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How to Deal With a Loved One’s Shopping Addiction

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By Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D.
October 21, 2011

QDear Eva,
My wife is addicted to her rewards card. I’m not kidding; I’ve seen her charge everything from a $2 coffee to a $1,000 purse she’s used twice. She’s constantly getting things in the mail that she “bought” with her rewards points, but she sticks them in a corner and doesn’t touch them.

It’s like she doesn’t even care; she gets excited for a while, but then she just buys something else. I’ve caught her twice this week ordering expensive furniture online and we just remodeled last year. I love my wife, but I’m fed up. Is it possible for a person to be addicted to their credit card? — Phil

AHi Phil,
Indeed, shopping addictions and compulsive buying take many shapes and forms. A friend of mine was addicted to buying cashmere sweaters on eBay!

Certainly, the way you describe your wife’s rewards card spending habits, it sounds like compulsive buying could be a factor.

If it’s any comfort to you, your wife has plenty of company. As many as 25 million Americans have some degree of shopping addiction, according to Dr. April Lane Benson, author of “I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self.”

For shopping addicts, it’s not so much about the items they buy; it’s about the high they get from the act of buying itself. So if you’re wondering why your wife would buy a $1,000 purse and then barely use it, it’s because the thrill of the deal was more important than the purse itself. Ask Eva

Here is how model-turned-author Avis Cardella described the high people get from shopping in an interview with CreditCards.com:

“You keep going back to that act of purchasing,” said Cardella.”Then when you get home with it, you do have that sense that it’s meaningless because you’re just going through an act to get that little bit of happiness you get from buying … So the object itself has no meaning; its meaning is lost the minute you leave the shop.”

Sound familiar? For millions of women — and men — compulsive shopping can be a way to fill some kind of personal void, or to lift one’s mood by creating self-gratification and emotional comfort.

It doesn’t help that we live in a culture that encourages consumption.

Of course, there is a blurry line between a fondness for shopping and a full-fledged shopping addiction. Generally, a shopping addiction is a problem if the person causes harm to himself or herself and/or to their family.

In severe cases, the person uses credit cards to fund an addiction that he or she cannot afford and lies about it to friends and family, often racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt before the music stops.

In your case, it doesn’t sound like you are too worried about the financial fallout from your wife’s shopping habits, so I will assume that you two are well enough off to not be affected financially by your wife’s credit card habits.

In that case, the issue at hand is more about the personal ramifications and the toll your wife’s spending habits may take on your relationship. Obviously, if her spending habits are extreme enough for you to notice, there is a deeper issue that needs to be addressed.

The real question is not whether your wife’s spending habits can technically be called an addiction. It doesn’t really matter. Putting labels on people has a way of boxing them in and limiting them unnecessarily. Rather, the question is whether there is some kind of void being filled or a mood issue your wife is dealing with through the highs she gets from shopping.

According to Benson, in an interview with ShopaholicNoMore.com, when dealing with excessive shopping behaviors, “it’s essential to reach far beyond the traditional associations with buying and having, and to understand shopping as a search for self. It’s a quest for identity and meaning.”

It’s important, she further notes, to help people “transform their apparent desire to own more things into a desire to gain meaningful ideas and experiences.”

So, how is that for a mouthful? Like most things in life, problems and challenges—whether they are personal or relationship-related—are an invitation to reach deeper and take a closer look at our habitual ways of doing things. In the process, it can lead to important self-discoveries, a deeper and clearer sense of self and even a deepening of relationships.

Of course, broaching delicate topics in a relationship is not easy. You’ll have to dig out your best diplomatic skills to start a conversation with your wife about this.

By all means, stay clear of the “You have a problem” conversation. Instead, open the conversation as a joint exploration of some things you’ve noticed and would like to have her think about. That will usually get you much further.

In many cases, a little self-reflection is enough for a person to stop excessive shopping behaviors. If not, you can consider exploring other resources, such as those on ShopaholicNoMore.com, which provides a lot of great information on how to deal with compulsive shopping. May the force be with you!