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QA: Avis Cardella writes on overcoming shopping addiction

Credit counseling helped her overcome 'Sex & the City' lifestyle

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Former model turned freelance writer Avis Cardella lived the high life of "Sex and the City" scribe Carrie Bradshaw, complete with fashionista friends, weekends in the Hamptons and lots and lots of retail therapy.

But when the bills from Barneys, Bergdorf's and Bloomingdale's came due, her house of credit cards tumbled and Cardella went from Prada to nada in a New York minute.

Avis Cardella, author,
'Spent'
Avis Cardella

In her book "Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict," Avis Cardella Avis Cardelladescribes her  descent into a life of self-gratification and false emotional comfort brought on by compulsive shopping. In the end, it wasn't so much about the debt, she says, as it was the personal price she was paying through a  loss of self-esteem and in damaged family and personal relationships.

Cardella realized she had a shopping problem when she found herself in the lingerie section at Barneys buying 20 Cosabella thongs, one in every color, without any idea how she got there.

Her obsession worsened until she uncovered the root of her shopping addiction. Her mother's untimely death when Avis was in her mid-20s, followed by alienation from her father and brothers created an emotional void that no amount of designer-label clothing could fill.

"Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict" is Cardella's cautionary tale of the dark side of excess and the emotional wounds that often lead to overshopping. Thanks to credit counseling, she fought her way out of debt and ultimately kicked her addiction.

CreditCards.com spoke with Cardella by phone from her home in Paris.

CreditCards.com: How much did your early years as a New York model contribute to your compulsive shopping?

Avis Cardella: Everything around me at that time made it easy to become a compulsive shopper: the advent of mall culture, the rise of easy credit, the self-indulgence of the Me Generation, and then the luxury-label fever of the early 90s when retail therapy became a daily ritual. These provided the framework for being a shopping addict.

CreditCards.com: Were your friends equally carefree about spending?

Cardella: It wasn't really like that; it wasn't spend today and not worry about it. I was a very conscientious consumer. I had credit cards, and I used to keep these meticulous flow charts of how much money I had coming in and how much I was spending and how much I had to pay on the credit cards. I thought that by getting some credit cards and paying the minimum each month that I was building a good credit history.

CreditCards.com: It turned a corner after your mother's death.

Cardella: After my mom's death, I gravitated toward shopping as something that comforted me. The fact that I was shopping all the time sent me spiraling into debt. On top of that, I divorced. When I wasn't able to pay all of those cards that I had been paying on, I realized OK, it might not be a good thing to buy things on credit.

CreditCards.com: When you got in trouble, did you then stop shopping?

Cardella: (laughs) No! The problem was, I couldn't stop shopping. I did adjust my shopping to accommodate certain things. I could no longer buy $1,000 worth of clothing at a pop, which I had done at one point because I was making good money, and I was in a lifestyle and a relationship where the money was there. The problem with shopping addiction is, you just feel you can't stop, and you go and buy silly things. I spent my last $20 on a pair of pants. That's not an extravagant expense, but it becomes extravagant when you're doing that every day because you just feel the need to buy something.

For a lot of shopping addicts, it's all about going through the act of buying, because that's where the real exhilaration comes from.

-- Avis Cardella    
'Spent' author    

CreditCards.com: Most people can't imagine buying 20 pairs of underwear and then throwing the bag unopened in the back of the closet. What goes through your mind at that moment?

Cardella: For a lot of shopping addicts, it's all about going through the act of buying, because that's where the real exhilaration comes from. You keep going back to that act of purchasing. 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 or the atmosphere of the store or feeling powerful because you are shopping. So the object itself has no meaning; its meaning is lost the minute you leave the shop. So in that sense, you don't even want to look at it anymore. You wish you hadn't bought it.

CreditCards.com: There's no hoarder mindset of "I'll wear it someday?"

Cardella: I think hoarders are a different mindset. In some ways, it might even be the opposite with hoarders because they feel like they need to have it around them because they feel that at some point it will serve a purpose in their life. With me, it was very often the sense that I understood the meaninglessness of the object. It wasn't going to make anything better or bring my mother back or fill the void in my life. That was always the disappointment.

CreditCards.com: How deep a hole did you dig for yourself?

Cardella: I didn't have a big financial hole. When I went to a credit counselor, they put me on a program with only $6,800 of debt. That's not enormous, but for me it was quite a lot because I was struggling to get by on a freelance writer's budget. My issue wasn't so much that I was in enormous debt, it was more about what it was doing to my life, the emotional price you pay for being a compulsive shopper. My lowest lows weren't because I was $100,000 in debt; my lowest lows were because I ruined relationships and was distanced from my family and felt empty inside.

CreditCards.com: How might your life have been different if credit cards did not exist?

Cardella: That's a very good question. I did get credit cards as part of this generation that got caught up in this whirlwind of instant gratification. I think the credit card does provide this sense that you can have an instant answer to an impulse, and that's something that can be very dangerous. The most obvious reason is that it can get you into debt, but on an emotional level too, you find yourself always gravitating toward just pulling out that little wafer of plastic and feeling like that can solve a lot of problems for you, it can sweep you away from uncomfortable feelings or difficult emotions.

CreditCards.com: Did you cut your cards up?

Cardella: No, I paid them all off and now I don't use credit cards anymore. In France, the norm is a charge card and you just don't spend beyond what you have. It's more like a debit card; it comes out of your bank account at the end of the month. If you don't have the money in your account, they'll cut you off.

CreditCards.com: Did you go to therapy for your shopping addiction?

Cardella: No, I couldn't afford it! (laughs)  But I did manufacture my own way of coping with it, quite intuitively really, because I realized that I did have to look into my history and my relationship with my family and the loss of my mother and my own self-esteem and kind of connect the dots there.

CreditCards.com: Can you relate to your shopaholic past?

Cardella: Yes, I know that person was and is me, but she was not 100 percent in herself and conscious of her actions, like a lot of people who go through traumatic things in their life. I can use this experience now and apply it to the shopping I do today in a very healthy way, and I do. I enjoy shopping now much more than I ever did, but I shop in a much more mindful way.

CreditCards.com: Do you wear what you buy?

Cardella: (laughs) I do, actually. And that's the beauty of it; I came out of it as somebody who feels in control. I can give definition to the things I buy now rather than feeling that I'm buying things that are defined by what someone else tells me they should be. That's just not part of my life anymore. I can buy things and give them some meaning based on whether I really like them or want them or need them and not based on the fact that everybody is shopping therefore I should be, too.

CreditCards.com: Can you enjoy movies like "Sex and the City" now, or are they painful?

Cardella: Painful as in really bad? (laughs)  No, I can enjoy watching that. I knew what it was like to be Carrie Bradshaw; in a way, my life mirrored hers quite a bit. I know now, after coming out of my compulsive shopping habit and having explored the root of it and knowing what it was about, that I don't have to be consumed by this desire to consume. I know that having something new is not the be-all and end-all. There will always be something new to buy, but I don't feel like if I watch "Sex and the City" that I'll look at the clothes and think, oh, I want it. I don't feel that way at all. In fact, I look at it and feel rather comfortable knowing that where I am now is a better place and a healthier place for me.

Even people without shopping addictions are exploring this now. When is enough enough? When are you enough? How can you actually know the difference between what you want and what you need? I'm hopeful that more people are moving toward being mindful consumers.

See related: Help for bad credit, Q&A with author Lee Eisenberg on why we shop, 'Get Financially Naked' author says talk money with your honey -- or else, Author Joe Hallinan on why we make money mistakes, Credit card addiction: How to break the spending cycle

Published: June 25, 2010


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