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Compulsive buying

Compulsive buying

One of the lesser known impulse disorders that can also fall under addiction, compulsive buying is a growing problem that’s affecting a lot of young people today, particularly women. 


Aria, 35, is a successful marketing executive, known in her personal and professional circles as their best dressed and most fashionable. She’s a subscriber to just under 10 fashion magazines a month, has a collection of 300 pairs of shoes (from $60 Nine West heels she’s found on Amazon to $700 Christian Louboutins she’s ordered over the phone from Paris in broken French), and her closet is not only coordinated by season, it’s also organized by color, fabric and occasion.


With close to a six-figure salary, Aria – a married mother of two – looks every bit the poised and polished upper middle-class type, latest smartphone in one hand and designer bag on the other. When she enters a room, she appears commanding, powerful, and put together. “When I look in the mirror,” says Aria carefully, “I look every bit the girl I wanted to be when I grew up.”


What the mirror doesn’t show, however, is Aria’s darker side – the side that she’s so carefully shielded from the world, including her husband and family.


Aria is a compulsive buyer.


There are other types of impulse control disorders that affect people's day to day life, read about treatments for them.


A typical day


Aria wakes at 5:45 a.m. every day, fifteen minutes after her engineer husband has already left for work. Even before she rises to go to the bathroom or to let the dogs out, Aria checks her phone. She scans LinkedIn quickly, then scrolls through Facebook for faraway family updates, and leaves her favorite social platform for last – Instagram.


On Instagram she clicks on the stories posted by the influencers she follows, a collection of 20- and 30-something women with enviable closets and a seemingly endless supply of new threads. Each day, every woman is promoting a selection of new dresses, new shoes, new pants, new jewelry. With a simple swipe up, Aria is led to the product (often accompanied by a discount code provided by the influencer) which she most often always buys. Aria estimates that for every five items she “swipes up” for, she purchases two or three.


“Yup… I’m buying something even before I get up to pee,” she remarks with a guilty smile. “That sounds terrible.”


While she’s getting ready for the day, perched on her vanity, she turns on YouTube and puts on a tutorial by her favorite beauty guru, Tati Westbrook. Whatever Tati promotes, Aria is also likely to buy, whether it’s a new face spray, an eye-shadow palette, or a Snow White mirror.


“There’s this part of me that thinks, ‘Oh good Lord – how many lipsticks do I actually need?’” Aria muses. “But when I see it online, and I picture it on myself, I think, ‘Oh, that would be life-changing!’ And I have to, have to, have to have it.


“So I order it, and I feel this thrill of pressing the order button. That’s the first bit of gratification. The second is when I get that shipment notice. The third is when I go to my mailbox and the product is there.


“And it does feel life-changing… for all of five minutes. Then I’m right back online again. I’m not even technically shopping – like, I’m not looking for it. It finds me, and I have to buy it.”


While Aria’s at work, she steals moments of company time to peruse clothing retailer sites, like Nordstrom, Forever 21, and Lulu’s. She fantasizes about how she’ll look in certain outfits. She plans events around outfits, as opposed to the other way around.


“If I see something I like, like a sequined, flowing gown, I’ll think of all the events I could possibly go to throughout the year or think of something I could do, just so I can justify wearing it,” she explains. “You know that saying, ‘Build it and they will come?’ For me, it’s like, ‘Buy it and the event will happen.’”


After work, often while driving home, Aria will plan out what to make for dinner. She admits she’s not particularly talented at planning, so she’ll pluck a few ingredients off the shelf once she’s home, find a recipe on the internet, and get right back in her car to head to the grocery store for whatever she’s missing.


“I’ll purposely go to like a Walmart or Meijer or something, some place I know that will have more than just food, just so I can look around,” she says. Typically, she’ll pick up the groceries she intended to get, with an additional bag filled with other random items, like false lashes, a new lotion, a pack of low-profile socks, or bars of dark chocolate. She might even get matching slippers for her twin boys and a case of energy bars for her husband (items no one asked for).


“I feel like I just have to constantly buy,” Aria laments. “It’s like it physically hurts to go into a store and not buy anything.”


Despite her healthy salary, Aria is deep in debt. Her husband is aware of an $18,000 line of credit Aria has been slowly paying off, but he has no idea about the $600 credit card bill that’s growing, or the $26,000 Aria’s parents paid off for her (that she’s promising she’s also paying back). And even though the debt gnaws at Aria, causing her anxiety on a daily basis, “it’s like the only thing that makes me feel better is to buy something.


“So the cycle isn’t just repeating itself, it’s getting bigger and scarier. And the sad part is I could probably sell everything I own – the Louis Vuitton bags and the Tiffany bracelets – and not be able to pay off the debt I owe.”


It’s not as though Aria hasn’t tried to remedy her situation. She went through a no-buy period for eight months a few years ago, when she took every last penny from each weekly pay and put it down toward her debt. She cleared a $22,000 debt in under a year… only to rack it up again not too long after.


She did sell a lot of designer goods she’d accumulated. She took that money and bought other items.


She did reduce the amount of clothes she was buying. She stopped buying 10 $40 tops a month and started buying only five tops a month – from more expensive, higher end brands.


“I cause myself so much grief wanting,” she says, doing her best not to tear up. She adds sheepishly that she’s typically a crier, but that she’s just had her eyelash extensions refilled, and tears would destroy them.


“I know, I’m ridiculous,” she says. Her self-deprecation isn’t funny; she recognizes how much it reveals about her. “I’ve spent so much time creating this image of myself externally and not nearly any time fixing what’s so (expletive) broken on the inside. That’s what makes me buy. I don’t feel good about who I am, so I’m constantly trying to create this version of myself that at least, to the outside world, looks acceptable, or even enviable.”


Is compulsive buying actually real?


In 2018, Marie Claire UK published an article that claimed that up to 90% of millennials share and document their lifestyle and wealth to their followers and friends on Instagram. In a survey conducted on 1,400 young people between the ages of 14 and 24, Instagram and Snapchat were found to be the most dangerous apps for mental health; the study found that social media was actually more addictive than alcohol and cigarettes. In the last 25 years, these apps have contributed to the 70% rise in the diagnosis of anxiety and depression in people in this demographic.


Not only has Instagram caused anxiety and depression, with so many people feeling “less than” the influencers they follow online, it’s also created financial stress for millions of users. In an effort to keep up with the world’s coolest, wealthiest and sexiest, users tend to part with their cash much more quickly than they ever have before, swiping up to buy whatever it is their favorite influencer happens to be promoting on any given day.


The group that’s been most impacted is the one to whom the young female belongs; the idea that carrying a particular bag will transport you, even in spirit, to the bustling streets of New York, or that a bikini will be an affordable alternative to jetting off to Bali, is hard to resist. The perfectly curated feeds of social media influencers today are completely designed to create a fantasy, one that’s showing nearly impossible for the impulsive and the impressionable to ignore or avoid.


Reports state that it’s not only followers who are drowning in debt from compulsive buying – influencers too, especially the ones desperate to grow their follower numbers, are also struggling to keep up financially. While many established social media giants have the good fortune of having free product sent to them in exchange for a mention or a post, other smaller, “micro” influencers are desperate to keep up with the Joneses, purchasing their own large collections of clothing and other goods and spending hundreds of dollars on photographers who can help them cultivate the perfect Instagram feed.


Are you a compulsive buyer?


If every word in this article is ringing any bells or causing a lump in your stomach (because you know you’ve been stashing away packages or ripping up credit card bills before your partner can find them), you may have compulsive buying disorder. Compulsive buying disorder is characterized by an inability to resist the urge to buy or to shop, despite horrendous consequences, like insurmountable debt or a loss of a relationship.


It’s been said that 6% of Americans have this disorder; with the rise of platforms like Instagram, that number is bound to rise. While women are more likely to suffer with the disorder, men aren’t far behind. The fact that it’s so much easier to press click and buy without ever leaving your house or even getting dressed is a formula for growth in the number of people with this disorder.


Similar to gambling, compulsive buying can co-exist with other mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, or borderline personality disorder. Strangely, this disorder typically doesn’t develop until the early 30s, when people are beginning to feel a sense of financial independence. The appearance of a regular salary, as well as comparisons to friends, family members or coworkers who seem to be able to afford everything and anything (like cars, vacations or an endless supply of clothes) may likely bring about the addiction.


Learn more about depression, the types, and the treatments.


What are the symptoms?


Impulse buying. Compulsive buyers may or may not keep a list of the items they want to buy, but they also generally don’t think first before whipping out the plastic. They buy things they don’t necessarily need, but are instead overwhelmed with the desire to buy something just to have something new.


A rush of pleasure. It’s also called a “buyer’s high,” and it’s that joyful, exciting feeling one experiences after buying something new. It’s not even necessarily the product that makes the compulsive buyer happy, but the act of purchasing it.


Hiding or burying negative feelings. For many compulsive shoppers, the act of buying something is a behavior they’ve learned to practice because once upon a time it numbed a terrible, lonely, sad or scared emotion. They’ll buy something to feel better, only for that feeling to be followed by something more sinister, like regret, grief, fear or panic. The cycle tends to repeat.


What are the treatment options?


Compulsive buying can be treated in a mental health professional’s office, using cognitive behavioral therapy or other types of therapy centered around changing negative thought patterns and behaviors. But there are things that compulsive shoppers can do at home to minimize the damage and to improve quality of life.


Pay in cash. The psychological effects of paying in cash – watching that piece of paper leave your hands and into the cash register is more painful than handing over a piece of plastic. Paying in cash actually feels like a loss, whereas paying with a card tends to feel inauthentically safer.


Make a list and stick to it. It’s a good idea to plan out purchases for the entire week. Money masters like Dave Ramsay suggest an envelope method – filling out envelopes with specific amounts of cash designated to specific things, like groceries, electricity, gas and so forth – which will prevent you from going over your budget and being tempted to buy something not on your list.


Get rid of your social media accounts. Try this even for a month. Unfollow all the influencers whose style you can’t help but try to emulate and see how much money you save from not shopping online for four whole weeks.


Keep track of your triggers. Are you lonely? Sad? Upset? Insecure? Consider all the items in your closet you bought when you were sad, and see if they still have the same effect. They probably don’t. Consider that whatever it is you’re about to purchase will lose its luster too – but if you’re deep in debt, you’re probably still paying for it, and then some.

Holidays can be a big trigger for people, read about how to not let it spark anxiety. 

If you or someone you know is a compulsive shopper, and you need the assistance of a licensed mental health professional, visit us at www.hopetherapyandwellness.com

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