Compulsive Spending Is No Joke

Black Friday

(by Gloria Arenson MS, LMFT, DCEP)

Compulsive spending and debting have become major problems in our society. Many compulsive spenders go on shopping sprees but manage to pay their debts and live within their means. Others live well beyond their means and stay one step ahead of their creditors. In my book, Born To Spend, I share the work I have done with addictive spenders, some of whom have gone to prison for passing bad checks or embezzling money, plus others who have had to declare bankruptcy! You may be living next door to a shopaholic or have friends or family members who overspend. 

If your client or someone you are in a relationship with has a spending problem, keep reading.

What is the difference between compulsive spending and the kind of spending most of us do?
My definition of compulsion is: if you can’t control when you start or when you stop a substance or behavior, you have a problem. Most of us splurge occasionally, but compulsive spenders find the urge overpowering and frequent. Another common trait of “shopaholics” is that they buy things and never take the price tags off or wear them. Some people don’t even take their purchases out of the bag. It’s not about things. Spending is a way to medicate unhappiness, fear, anger and low self-esteem. It is an addiction – the same as alcohol.

What creates the urge to shop?
Conditioning, environmental triggers and beliefs. Overspending is not an automatic behavior. Believe it or not, many people learn to overspend. Someone close to them provides a role model of compulsive spending and shows the way. Many people go shopping when they are stressed or depressed. Once they find themselves in a setting like a mall that is filled with exciting temptations, it is very easy to give in. Some people don’t think of their plastic credit card as money. Like Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With The Wind,” they tell themselves that they will worry about their debt tomorrow.

Who has this problem?
Compulsive spenders are all ages and from all economic levels. Although we joke about women shopping, men do too. Sometimes men buy more of the big toys like cars and boats, but men also overspend on clothing and tools. One of my clients was a student who had little money, so she overspent at thrift stores. Many alcoholics and overeaters turn to spending as another way to soothe their emotional stress when they give up alcohol or sugar.

What is the difference between compulsive spending and compulsive debting?
Compulsive spenders buy things to make themselves feel better, using pleasure to mask the pain of life. Although compulsive debtors appear to do the same thing, there is a hidden agenda to their spending. They are unaware that they spend in order to use up their money because they don’t think that they deserve success, wealth, or love.

Why would a person risk getting arrested for shoplifting or embezzling money just to have “things”?
Some people unconsciously escalate in the hope of getting caught so they can get help. Others have lives filled with so much pain and dysfunction that they are oblivious to the consequences. When the urge takes over it is as if they are in a trance. They have to feed the hungry place inside, although “things” can never really fill that emptiness.

How does brain chemistry influence compulsive spending?
Craving begins in the brain, when stress creates an imbalance between two important brain chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. When dopamine is stimulated it helps us get into action, to achieve our goals. Once we have done that, serotonin rises and gives us a feeling of satisfaction. Then we move on to something else. But when compulsive spenders are very stressed, either physically or emotionally, serotonin can’t always rise enough to offset the drive of the dopamine. It keeps firing, “I gotta have it.” That is what happens in a spending binge. A woman may like a certain sweater and then buy it in every color it comes in before she stops!

Is there anything a friend or spouse can do to help?
The most important advice I have for friends or family is what not to do. Don’t threaten, punish, cover up for, or try to bribe the spender into changing. It simply won’t work. If you cut up their credit cards they already know the number by heart! Some shopaholics have credit cards that you don’t even know exist. Compulsive spenders are like alcoholics. They spend when they are upset. They will lie and cheat in order to be free to spend. The best thing you can do is to understand that they are not bad or stupid people. They are people who are in a lot of emotional pain. Encourage them to find help for their problems by working with a therapist who specializes in treating compulsive behaviors or joining Debtors Anonymous.

How can EFT tapping help my clients who are compulsive spenders and debtors?
EFT can eliminate cravings and urges in minutes. A compulsive spender can rate the intensity of the urge to splurge by rating the desire from 1-10 and then tap about it saying, “Even though I can’t wait to see what great deals I can get at the mall, most likely I will run up a big bill on my credit card and regret my binge.” Then she can tap the EFT points focusing on “gotta have it or else.” As she taps she may realize that she doesn’t really need more clothes or things or she may feel fear about increasing her credit card debt. Additional tapping may eliminate the desire completely.

For example, Jean went to the mall with the idea of taking revenge on her husband because he spent more on the dog’s Christmas present than he did on hers. She said, “Even though I am furious with Jeff because he spent more on Muffin than he spent on me, I am determined to make him pay!” As she tapped, she realized how unloved she felt, and after a few rounds of EFT she decided that instead of a trip to the mall it was time to ask Jeff to go to marriage counseling with her.

Here’s another way you can help your clients who are compulsive spenders. “Think before you shop” is a helpful action that may slow the spender down. Compulsive spenders will benefit it they use the 5 W’s method before shopping either online or in the store. They should ask these 5 questions before making the purchase:

  1. What’s going on in my life right now?
  2. What do I feel? (mad, sad, glad, scared)
  3. What do I want to do?
  4. What will the consequence be?
  5. What do I choose to do?


Many compulsive spenders or debtors may seek counseling for another type of compulsive behavior like eating disorders without mentioning their problems with money, so it is essential for therapists and coaches to inquire about other types of addictive problems as a routine part of their intake questions.

Gloria Arenson, LMFT, DCEP, is author of How to Stop Playing the Weighting Game, A Substance Called FoodBinge Eating: How to Stop It ForeverBorn To SpendFive Simple Steps to Emotional HealingGrownup Love: Getting It and Keeping ItEFT Tapping: 64 Quick and Easy Tips, and EFT For Procrastination.

Gloria Arenson will be presenting a workshop, “How to Enhance 12 Step Recovery Using EP Techniques” at the 18th International Energy Psychology Conference |  Santa Clara, CA  |  June 2-5, 2016. Learn more.


Photo source: Beth Rankin/Flickr Creative Commons




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