Holiday Spending: How to Tame Your Inner Shopaholic

Do the holidays bring out your inner shopaholic? These six tips may rescue your wallet.

Mother and daughter buying Christmas decoration and gifts in a shop
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A woman—let's call her Jane—was admitted to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, not for drugs or alcohol, but for something we've likely all been doing this holiday season: shopping. Sitting in progress groups with cocaine addicts, Jane felt unique, as though her problem wasn't as severe as those surrounding her, explains Coleen Moore, marketing and admissions manager at the Institute.

Then she had an "aha" moment. Before checking into the facility, Jane had to have one last buy. She purchased an item online and had it shipped to the facility. When the package arrived, "you could literally see her high and euphoria," Moore says. The staff explained to Jane that the package would be left unopened and sent back—after all, you wouldn't give an alcoholic a shot of whiskey in rehab. Jane began sweating and showed signs of both psychological and physical withdrawal, Moore says, "because she wasn't able to complete that euphoric feeling."

Indeed, Jane is addicted to shopping, like an estimated 5 to 10 percent of Americans. Shopping addictions are defined as an impulse control disorder, in which repetitive purchasing becomes so difficult to stop that it often ends in disaster—think maxed-out credit cards and family stress. In fact, research suggests that more than half of people with a chronic buying disorder experience relationship strain as a result.

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"When people see these things coming up—financial problems, not being able to control themselves, and other people noticing and being impacted—that's when you've probably jumped the rails from someone who just likes to shop a lot to someone with a shopping problem," says Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and addiction expert featured on Oxygen's My Shopping Addiction. In a 2007 review of compulsive buying disorder, Donald Black, a University of Iowa psychiatry professor, noted that most people with the disorder are women. They go through four phases with each shopping experience: anticipation, such as a preoccupation with having a specific item; preparation, perhaps by deciding which credit card to use at which store; shopping, commonly described as "intensely exciting"; and spending, which often leads to disappointment.

If these stages sound familiar, Durvasula suggests seeing a mental health provider with expertise in addiction or compulsive disorders. Group treatment, like the kind Jane received, has been successful; Debtors Anonymous, for example, is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. Many times, folks also benefit from financial counseling, and sometimes marriage or couples counseling, too, if the addiction has damaged more than their wallets.

While many of us are guilty of stretching our credit for a pair of shoes or going a little overboard during the holidays, Durvasula says most people are not shopping addicts. Still, this time of year can bring out that borderline addiction that lies deep within. "There might be people who are very mindful of their spending throughout most of the year, but at Christmas, they go hog-wild to the point where they get themselves in debt or they exhaust themselves and overdo it," says Terrence Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending, & Hoarding in Franklin, Mich.

Around the holidays, our expectations, which are often programmed by media, stores, and family, can get a little out of whack. The expectation, Durvasula says, is "to buy gifts, to give gifts to someone who's given you gifts—the holidays are supposed to look a certain way, and one of those ways involves gift-giving. No one is walking around in the middle of April thinking, 'I've got to buy lots of people gifts.'"

Nope. It's December—well, November, too—when we obsess about shopping for gifts. Commercials with spouses buying each other diamonds and luxury cars are on every channel. Friends ask if we've started holiday shopping yet because they finished theirs months ago, and can we believe what they snagged? Sale ads fill mailboxes, online and on the street—but hurry, that deal is only good today. A rushed timeframe and pressure to "buy! buy! buy!" can turn a moderate shopper impulsive. Plus, we're already exhausted in December, thanks to holiday parties, work deadlines, travel, family time, and shorter days. That's bad news for shoppers, who tend to make poorer decisions when tired, Durvasula says.