The holiday season often goes hand in hand with shopping. Shopping for gifts, shopping for holiday décor, and shopping for the best Black Friday or Cyber Monday deals all seem to be a crucial part of the holiday season.

Buying gifts for loved ones is a generous way to express kindness, and one of the five love languages is receiving gifts. However, sometimes shopping can take its toll on our mental health. Shopping can take its toll on our wallets as well as our mental health, especially when we shop without a purpose. Compulsive buying, “retail therapy,” or shopping out of boredom can lead to a pile of unnecessary belongings, guilt, and financial hardships. 

Compulsive shopping

According to Mental Health America, Americans spent over $4.8 trillion on retail purchases in 2016. Compulsive buying is the uncontrollable desire to shop for unnecessary items that result in financial hardships and problems at school, work, or home. Compulsive acts are fueled by obsessive thoughts that provide a rush of excitement during the act. This rush of excitement is short-lived but is strongly addictive and also provides a sense of relief. Once the excitement and relief wear off, feelings of guilt, anxiety, and depression often bubble to the surface. Compulsive shopping often relieves an uncomfortable tension or anxiety, but only temporarily. Often, a negative mood, such as an argument or frustration triggers an urge to shop.

Despite this temporary relief, many individuals who shop compulsively feel disappointed about their lack of control over their behavior. 

It is common for compulsive shoppers to hide their items from loved ones, and many of these buys are not necessarily expensive items. These items can range from clothing, shoes, and jewelry to household appliances, many of which are on sale. 

Signs and symptoms of compulsive shopping

  • Obsession with shopping for unnecessary items
  • Spending a great deal of time shopping for unneeded items
  • Difficulty resisting the purchase of unneeded items
  • Financial difficulties because of uncontrolled shopping
  • Problems at work, school or home because of uncontrolled shopping

Looking at the numbers

  • It has been estimated that compulsive shopping affects around 6% of the population in the United States. 
  • Women are nine times more likely to be affected than men. 
  • Most cases of compulsive shopping begin in early adulthood, and it is rare for this disorder to begin after 30 years of age. 

Co-occurring disorders and compulsive shopping

Individuals who engage in compulsive shopping may struggle with co-occurring disorders such as depression, anxiety, binge eating disorder, substance abuse, or a personality disorder. Additionally, compulsive shopping may be confused for spending sprees during manic episodes of bipolar disorder. As a result, mental health professionals making a diagnosis of compulsive shopping disorder should be able to rule out the shopping sprees that can sometimes accompany mania in bipolar disorder

Are you at risk for compulsive shopping?

If you find yourself practicing the following thoughts and actions, then you may be struggling with compulsive buying:

  • If you have money left from a paycheck, do you have the urge to spend it?
  • Do you buy things you cannot afford?
  • Do you have credit card debt or put items on layaway?
  • Do you buy items to make yourself feel better?
  • Have you overdrawn on your bank account, buying things you do not need?
  • Do you obsess over shopping?
  • Are you embarrassed about your spending habits?
  • Do you own a lot of unnecessary items?

If you or a loved one may show signs of compulsive shopping, please feel free to reach out to Discovery Mood & Anxiety Programs for assistance.

Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a clinical content writer and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of mental health and addiction medicine. She is a family medicine physician and author, who also teaches and contributes to medicine board education. Her passion lies within educating the public on preventable diseases, including mental health disorders and the stigma associated with them. She is also an outdoor activist and spends most of her free time empowering other women to get outside into the backcountry.