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Debt and Comfort Shopping

If your wardrobe is bursting with clothes you've never worn, or shoes that are still in their boxes, you may have a shopping addiction. Many people indulge in a spot of retail therapy when they're down in the dumps, but what happens when your shopping habits get out of control?

Shopaholicism is currently regarded as something of a joke. "Taking illegal substances in excess is one thing. To shop till you drop arouses only amusement. While it might sound trivial, shopaholicism is a recognised addiction and sufferers are treated alongside alcoholics and drug addicts; there is even a pill you can take to lessen the thrill of spending.

According to addictions.co.uk, compulsive or addictive shopping is a form of behaviour adopted to avoid reality, and is accompanied by a high which causes the sufferer to lose control and buy many items for which they have no need. The website says the adrenalin rush and fantasy that surround the episode and everything that precedes the actual spending spree all bring a false sense of freedom from life's problems.

As with all addicts, shopaholics can end up feeling an overwhelming sense of shame, remorse and guilt. In addition to high levels of debt, consequences can include the fear of discovery, leading to denial and attempts to cover up the behaviour.

According to price comparison site uSwitch.com, more than 700,000 women are in the grips of shopaholicism, having an average shopping debt of about £8,000 each. Together with Jay Hunt, spending and style expert from BBC3's Spendaholics, uSwitch surveyed women across the country to look at their shopping habits. It found that shopaholics spend nearly £100 a month more on fashion and grooming than non-addicts, and the typical shopaholic is saddled with £11,337 in total unsecured debt, £6,270 more than the average British woman. Certain celebrities are definitely leading the way when it comes to the shopping drug. Victoria Beckham is in a league of her own when it comes to retail therapy.

The fashion-obsessed former Spice Girl is rumoured to spend £100,000 a year on clothes. Meanwhile, Sarah Jessica Parker is none too different from her Sex and the City character, Carrie, and admits to owning about 100 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes, costing anything from $300 to $1,000 a pop.

The desire to copy celebrity lifestyles can lead people down the route of excessive spending. So-called WAGS - football players' wives and girlfriends - hit the headlines during last year's World Cup with their spending habits. In just one hour in the German spa town of Baden Baden, six of the women blew £57,000 on clothes and shoes.

But it's not just women who become addicted to shopping. In fact, according to research from Dr Koran, from Stanford University in the US, men are almost as likely as women to be compulsive shoppers. Rather than clothes, shoes and accessories, they're more likely to be hooked on cars, gadgets, tools and electronics. They're also likely to be obsessed by auctions and to be avid collectors.

So why do we love shopping so much? Research by the Retail Trust shows that nearly a quarter of the country seek stress relief from a trip to the high street and 40% of 18 to 24-year-olds shop to reduce their stress levels - higher than any other age group.

How healthy is your shopping habit?

If you answer yes to three or more of the following questions, it is possible that you are a shopaholic and you should seek further help:

  • Do you spend compulsively when you are feeling low?
  • Has your spending caused upset in your family or relationship?
  • Do you often find that you buy more than you set out to?
  • Do you buy items you don't need or clothes you don't ever wear?
  • Do you feel you 'belong' to the human race more when you are spending money?
  • Do you suffer emotional consequences after a spending spree, such as guilt, shame, remorse or self-loathing?
  • Have you ever spent money in order to relieve these feelings?
  • Have you ever tried to stop this behaviour for any length of time?
  • Do you continue to spend even though you cannot manage your debts?

A sign of the times Last year, about half a million people went to Citizens' Advice Bureaux for help with consumer debt on credit cards, store cards, hire purchase and bank overdrafts. This amounted to a 37 per cent increase in the number of people with debt problems in the past two years, says the National Association of CABs.

"Of course, some people are just unlucky and get into debt through an unexpected event, such as redundancy. But for a substantial number, probably about one in two, getting into debt is linked with addictive behaviour - they just can't help themselves,".

Psychologist Dr Dorothy Rowe says people shop to reward or comfort themselves and the ease of obtaining credit has exacerbated the addiction problem. "Shopping addiction first became a problem in the 1970s when credit cards were invented," she explains. "Before that, you needed real money to buy things or you could make a down-payment and pay for things over a period of time and then take them home. Also, women couldn't borrow money on their own until later on."

Dr Rowe says that attitudes to credit have changed since the 1970s and it is now seen as normal or acceptable to be in debt. "People don't see credit cards as spending real money and also, as internet shopping has got easier, people who don't like going shopping are buying things online," she explains.

So, how can the problem be treated?

For true shopaholics, treatment is similar to other addictions such as alcohol and drugs. Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists, says the first step is admitting you have a problem. "Next, look at your reasons for shopping - getting attention in a shop, the novelty value or buying something new so that you feel your life is moving forward. Are you doing it because of other problems in your life or the feeling that something is missing?"

However, help is at hand here are a few simple steps to getting back on track:

  • Stop spending! Cut up your credit cards and pay only in cash.
  • List what you owe and to whom.
  • Prioritise your debts: pay off those with the highest interest rates first.
  • See if you can switch any of your debts to a lower rate of interest.
  • If you have bought lots of items you have never used, sell them on an online auctioning site, such as eBay.
  • Work out a budget based on your income and how much you need for necessities.

With thanks to an Article by Emma Lunn and Uswitch.com

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