous is a free resource that many people use; I think you need support. It’s important not to feel isolated and to know that you’re not alone.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest is April Lane Benson, and she is the author of To Buy Or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.
April, let’s talk about this personalized text messaging service that people can use to help them at, I think, these points of time when they may be inclined to over-shop.
April Benson: Yes. The program we’ve developed is an interactive one and a personalized one. What that means is that someone gets between two and five texts a day, depending on the time of year, whether it’s holiday time and triggers are much more likely to be present. One of their messages every day is tailored particularly to their overspending profile. They’ve filled out a survey, and that informs what texts we send them. In addition, they can text the system 24/7 to get immediate help. If they have an impulse, if they’ve started shopping in a bricks-and-mortar establishment or if they’ve started shopping online, they immediately get a text back, some of which are linked to one-minute audios that we’ve produced that help them take that all-important pause.
Steve Pomeranz: How does someone find this text messaging service?
April Benson: On my website, shopaholicnomore.com, you’ll see it right on the home page. There’s a link to the page that we have that describes the program in more detail and tells you how to order it.
Steve Pomeranz: Sounds really good. There’s another article that you’ve written that really caught my attention. There is this population of people who buy after they’ve been drinking. It’s kind of an online version of DUI, but it’s called BUI, “buying under the influence.” Tell us about that.
April Benson: We have found that people who either go shopping either at home online or in a store who have been drinking, their inhibitions are much weaker, so the barrier to entry, to the shopping entry, is much weaker. We also know that there are many stores now, especially some of the smaller select boutique-type stores, that invite people in and have drinks and hors-d’oeuvres with this express purpose, even if it isn’t verbalized.
Steve Pomeranz: The impulse to buy or that urge quickly blurs into a must. You wrote here that “suddenly the $850 David Yurman amethyst and 18-karat gold ring doesn’t seem like a silly splurge. Actually, it’s a reward.”
April Benson: Yes, and buying to reward oneself is something that people do a great deal of time. However, especially somebody who’s got a problem with this, it’s anything but a reward. It ends up feeling eventually like more a punishment than a reward because, eventually, the piper has to be paid.
Steve Pomeranz: Of course. Recently you wrote that The New York Post ran a story about a city pet store that had to ban drunken puppy-buying. A quote here: “Customers tend to stumble in after happy hour and purchase a dog without thinking. The owner of Le Petit Puppy said she now forbids the inebriated even to hold her puppies and instructs the more insistent to come back the next day.”
April Benson: That is a responsible shopkeeper …
Steve Pomeranz: Very much.
April Benson: And somebody who really cares about the puppies.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, that’s very true. According to Joanna Douglas, writing in Shine, she said, “Number one, the way to stop this is don’t drink near your favorite shops, don’t day-drink, avoid late-night infomercials, and restrict your online use after drinking and have a support system.” I guess getting this message system from April Lane Benson is probably not a bad idea at all. Final words, April?
April Benson: I think that the words that you just used, I think all of those are very good advice. My final words are you can never get enough of what you don’t really need. Finding out what it is you’re really shopping for is very important.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest, April Lane Benson, psychologist, author of To Buy Or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop. To find out more and hear this interview again, join the conversation at onthemoneyradio.org. Thanks, April. Appreciate you being here.
April Benson: Oh, thanks, Steve, for having me.