Compulsive Spending: How to Begin Facing It

[Editor's note: We've all spent too much at one point or another. With one-click shopping available online its easy to do. But, how do you know when it's just too much? Certified planner Melissa Hammel offers a checklist for you below. ]

The power and the high are similar at times to that of cocaine....the thrill and the moment exceeds any other problems of the moment.

And then come the feelings of remorse, guilt, and shame.

This addiction is powerful and very strongly promoted in the culture of the United States. Compulsive spending. It is there and becoming more and more prevalent with the advent of on-line shopping and mobile applications on phones and computers.

In my work as both a financial planner and a mental health therapist, I have encountered this addiction and compulsion periodically and it can be devastating. This is a behavior that is at times promoted by media and advertising, magazines and film - to stay hip, to stay in style, to keep up, to feel good, to solve problems - buy something.

VICIOUS CYCLE

Like all addictive substances and behaviors, it most definitely provides a method of coping with difficult feelings and escaping. Yet as time goes on, those very substances and behaviors begin to work against the person, becoming the greater problem and leading to vicious cycle.

CHECKLIST

So how do you know if you have a problem? One of the sayings frequently heard in support groups for addictions is that "if you wonder if you have a problem, you very well may have a problem." Here are some key points that may help you determine if you may need to look at compulsive spending in your life:

  • Are there specific times when the need to shop/spend is urgent? Times of difficulty, sadness, or pain?
  • Does your spending occur in private, as a secret? Do you spend online anonymously, or shop where no one will know you?
  • Is time spent shopping, planning to shop, or looking on line getting in the way of your everyday life? Interfering with family and friends and causing problems in relationships?
  • After purchasing items, are you filled with remorse, guilt, self-loathing, or shame?
  • Do you hide your purchases from a loved one or partner?
  • Do you have secret credit cards or accounts that no one knows about but you?
  • Do you experience fear that someone will find out how much you spend, or how much you owe, or how far in debt you are at this time?

FACE THE PROBLEM

How does one begin to face the idea of having "a spending problem?" The answer: very, very slowly for most folks. Keep in mind that this behavior is what we might call a coping mechanism. In much the same way an alcoholic may pick up a drink to dull the pain of a difficult situation, or to cope with feelings that are quite strong, a compulsive spender may shop and spend.

THERE IS HOPE

This process is most definitely treatable. One of the first steps is beginning to recognize that something may be wrong - and that there "might" be a problem. Believe it or not, this is a very big step. Because prior to someone getting help or changing a troubling behavior, the person has to begin to recognize there "might" be something wrong.

For some folks that means acknowledging to themselves that maybe they do spend a little too much, or that they have a credit card that has a pretty big balance. This admission is very difficult because ultimately, the person is opening the door to begin looking at something about themselves that is very uncomfortable.

TALKING ABOUT MONEY

And one of the unique and most important things that needs to be noted is this: THERE IS A GREAT DEAL OF SHAME AROUND MONEY AND SPENDING PROBLEMS. There is actually much more shame and discomfort around this issue than say an alcohol or drug problem. Why is that? One of the reasons, according to Dr. Ted Klontz and Dr. Brad Klontz, authors of "Mind Over Money," is that our society does not talk about money issues. And for many folks, there is an expectation that they should "know" how to manage money.

GETTING STARTED

In many ways, compulsive spending is where alcoholism and drug addiction were in the 1950's - something that existed but was never talked about. However, there are resources out there to assist with this problem. I have listed some key resources below that may be helpful in exploring whether or not you have a problem with spending, and if so, how you might get help and support.

RESOURCES

  • Debtors Anonymous (12 step recovery program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous)
  • Website by Drs. Ted & Brad Klontz: Your Mental Wealth (www.YourMentalWealth.com)
  • Onsite Workshops (www.onsiteworkshops.com)
  • Group therapy programs specifically around Money Issues and Financial Therapy
  • APA - American Psychological Association (for a referral to a psychologist specializing in money disorders)

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