Real-life shopaholics

The new movie Confessions of a Shopaholic celebrates frenzied spending sprees as a harmless hobby. In reality, shopaholism is a high-risk condition that leads to dizzying amounts of debt

Three years ago, Melinda Durocher* hit rock bottom. The 48-year-old Toronto woman had racked up $73,000 in personal unsecured debt through her six credit cards and a line of credit, and she had little to show for it. Granted, her closets and drawers were bursting with clothes that she had bought during her daily lunch-break jaunts to a nearby Winners; she even had bags of clothing in the trunk of her car that she had planned to donate to charity, yet simply couldn’t part with. But she was becoming alarmed that she could no longer afford to buy groceries unless she charged them.

When her truck, which Durocher needed to commute to her job as an office manager at an accounting firm, became unsafe to drive, she knew that she had reached the end of the line.

“I had already been refused a loan, so I knew I wouldn’t qualify for a car loan, and I wouldn’t have been able to afford the payments anyway,” Durocher said matter-of-factly during a telephone interview. “That’s when I went for help at a credit-counselling agency.”

Durocher is unquestionably a shopaholic. While the word may seem cute, in reality it means much more than most people bargain for: Shopaholism is a serious condition, and sufferers have the potential to become the unexpected victims of the current economic crisis.

Except for those ideological few who have moved off the grid and raise their own food, we all live in a consumer economy. The average Canadian household spends about $60,000 a year on everything from shelter to stereo equipment to alcohol. Even in times of economic crisis, the desire to shop is still so strong that it can be deadly, as it was in the case of the Wal-Mart store clerk Jdimytai Damour, trampled to death by bargain hunters last November in New York State.

Women in particular are encouraged not only to spend money but to identify themselves as shoppers: An ever-present bombardment of advertisements coaxes us to buy that one new product that will magically infuse our lives with perfection; meanwhile, pop culture offers us female icons such as Becky Bloomwood, the hapless compulsive spender of the British author Sophie Kinsella’s bestselling (and series-spawning) book Confessions of a Shopaholic, which was released as a movie in February. We’re not so much born to shop as bred to shop.

“Throughout the 20th century, marketing and advertising [firms] realized that women controlled the spending power of the household, even if they weren’t the ones making the money, and [the industry] really started deliberately marketing toward women,” says Pamela Klaffke, a Calgary-based consumer commentator for CBC Radio and the author of the 2003 book Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping. “Today, there’s been a glamorization of shopping and overspending through pop culture: the whole cliché of Sex and the City, where the main character didn’t have enough money to buy an apartment because she had spent it on hundreds of pairs of shoes. And that was forgivable, even cute, because that’s supposed to be the way of the modern woman.”

We’ve all experienced the pleasantly dizzying sensation of scoring a deal on a new pair of shoes or a party dress. And we’ve all occasionally been less than wise with our cash – say, blowing a year-end bonus on a weekend getaway instead of tucking it into an RRSP. So when does our retail therapy require real therapy?

The working definition of a compulsive spender is vague: It’s simply someone who shops excessively or is preoccupied with buying or shopping.

“I saw one patient who, when she went shopping for a pair of pants, would buy the pants in every colour, even though she couldn’t afford them,” says Peggy Richter, a psychiatrist and the director of Sunnybrook Health Services Centre’s clinic for obsessive-compulsive and related disorders in Toronto. “She had one bedroom of her apartment filled with clothes that were never worn. She had the urge to buy, and buy excessively, and she was unable to fight it. It got her into significant financial debt. She was quite distressed about it.”

There’s still debate as to how the condition should be classified, since it overlaps with addictive disorders (such as alcoholism), mood disorders (such as depression) and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Richter feels that the best comparison is to addiction. “There’s not a huge amount of data,” she says. “But some literature links it to dopamine receptors in the brain, so it’s triggering the reward system, although the actual mechanism at work is still really loosely understood.”

Certainly shopaholics describe the feelings they experience from making purchases in ways that go beyond an ordinary weekend trip to the mall with some girlfriends.
“I love the elated feeling I get when I go shopping,” says Durocher. “It’s the same kind of feeling you get when you work out.” She links her first shopping binges with the depression she experienced after the end of her first serious relationship since her divorce 10 years ago. “I really see shopping as an addiction. I know it has a lot to do with my self-esteem. I feel better about myself in a new outfit. I can’t stand wearing the same thing season after season,” she says. “Shopping doesn’t make me any better, but it makes me feel better.”

But with the highs come the inevitable lows. The shopping binges are a tremendous source of anxiety for compulsive spenders, most often because they don’t have the funds to pay for their sprees.

“I obsessed about money from the moment I woke up in the morning until I went to bed,” says Sharon H., who for 12 years has been attending weekly meetings at Debtors Anonymous, a support and educational group based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model. The 61-year-old Toronto professional is still traumatized by the memory of how, 13 years ago, she emptied her then-10-year-old daughter’s savings account to help cover the family’s overdraft. “I had a lot of guilt and shame around not being able to do things for my children, and feeling less than other people: less intelligent, although I had a graduate degree; less competent. Spending caused me so much distress, I think it aged me and my husband 10 years. I went grey early.”

While we may think of shopaholism as a female trait, experts say the condition affects the sexes almost equally. A 2006 Stanford University study revealed that 5.5 percent of American men and six percent of women exhibited compulsive-spending behaviour. However, those who seek medical treatment for the condition are usually female, says Richter.

“Clinically, compulsive spenders are about 80 percent female, but there may be a whole number of issues as to why,” says Richter. “Women are more likely to ask for help, for example, and they are also more likely to be in a lower economic status, so it may be a bigger problem for them than for men, who are more likely to be higher-wage earners and not as likely to identify compulsive spending as a problem.”

Male and female shopaholics also differ in what they tend to spend their money on. Gad Saad, an evolutionary psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal, has noticed classic survival-of-the-fittest behaviour in his research on compulsive spending: Both men and women buy products to attract the opposite sex and ensure their genes are passed on, but for men, the items are status-related; women buy products that make them more physically attractive.

“If you look, for example, at collectors of cars, they tend to be overwhelmingly male,” says Saad. “But when engaging in compulsive buying, women aren’t purchasing widgets and nails and hammers – they are buying clothes and shoes and cosmetics and other things used to make them beautiful. It’s a maladjusted mechanism of an otherwise adaptive process, the quest for beautification gone haywire.”

Compulsive spending was initially identified as a disorder in the early 20th century. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the word shopaholic started appearing in the media, conveniently in time to describe the revelations of the newly deposed Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos and her collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes, as well as the just-married Princess Diana’s ascension into the world of haute couture. It’s hard to say whether compulsive spending is a modern affliction, however, since there have certainly been notable spenders in the past. For instance, Marie Antoinette wasn’t exactly thrifty when she renovated the court of Versailles, a profligacy that was part of what drove her subjects to execute her during the French Revolution. And when former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson died in 1826, he was penniless, and his estate had to be sold off to pay his debts.

Still, while shopaholism may not be a new phenomenon, it’s certainly been enabled by the modern Western world and by one modern invention in particular: the credit card.
“Credit-card spending is a big problem because it doesn’t feel like cash,” says Laurie Campbell, the executive director of Credit Canada, one of several not-for-profit financial relief agencies across the country. “People get into the habit of going out and throwing impulse purchases on their credit cards. They’re not even going to see the bills for another month, at which point they don’t remember what they’ve bought. When they see the bill, they’re in a state of shock because it’s so high.”

Burdened by large debts, most shopaholics will endure even more financial stress in the current economic climate, as layoffs escalate and credit becomes more difficult to get. And we’re a nation on the brink: According to Statistics Canada, the average family’s credit-card debt hit almost $5,000 in 2005, up from $3,500 in 1999, while personal lines of credit have ballooned to $20,505 from $15,541 in the same period.

The number of calls to Credit Canada from people seeking help with their financial situation has increased by 10 percent every year over the past decade. “People have bought into this idea that any problem in your life can be solved by going out and shopping, and it’s a dangerous recipe, because it’s wreaked havoc on people’s financial lives,” says Campbell. “The biggest problem for us now is that the debt loads are incredibly outrageous, and people’s ability to service that debt is becoming diminished.”

There is help available for shopaholics, but treatment can be problematic. For one thing, it’s hard to determine who is a true compulsive spender: The condition is more difficult to detect than substance abuse or addiction because shopping is socially acceptable (even encouraged), there are no physical or particularly life-threatening symptoms, and shopaholics usually seek help only when they owe a lot of money. Compulsive spenders find that revealing their money mismanagement is still deeply stigmatizing.

“It’s hugely embarrassing to have to admit you’ve shopped till you’ve dropped,” says Debra Anden. The 37-year-old self-described shopaholic from Vancouver would routinely spend at least $100 a week buying clothes and jewellery while out with her friends. Although she’s not badly off – she earns a salary of about $60,000 from her administrative job ­– she was overwhelmed in January 2008 when her Visa bill hit the mid-$20,000s.

Anden eventually contacted a debt-help agency in Vancouver after she noticed an ad for the not-for-profit financial service on a SkyTrain car. With help from a counsellor, she set up a payment plan, along with a budget that she has learned to stick to, and she has agreed not to use a credit card until 2012. Anden is feeling positive about her finances for the first time in years, but she still hasn’t told her friends or her family the extent of her financial difficulties. “You feel like a huge dumdum, and you don’t want to be looked down upon.”

Indeed, “there’s no doubt that people would rather talk about their sex lives than their finances,” says Campbell. “It is a huge taboo. That’s another reason I believe that financial problems have gotten out of control, because if nobody talks about them, then they are left unchecked.” To break the cycle, Credit Canada not only helps its clients negotiate payments with creditors, but also offers seminars on personal budgeting and money management. It’s also pushing a financial-awareness campaign for high-school students across the country. “Education is key to helping treat, and also prevent, these kinds of financial problems,” says Campbell. “It’s our only way out.”

What’s more controversial is the medical options available to shopaholics. There are two options for patients who are able to find treatment: a course of selective serotonin-reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs (the same drugs used to treat depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder), and cognitive-behavioural therapy, a talk-based treatment focused on recognizing and challenging harmful behaviour.

Not everyone approves of drug-based therapy to treat shopaholism; there are even skeptics in the psychiatric community, where the issue of including compulsive spending in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the gold standard for psychiatry, is still being debated. (It may make it into the fifth edition, which comes out in 2012.) At the heart of the discussion is whether a diagnosis of compulsive spending is just needlessly medicalizing an extreme of normal human behaviour.

“Is being a shopaholic an addiction, or is it obsessive-compulsive disorder, or is it what we’re calling isolated cases, or are we just inventing a whole new disease for women?” asks Pamela Klaffke. “I’m sure the drug companies are hoping that women will say to themselves, ‘Oh my God, I might be a shopping addict, I need to go get some Celexa.’??”

Even Richter points out that recent studies on the efficacy of the drug therapy have revealed no difference between SSRIs and placebos in treatment of compulsive spending, although she describes the benefits of cognitive-behavioural therapy as “fairly good.” Regardless of the type of treatment sought, however, Richter feels it’s important that shopaholics be allowed medical help if they want it.

“If we legitimize compulsive spending as a real diagnosis that brings with it suffering, it may mean that more people might try to get help,” says Richter. “If it’s a real medical disorder, there will be recognition that it’s a real problem and that there may be real treatments available.”

Melinda Durocher is three years into her debt-reduction plan. She makes monthly payments of $400, and she is not supposed to use a credit card until January 2011. But some habits are hard to break: She still holds on to one card, which she keeps at its maximum balance of $300.

Life is “a bit boring now.” Durocher brings her breakfast and lunch to work, has found a cheaper place to get her hair done and doesn’t go out as much. She also steers clear of the mall for at least two weeks of the month, to avoid impulsively buying clothes with money budgeted for rent.

Durocher does plan to dip into her entertainment fund to see Confessions of a Shopaholic when it comes out. “The idea of a shopaholic is cute and fun, but the reality is not,” she says. Still, she doesn’t blame society’s cultural imperative to buy or advertising’s tactics for luring her into massive debt. “My friends don’t have this problem – it’s just me. Although I do wonder why the credit-card companies kept upping my limit.”

Learning to live within her means may seem like a quiet sort of paradigm shift, but it’s been a profound one. “I remember thinking that the only way to get out of the debt would be death,” says Durocher. “I’m not really happier, though I am more relieved now.”