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

 

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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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Compulsive 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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nHow many shoes do you need?
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Looking back on her years of struggle, Angela recalls that she and her husband had a big garage sale before they moved to an apartment. At the end of the day, a truckload of items remained, which they donated to Deseret Industries. “The pile of clothes, toys and books filled the whole truck and was higher than the cab,” Angela says. Later, when they moved again, the couple donated 22 garbage bags filled with perfectly good clothes to DI.

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When her marriage counselor said that Angela was fortunate her husband was willing to work with her on her shopping and overspending, Angela didn’t feel so lucky. “It felt like repression,” she recalls. “A lot of the things I did were an effort to just be myself and not be under his control. He was a compulsive pauper, and I was compulsive spender.”

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Still, she was nagged by the feeling she lacked control over her spending and finances. “I knew it was bad that I kept signing up for credit cards,” Angela says. She played a game with herself, a game that many compulsive spenders engage in. Angela would transfer her massive debt from one credit card to another, as pitches for 0-percent-interest cards came in the mail. Eventually, with her debt in the tens of thousands of dollars, credit card companies cut off her applications.

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“Every day, I woke up terrified,” Angela says. Making only a moderate income as a customer-service agent and with a skyrocketing debt level, she says, “I worried about how I could ever pay it off.”

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While UVU professor Workman pursued her doctoral degree at Utah State University, she met many people in Caitlin and Angela’s shoes at Debtors Anonymous (DA) group meetings. She researched the group and its members for two years in Salt Lake City, maintaining the required confidentiality of this 12-step addiction recovery program.

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DA (DebtorsAnonymous.org) is modeled on the much older Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and other support groups for people with addictions. Participants “work” a 12-step plan that begins with acknowledgement that members are powerless over their addiction. They work with a sponsor who has had success in his or her own recovery. A DA sponsor supports the new member in finding order in life and in getting spending on track. Regular meeting attendance and talk therapy under the cloak of anonymity are vital ingredients of the program.

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Caitlin and Angela arrived at Debtors Anonymous through different paths. Angela read about the organization in a magazine story about couples struggling with credit-card debt. Caitlin’s friend had vaguely mentioned something about a 12-step organization relating to money. The single criteria for becoming a member of DA is “that you want to avoid incurring unsecured debt,” explains Angela. “Even if you are not already in debt, but are worried that you might be in the future, you can join.”

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After attending her first DA meeting in Salt Lake City, Caitlin began logging all her income and outgoing money. A huge amount of her debt was her growing finance charge on the cards. “I wondered how I had all that debt and nothing to show for it. I was $11,000 in debt and had nothing new.”

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A new member of DA learns how to keep careful records of all spending. After six meetings, the member is assigned to two other members who have at least 90 days of abstinence from incurring further debt. The three work together to create a spending plan.

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“They don’t call it a ‘budget,’ because that feels too restrictive,” Angela says. It’s like calling a nutrition and exercise plan a “diet.” Both words carry the baggage of punishment for people who already are battling problems of self-worth.

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The DA model sets up a reasonable spending plan with a realistic timetable for becoming debt-free. If a person gets a windfall—such as an inheritance or bonus—a DA sponsor will act as “pressure relief” in helping the member decide how to allocate it. “Usually you would put a third into savings, a third on debt and a third to spend however you want,” Angela says. “ Before DA, I would spend it all three times over before I ever got it.”

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Hitting Bottom
nOnce she began logging her income and expenses, Caitlin was able to stop adding to her $11,000 debt. Eventually, she realized she was able to connect her debt load with her lack of power over shopping. Looking back, she says, expensive shops were never her problem. Caitlin was most vulnerable in stores that combined grocery- and household-goods departments—Super Wal-Mart and Target were favorite haunts. “I had a tendency to wander up and down every aisle. I hated to get home and think I forgot something,” Caitlin says.

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Many shopping addicts describe similar experiences—wandering through stores looking for something, anything to buy. It’s like trying to cover a big hole that will never get filled. UVU’s Workman explains one root of the disorder is a misunderstanding and fear of money and how to manage it. “They are literally afraid of [money]. … In wanting to fill a void with something else, the addict finds the act of buying and purchasing objects provides only temporary relief, although he feels very guilty for overspending immediately afterwards.”

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In Caitlin’s case, cheap DVDs often caught her eye. “Every week or two, I’d buy eight of the ones that cost $3-$5,” she remembers. Scented candles, a decorative dog for a fireplace mantle and a two-pack of liquid drain cleaner were added to her cart—even though she already had two dual-packs of the stuff at home.

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A shopping trip to a big discount store often resulted in a $150 bill. “I didn’t realize how much it all added up because I kept putting it on the credit card,” Caitlin recalls. “All my credit cards were maxed out, and I was having trouble making even minimum payments” (another red flag of a shopping/spending disorder, experts note). Money became a big stress in her marriage. “I spent all of his drinking money, and he drank all of my spending money,” she recalls.

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Angela sees shopping for clothes and eating out as the most significant contributors to her debt. She never spent less than $100 on a shopping excursion. “I have no sales resistance at all,” Angela says. “If someone stops me in the mall and asks me to buy something, I say, ‘Sure.’” As her debt load climbed, she always had a way out, fed by her denial. “If it reached $5,000, I would think, ‘What’s another $30?’”

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Both women’s marriages ended in divorce. Like alcoholics or drug abusers, shopping addicts often “hit bottom” before realizing they need help, Workman says. Their families may have tried to help them out of their financial bind and can do no more. In their frustration, Workman says, some family members will completely ostracize a person with a shopping addiction.

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Therapists who work with compulsive shoppers say that much of the disorder is wrapped up in the way victims relate to money—how much they earn, how much they feel free to spend, what power cash and credit have in their lives.

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The first psychological references to the problem go back to the early 20th century, when textbooks addressed a “buying mania.” Back then, sufferers were found to be only women, and even today, “Females are more likely to play out the behavior in the marketplace through shopping,” Workman says. Women tend to shop compulsively for clothes, jewelry and cosmetics, while men tend to purchase electronics, gadgets, sporting goods and firearms. Michigan therapist Shulman estimates up to a third of shopping addicts are male.

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For women, their historic status as underearners in society may come into play. Angela felt she perceived money in a skewed way because she had always had trouble consistently earning what she needed to maintain financial security and independence. Money wasn’t merely a means to an end—a tool to pay the rent, or to buy adequate food and clothing. She gave money more psychic power than it probably deserved, and she grew more obsessive about spending it, even when she didn’t have enough for the necessities and even while incurring a mountain of debt.

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I Found It on the Shopping Network
n A compulsive shopper has enough challenges dealing with strip malls and discount stores on nearly every corner. Then there is the seemingly safe lure of cable television shopping shows, with their knack for cozying up to shoppers, alone, in their homes, day and night. Lewis Galway, a Salt Lake City licensed professional counselor with decades of experience in treating substance abusers, says that Home Shopping Network and auction Websites like eBay play off the vulnerability of compulsive shoppers.

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“eBay says ‘win’ this item, when you don’t really win it; you have to pay for it. And they say, ‘don’t lose this item,’ when you haven’t actually lost anything; you just didn’t buy it,” Galway says. All shopping shows speak the language of addiction, adds Workman. Catching viewers at weak and lonely moments, program hosts will chat with call-in customers, building them up for engaging in a little “retail therapy,” Workman says.

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Most purchases online or on television must be made with a credit card—not a problem for most people, who have rational relationships with money. But, Workman says, compulsive shoppers look at credit cards differently than cash. Plastic evokes a different psychological response. It’s as if using a credit card isn’t really spending in the same way as handing over cash—there isn’t the same sense of responsibility.

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Caitlin attended her first meeting of Debtors Anonymous on a Sunday afternoon in 2005. Once she faced her debt honestly by writing down her incoming and outgoing money, she says, “I was able to stop any new and unsecured debt.” Caitlin has remarried, paid off about half of her debt and is able to make payments according to the plan she worked out with her creditors.

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She finally has enough money to pay her other monthly bills, such as groceries and necessary clothing. “I also have a lovely car. It was a huge miracle,” Caitlin says. Now, instead of giving in to the urge to make an irrational purchase, she waits 48 to 72 hours. She tries to determine the difference between a want and a need. “I did make a purchase of four CDs,” she says. “But I’d had them on a wishlist for three months.”

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Angela now has been a member of Debtors Anonymous for three years. She has paid down her $60,000 debt to $6,500. During her financially strapped times, she worked in customer service for a medical firm. She has remained in the same field but now works in the sales department. Angela now earns three times her former income, which has helped her overcome her anxieties over money and her status as an “underearner.” She says she’s building up her cash reserves to allow her to live independently for six months. “If I stop attending meetings and abandon my record keeping and spending plan, I will be right back where I was, like an alcoholic who has a single drink,” Angela says.

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She still attends DA meetings and calls on her “pressure relief” group if she needs to review her spending plan or feels herself slipping. While she could pay off her debt more quickly, Angela feels it’s vital to continue paying it off at a set rate every month. “It’s important for me to learn the lesson of paying it off so that I won’t be tempted to do it again.”

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