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Credit Cards and Retail Therapy: How Much Is Too Much?

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
January 10, 2011

If you’re sad, lonely or even just bored, buying yourself a little something can be a great pick-me-up. The practice is so common it even has earned a name: retail therapy. But while a little retail therapy can be OK, it can get out of hand and start people down a slippery slope of mounting credit card debt and financial hardship.

Advertisers and marketers do a great job of putting seemingly irresistible deals in front of us. And while diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, credit cards, needless to say, are a retailer’s best friend. By enabling us to buy now and pay later, plastic increases spending by an average of 14 percent, and for some consumers even more.

While we all overspend from time to time and purchase things we haven’t planned, there’s a fine line from which retail therapy can turn into a shopping addiction. And it’s not always easy to know when someone has crossed it.

According to psychologists, pathological overspending can be a real addiction, ranking right up there with gambling and even drug addiction. Shopping addicts, referred to as oniomaniacs by psychiatrists, are mostly women. Like other kinds of addicts, their behavior has a root psychological cause, and they rarely realize the destructive effects their compulsive behavior has on their own lives and that of their family.

So when does a little innocent retail therapy turn into a full-fledged addiction? If you or someone you know exhibit any of the following signs, it may be time to take heed.

Mounting credit card debt. More than half of Americans carry a credit card balance forward from month to month. This is not in itself a sign of compulsive shopping; there are numerous reasons people take on credit card debt. However, if the credit card debt keeps increasing month by month and is not forced upon someone by unfortunate external circumstances, but rather a product of all the great “deals” he or she found over the past months, it should be a cause of concern. The same thing, of course, applies to other types of credit taken out to finance purchases. Chronically spending over budget is a red alert that something is amiss, and it’s time to do a reality check.

Compulsive and constant shopping. Having an occasional shopping spree is normal, but if someone hits the mall regularly and ends up buying much more than intended, it’s another warning sign — particularly when it’s combined with spending more money than one has.

Hiding one’s purchases. This is one of the most common telltale signs. To avoid scrutiny and the critical comments of a spouse, shopping addicts will often hide their purchases or lie about them. They may even apply for new credit card accounts and accumulate credit card debt unbeknownst to their spouse.

Relationship issues. Needless to say, pathological shopping typically leads to relationship problems, such as constant arguments about money issues caused by one spouse’s shopping habits, lies, secrecy and deception, and so on.

Loss of control. This is the bottom line. Shopaholics are not just occasional overspenders, they have lost control over their shopping and just can’t help themselves. They are hooked on the rush or feeling of euphoria that comes from spending, and at the same time feel ashamed and embarrassed following their spending spree.

Again, engaging in a little occasional retail therapy never hurt anyone. However, if several of the above characteristics describe you or someone you know, it may be time to take a closer look at the problem. In mild cases, cutting up one’s credit cards and quitting cold turkey can be sufficient. For many people, however, getting help in the form of psychological counseling and credit counseling may be needed. Debtors Anonymous offers a 12-step program which also can be useful for people who need ongoing maintenance and support.