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Credit card addiction: How to break the spending cycle

First, realize the true cost of compulsive buying

By LaRita Heet

Credit card addiction: Breaking the spending cycleThough "shopaholic" and "retail therapy" jokes abound, compulsive buying and credit card addiction are no laughing matter.

For compulsive buyers, the overwhelming need to buy is an obsession that can ruin finances, marriages, careers and even lives, say compulsive shopping addicts and researchers.

An overwhelming majority of compulsive buyers, or shopping addicts, use their credit cards to feed their addictions, say experts. April Lane Benson, a compulsive shopping researcher, psychologist and author, estimates that 60 percent to 75 percent of the compulsive shoppers she works with have credit card debt as a result of their shopping addictions.

Benson defines a "credit card addict" as "somebody who uses their credit card, maybe for every purchase they make. I've seen people use their credit cards for a pack of gum at the drugstore. There are some people who absolutely don't want to pay anything in cash," she says. The reason is simple: "Cash is real money. Credit card is plastic -- and for some people, it doesn't feel like real money."

Take the case of Kathy, who requested her last name not be used for privacy reasons, , a health care worker in northern New Jersey, who has been a member and volunteer of Debtors Anonymous for 15 years. D.A. is a fellowship of people who share their experiences and help each other deal with and recover from their common problem: compulsive debting. In 1993, when Kathy's mother dragged her "kicking and screaming" to D.A., Kathy says, "I thought I didn't have any problems with money -- yet, as a 36-year-old making good money, I had about $15,000 in credit card debt."

That debt led Kathy to file bankruptcy the year before she first attended a D.A. meeting. "I'd had a lot of trouble paying those payments, and the credit card people were calling me and calling my parents," she says. In fact, it was a MasterCard representative who urged her to file bankruptcy.

Even at that point, Kathy says she was in denial. "I still thought I didn't have any problem with money."

Kathy isn't alone in her battle against a shopping addiction. A study in the December 2008 issue of Journal of Consumer Research titled "An Expanded Conceptualization and a New Measure of Compulsive Buying," estimates that approximately 8.9 percent of study subjects showed symptoms of compulsive buying -- a much higher number than previous studies had estimated.

"Given the results of these studies, it is important for public policy officials to recognize that there may be a larger group of consumers suffering from problems resulting from compulsive buying than previously thought. Consumers need to be educated to recognize if compulsive buying is a problem in their lives so that they may seek help," say the study's authors, Nancy M. Ridgway, Monika Kukar-Kinney (both of the University of Richmond), and Kent B. Monroe (of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Richmond).

Identifying shopping addictions
Since 1995, Benson has researched and worked with compulsive buyers. Benson, the author of two books about compulsive buying -- "I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self" and "To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop" -- also created a comprehensive program, Stopping Overshopping, to help compulsive shoppers overcome shopping addiction.


Credit card addiction resources
  • Stopping Overshopping Program: A comprehensive program designed to help compulsive shoppers overcome their shopping addictions.
  • Debtors Anonymous: A fellowship of men and women who share their experiences with each other to solve their common problem and help others to recover from compulsive debting. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop incurring unsecured debt. There are no dues or fees.
  • Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery: An in-patient program that offers comprehensive addiction evaluation, treatment and support programs. (800) 522-3784.
  • Addicted.com: A resource that provides addiction recovery resources and tools for addicts, family members and friends throughout the Internet community.

Kathy's compulsive shopping addiction began -- not coincidentally -- when she was first old enough to get credit cards at 18 or 19 years old. "I had two MasterCards, a Visa, an American Express. In 1988, I realized I had a problem. I had just spent about $1,200 in about three hours -- all on plastic -- and I was standing on the back of my truck, tying one of the items down, and I was higher than a kite. I thought, 'Wow, I have a problem,' but I put that in the back of my head somewhere and never thought about it again," says Kathy. "It's compulsive shopping, and credit cards come in because you can spend more than you have, and worry about paying it later."

Understanding the disease
Skeptics -- and there are plenty -- of compulsive buying addictions are wont to dismiss the words of addicts and researchers alike. In a society that has only begun to recognize alcoholism and drug addiction as real illnesses that require treatment, there is little sympathy, or even empathy, for people who cannot control their spending.

People often told Kathy, "Just stop charging," but such advice is akin to telling an alcoholic, "Just don't drink" -- easier said than done, especially when the physical and mental addiction to the resultant high is so intense. It's not as easy as just stopping, says Kathy. "You can't. You need that feeling."

"It is a disease -- it just gets a hold of you, and you start using those credit cards. You're making the monthly payments, and the balance isn't coming down," says Kathy. "When you're addicted to spending -- whether with cash or with credit cards -- you just can't stop. I used to get a euphoric feeling -- I didn't drink or do drugs -- but I loved that high feeling when I was spending."

A shopping addict cannot simply use willpower to stay away from his or her addiction. In fact, just as alcoholism, drug addiction and even smoking can be passed down through generations, some believe that so, too, can the compulsion to buy, buy, buy. "I think some people are more hard-wired for addiction than others. So, for them, the threshold would probably be much lower," says Benson.

The true cost of shopping addiction
The most obvious impairment caused by shopping and credit card addiction is financial, but that isn't the only negative effect of the addiction, says Benson. Other ways in which compulsive buying and credit card addiction can hurt someone's life include:

Interpersonally: Marriages and families can crumble from the effects of compulsive buying. Though Kathy was unmarried and didn't have children, she says, "I have seen people get divorced over it. I've seen people come into D.A. and say, 'I'm trying to save my marriage' -- and some stick around, some don't, some fall into the addiction."

Kathy's compulsive shopping didn't just affect her. It also meant her family relationships suffered. "I pretty much stayed away from everybody. I worked a lot," she says. "I ignored my family because I didn't want them to know what was going on. I didn't want them to question me and ask me things. I didn't realize at the time that they were getting the phone calls until I happened to be there one day -- and I hadn't lived at home for seven years, but they were calling my parents."

Professionally: "People get fired from work because they're browsing on the Internet all day. Sometimes people start to embezzle from their company," says Benson.

Personally: "There is a cost in personal development," says Benson. "If you spend so much time, energy and money shopping, thinking about shopping, returning items, whatever it is, that time is not going into some other much more life-enhancing, productive activity."

Physically: "Today, I believe physically -- although at the time I didn't realize it -- the lying and the hiding and the worrying took a physical toll on my body," says Kathy. "I didn't really have a social life. I just didn't want anyone to know that I was doing badly."

Warning signs
Some warning signs that your credit card shopping addiction may be out of hand include:

  • Paying only the minimum (or not even the minimum) on your credit cards.
  • Hiding the credit card bill from your spouse or significant other.
  • Juggling credit card balances and interest rates just to lengthen the time in which you have to pay, just to keep the "day of reckoning" at bay.
  • Habitually buying and returning merchandise. Buy-and-returners often purchase things they don't keep because of an impulse to buy, and they can't deal with the impulse without acting. Once they're home, they realize they can't afford the purchase and return it.
  • Responding to a negative mood by shopping.
  • Unsuccessfully trying to stop compulsive spending.

Before you panic and race out the door to Debtors Anonymous, experts urge you to stop and assess your spending objectively. Do you give in to the occasional, impulse buy? If so, there's a good chance you're simply an impulse buyer, says Benson.

Today, I'm happy. I'm serene. I don't have to worry about picking up the phone when I don't recognize the number, and that's a good thing.

-- Kathy
Debtors Anonymous member and volunteer

Shopping addicts, on the other hand, feel a need for shopping that is almost physical. "I think they use the buying to fulfill unfulfilled needs, and they're doing it so much that it's impairing their life. They can't stop," says Benson.

The future for shopping addicts
Shopping addiction is treatable, experts say. Treatments, which range from one-on-one personal therapy to support groups to financial counseling, are essential to the success of ending shopping addictions.

"What I would suggest -- and basically what I do -- is a very comprehensive and structured cognitive, behavioral, as well as psychodynamic approach, and they go through this process, an evolution, as they go through the program," says Benson.

Attending D.A. meetings wasn't easy at first, but after seven months of silence, Kathy started sharing with others -- and hasn't shut up since, she jokes. "Today, I don't have any debt. Today, I'm happy. I'm serene. I don't have to worry about picking up the phone when I don't recognize the number, and that's a good thing."

See related: A peek into Debtors Anonymous, Severe debt can cause depression and even suicide, Don't say 'I do' to bad credit, Tips for uncovering, dealing with hidden credit card debt, Hiding credit card debt

Published: November 3, 2008



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