What Is Spending Addiction - And How Do I Know If I Have It?


“You did then what you knew how to do.
When you knew better, you did better.”
—Maya Angelou

The dictionary defines addiction as a means "to devote or surrender oneself to something habitually or obsessively; behavior that impairs the performance of a vital function(s), a harmful development." Addiction causes you to lose your sense of balance and rationality. Beneath all addictions is a longing for immediate gratification--to feel good, powerful, worthy of admiration, and problem-free--and an insistence on ignoring the long-range, self-destructive implications of the behavior.

If you suffer from spending addiction, one out-of-control shopping spree is never enough. Neighborhood malls and Internet shopping sites possess a mesmerizing magnetic appeal for you. You give the priciest, most lavish gifts. Your purchases reflect how knowledgeable you are about all the trendiest brands and designer labels. When you dine out with friends or business associates, you’re invariably the one who insists on picking up the tab—whether you can afford to, or not.

In spite of negative consequences that inevitably catch up with you--such as guilt, debt, or feeling ashamed and secretive about your compulsion to buy things--you find yourself on yet another shopping binge, charging or writing checks for things you don’t really need and may never even use. You may lie about how much you've spent (to yourself and to those close to you), conceal price tags and receipts, and do financial gymnastics in an attempt to juggle your finances and keep up with monthly payment demands. Spending addiction is an attempt to try to “buy” happiness—to feel admired, to feel accepted, to feel empowered, to push away troubling feelings, like self-doubt or self-disappointment—and can risk ruining everything you hold dear.


How Can You Become Addicted To A Behavior?

There are chemical messengers known as neurotransmitters that carry communication from your brain to throughout your body. When you’re anxious, nervous, or feeling worried (like when self-critical thoughts start creeping in), you get a flood of panic-inducing epinephrine that can feel like pure jet fuel. When something happens that makes you feel especially good (like when you buy something!), you get a rush of incredibly satisfying neurotransmitters called serotonins that feels GREAT.

Spending addiction causes “I’ve got to buy something NOW” behavior. Each "cha-ching!" of the cash register or credit card "Approved!" message makes you feel so good, you get enough of a chemical rush to drown in. One purchase is never enough. You want to feel that exhilarating "high" again, and again, and again--and keep those nagging, distressing feelings at arm's length. And so you go out and buy something.

You’ve become intoxicated by your own behavior. The only thing that feels important is to be able to continue spending--because shopping for and acquiring new things makes you feel so good about yourself, about your life, about everything! Just like the definition for addiction says, you have surrendered yourself to a behavior that’s habitual, obsessive, and impairs your vital functioning.

What’s Behind Spending Addiction?

Spending addiction is a symptom—or flashing red light warning sign--that there are deep-rooted feelings you’re trying to avoid facing. Indulging yourself in shopping helps numb those troubling feelings—for a while. Every time you try to stop the pattern of compulsive spending, you find you have to deal with the distressing feelings “cold turkey,” and the panic and fear that pops up is almost indescribable. Even though you may have promised yourself you were going to really curb your spending, in an attempt to feel better fast, you go on yet another shopping binge.

What feelings could be so distressingly terrible that they're capable of sending you on a spending path of self destruction? Maybe you’re afraid that you’re not as attractive or successful as you’d like to be. Perhaps your fear stems from believing that the real you isn’t lovable. Or maybe you’re afraid that the façade—the “outer” you--you’ve worked so hard to build and have maintained so painstakingly will crack, and that others will then see what, in your mind, is behind that front: that you’re a fraud, a pretender, a failure.

When you have spending addiction, what you’re actually attempting to "buy" is to be liked and admired by others and to not feel consumed by self-doubt and self-disappointment. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, how successful you are, or what prestige you hold in your community, it’s the inside of you that feels empty and insignificant. When you’re out there spending money, that gaping emotional Grand Canyon inside of you feels nearly filled and--if only for a little while--you feel on top of the world.

How Do You Know If You’re Suffering From Spending Addiction?

Heavy-duty denial is a major component of addictive behavior. In order to determine whether or not you’re suffering from spending addiction, you’re going to have to do a scathingly honest “audit” of your spending habits: how much and how often you spend; what damage your spending causes to your bank account, your work, your family, and your very personal life; and, most importantly, what feelings of fear and/or insecurity your spending habits attempt to cover up.

Recognizing you may have an addiction is the first big step towards recovery. If you suspect that spending is a likely source of problems for you, you might consider talking with a therapist. Together you can look at what motivates you to buy things and how your spending habits affect the core quality of your life, which is to say, how it shapes the way you relate to those close to you, how you imagine you are regarded by others, and how you really feel about yourself.

Addictive behavior is treatable. If you truly want to put a stop to how your spending habits are taking over your life, therapy can provide insight that will help you un-learn counter-productive behavior, and guide the way to developing new coping skills that will allow you to claim the "priceless" gift of genuine happiness and self-contentment.