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Spending Addiction: What is it, and how do you spot it?


Webster’s Dictionary defines the term addiction as “devoting oneself to something (action or substance) habitually and obsessively; it is behavior that impairs one’s ability to perform important functions and often leads to harmful consequences.” Addiction is self-destructive and will probably lead to all kinds of trouble down the line, but underneath all the various forms of addiction (drugs, smoking, sex, alcohol, etc.) is a drive to feel good, be instantly satisfied, a longing to be free from the problems of the world, and most of all, an ignorance of the long term effects of the addiction.

With new technology geared towards making money more easily portable and our consumption-driven societies, the urge to spend is growing. Add the financial institutions urging customers to sign up for credit cards and charging overdraft fees and you have a recipe for disaster. If you suffer from spending addiction, then you already know what we’re talking about.

People that suffer from spending addiction have out of control spending sprees at the mall, department stores, and on online stores. These venues have an almost mesmerizing effect on such people, such that they can’t walk away from them. Spending addicts also tend to give lavish gifts, and are very knowledgeable about the latest trends, labels and designer brands. When they go out dining with friends, they often insist on picking up the tab, whether they can afford it or not.

Regardless of the negative emotions and effects of overspending that inevitably show up in the long run – debt, guilt, shame, secretiveness – spending addicts will keep on buying things and writing checks for items they don’t really need, or will ever use. They lie to themselves about how much they’ve spent, hide the material evidence (price tags, receipts, ticket stubs), and constantly have to do financial acrobatics in order to keep up with the monthly bills and payments. In some ways, spending addiction is like trying to buy happiness, which we all know can never really be bought. Addicts do this in order to feel accepted, loved and admired, and to push away problems they may be facing in their lives. However, this behavior eventually ends up ruining their lives even more and costing a lot more than what’s on the price tags.

How do you become addicted to spending?

Addiction of any kind starts in the brain. There are neurotransmitters in the brain (they help with communication between the brain and the rest of the body) that control our feelings of anger, anxiety, panic, and such. When a person starts to feel such ‘negative’ feelings, the chemical epinephrine is produced in mass volumes. Epinephrine, in its pure form, is like jet fuel, and will compel a person to do something worthy of the adrenaline rush (in this case, buy stuff). When a person does something that they perceive as good and rewarding (again, spending money in this case), the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, is produced. It makes them feel great, like they are on top of the world.

The spending addict gets that panicky feeling that they have to buy something at that moment. With each “cha-ching!” of the cash till, the happy feelings come rushing through. However, like most other addictions, one purchase is not enough. They have to keep buying stuff to experience that high over and over again, if only to keep the guilty, depressing feelings at bay. So, they keep spending and spending, to satisfy their urges and try to fix the bad feelings.

At this point, the spending addict has given themselves over to a habitual behavior that impacts their ability to make wise decisions and reason logically. It becomes very important important to them that they keep spending, because doing so makes them feel good about themselves and their lives.

Behind Spending Addiction

In most cases, spending addiction is a mask for the deeper troubles a person doesn’t want to face head on. Indulging in those shopping sprees makes them numb to any pain they may be feeling– only for a while, though. Every time they try to stop, they face the distressing feelings of fear and panic, and ultimately seek comfort in the habit again. They may have promised themselves to cut back on the spending next time, but in an attempt to feel better faster, they go on another shopping spree.

What is it that could be so terribly frightening to make one seek comfort in spending, rather over-spending? In some cases, addicts feel that they aren’t as successful as they want to be. Sometimes, they fear that people won’t love the real person underneath the fancy clothes. For others, it is the simple fear that if the picture of wealth they have worked so hard to paint crumbles, others will see them as frauds and pretenders, which will likely lead to rejection.

How do you know you are a spending addict?

Being in denial is a major sign of spending addiction. In order to determine whether you really are addicted to spending, you have to be willing to do an honest, deep evaluation of your spending habits: how much you spend, how often you do it, what effect the spending has on the family, finances, work, relationships, and your personal life. Most of all, you have to be able to identify what feelings/insecurities the spending if trying to cover up.

Being able to recognize and admit the problem is the first big step towards getting better, and getting rid of the habit. At this point, you may want to seek professional help. Also, enlist the help of family members and close friends; together, you can identify the root of the addiction, how it shapes your life, and how you can deal with it.

Spending addiction can be treated, but only if you truly want to put an end to the habit. Therapy has proven to be successful, and recovering addicts will point to its ability to guide them back to self-esteem and contentment with their lives.