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Home / Articles / · Archive / News & Columns /  Feature | Shopaholic: Once buried in debt, these shopping addicts are digging themselves out. Page 1
News & Columns

Feature | Shopaholic: Once buried in debt, these shopping addicts are digging themselves out. Page 1

By Carolyn Campbell
Posted // December 10,2008 -

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Caitlin never had enough money to cover even basic repairs on her old beater car. She took the bus to work, often showing up late and armed with excuses for her boss and co-workers. “I didn’t know what to tell them,” the 27-year-old West Valley City woman says. “I probably said that my car broke down and it would take a week or two before I got it fixed, and that’s why I was taking public transportation.”

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The truth is, Caitlin was nursing $11,000 in credit-card debt and continually running the bill up higher. Working two low-paying jobs—one caring for the elderly, the other as a pet sitter—scarcely gave her the financial freedom to carry that kind of debt. She needed a new car, but her debt load forced bank after bank to deny her requests for a loan. She was embarrassed to let family members know how deep in hock she was. And still, Caitlin spent money she didn’t have—on piles of things she already had plenty of and didn’t need—clothes, housewares, furniture. Just stuff.

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Angela and her husband Tom decided to get marriage counseling when they found themselves $60,000 in unsecured debt. Angela, 45, figured the source of their fighting and constant anxiety at home was Tom. She hoped counseling would “fix” him. To the Murray woman’s surprise, “the counselor told me I was basically a shopping addict, and I was not allowed to go in any stores at all. I had to send my daughter to shop for groceries.”

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Neither Caitlin nor Angela (both pseudonyms) imagined they had a shopping addiction. And yet, all the signs of their problem were there: the “high” each would feel after a binge of impulse buying, followed by tremendous guilt and fear of being “found out” by a spouse or other family member. Their closets were stuffed with new items, most of them unused and still bearing price tags. Shopping, almost always undertaken when the women were feeling depressed or emotionally needy, was like a fix.

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hspace=5Compulsive shopping is jokingly referred to in the media as “retail therapy” and endorsed nicely on greeting cards and in jingles that urge people to “shop till you drop.” But Letty Workman, assistant professor of marketing in the College of Business at Utah Valley University, points out the distinct difference between a person on an occasional shopping spree and a dysfunctional spender. At the disorder level, compulsive shopping is an addiction, Workman says. Victims feel a relentless drive to shop. They deny negative consequences of their actions (as in lacking income or savings to cover their credit purchases) and a serious lack of impulse control.

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“Theirs is the same profile that people with other addictions such as alcoholism and food addiction share,” Workman says. With the last several years of easy credit, experts like Workman believe up to 8 percent of the nation’s population may have a shopping addiction. Terry Shulman, a Michigan-based therapist who frequently appears on national talk shows and whose professional emphasis has been on treating people with addictive behaviors, believes the number is closer to 10 percent.

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“There are also many people who haven’t yet reached the level of addiction who are struggling with the disorder—just as some who abuse alcohol are headed toward alcoholism,” says Shulman, author of several books on compulsive behavior and founder of the Website ShopaholicsAnonymous.org

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Even in the middle of the worst recession in decades, compulsive shoppers will continue racking up debt for as long as they can get credit. Shulman says the current economic meltdown may simply invite more disordered behavior. “While a certain number of addicts will be scared straight, typically, the addiction goes into high gear under stress. Many who can ill afford it will spend more, because they are dealing with emotion rather than rationality. The addict goes back to buying something to make himself feel better.”

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The impacts of compulsive shopping—disrupted family relationships, constant anxiety over money and the real possibility of bankruptcy to cite a few—can be far-reaching. Caitlin began piling up debt in 2001, but did not seek help until 2005. Angela’s troubled marriage to Tom eventually broke up. Both women, however, got help through a 12-step group therapy program and by reordering their spending priorities. Reaching recovery takes complete and painful honesty with oneself. But, according to Caitlin and Angela, it can be done.

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