This is going to get serious, but first: a cartoon bear. There’s an old line from Winnie-the-Pooh that says, “Although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment just before you began to eat it which was better than when you were…” That’s exactly what shopping is like for me.
Since the beginning of this year, I have spent $98,000 on shoes, clothes, furniture, and other stuff I can barely remember now.
Admitting to blowing that much money is terrifying, especially since I haven’t talked to friends or family about this in a serious way, but I’m more terrified that if I don’t hold myself accountable, that number will get even bigger.
Trying to explain what it feels like to be a compulsive shopper means picking any random day as an example, because they’re all the same. So here’s a recent one: I saw a woman with a cute Balenciaga tote. I knew it was Balenciaga because it said “Balenciaga” in big letters on the side. That was the point, of course—otherwise, it would just be a canvas bag. In all my time on shopping sites, I’d never seen it. I felt the excitement of a new quest, the moment before the honey.
I plugged some descriptors into Google and quickly found it. Then because it cost $1,100, I tried to forget it.
There I was, a few hours later, on my couch with a glass of white wine prowling for the tote the way some people look for cat videos. I went from site to site unsuccessfully trying to find a sale. I decided to move on.
But just to another bag. This time, a white leather one. It was about the same price, but I told myself it was a smarter investment because it would go with everything and could hold my laptop. I already had, I don’t know, 30 other bags that fit my computer. But not that one. I added it to the cart.
This is when the shift began and a sort of manic state set in—when I’m about to buy something, I can’t focus on anything else. My mind starts rushing. Should I buy this bag? Should I go back to the other bag? Should I buy neither? It’s just a bag, but the anxiety it brought was real. I convinced myself that I could still walk away, that I hadn’t actually done anything yet. But I wanted this. Actually, it felt like something a lot closer to need.
And as it always does, the next part happened fast. I put my thumb on the screen, felt the click of ApplePay—like a tiny heartbeat—and immediately felt calmer, albeit with a sense of worry circling just close enough to be uncomfortable about the amount I was spending.
By the time the bag arrived a day or two later, I barely cared about it. That’s because for those of us living with a compulsion to shop, it’s not about the buy, it’s about the buying. I tossed it into an ever-growing mound of things I felt compelled to purchase. By then, I was already thinking about all the other things I ordered. Stuff arrived at my apartment nearly every day. I had windowsills stacked with sunglasses, chairs piled with clothes, and a closet full of new outfits.
The same scenario played out for me all the time. It could be a pair of No. 6 sandals, a Mansur Gavriel bag, Barton Perreira sunglasses—anything to complete my Brooklyn cool-girl uniform.
It didn’t help that I was surrounded by enablers. ApplePay and Paypal mean I no longer need to walk to my purse to retrieve my credit card. There’s always something new to acquire, as evidenced by the posts of picture-perfect influencers and the ads that fill my social media feed. I live in New York City, so I can even pay for same-day delivery on certain sites. I get emails about things I’ve left in my cart, out-of-stock merchandise that’s available again, and markdowns on items I’ve been eyeing. And the Internet is open 24/7. Once I managed to put a pair of $800 Chloé boots into my cart in a half-asleep haze. The next morning, I was confused about how they’d gotten there.
I know what you’re thinking: This isn’t a real problem. I’m just a privileged consumer who needs to exercise some willpower. I tell myself those things constantly, too. The truth is, many of us who shop compulsively do it because of other problems that are real (for me, it’s anxiety and depression). To manage that pain, we develop a coping mechanism. But my coping mechanism became its own problem and I’m not making excuses when I say I couldn’t stop.
I have always been a shopper. I inherited my mother’s passion for consumption, as she inherited it from her mother. I grew up going to department stores where salespeople knew our names. “When you find something you like,” my mom says, “get two.” For the longest time, shopping seemed harmless.
My need to spend never affected my relationships or career, and although I’ve had a few sizable credit card bills over the years, I was always able to pay them off. I’ve had good jobs and exceedingly generous parents.
In January 2017 I’d just left a job I loved and started one I didn’t when I began to manage my anxiety with stuff. Things accumulated around my apartment, and I felt an increased detachment and mindlessness to my shopping. By the beginning of this year, I felt particularly low, and the increasingly ugly political landscape exacerbated those feelings.
I leaned in hard to my habit. I figured I was soothing myself and not doing anything truly dangerous, like gambling or drugs. Except.
Suddenly my credit card bill was so high that I didn’t have enough money to cover it. In addition to shopping more often, I’d been shopping bigger. Whereas a $400 dress once seemed like an indulgence, suddenly I owned styles that hovered near the $2,000 mark. I told myself they were investments—I was lying.
Small payments on my bill anytime I got a paycheck did little to chip away at my growing balance, and yet I did not stop. Every time I made a purchase I became so preoccupied with worry I would lie in bed at night doing math in my head—counting up the things I’d bought, calculating how much I spent, figuring out how I could possibly pay it all off. If shopping had been a form of self-care, it had pretty squarely moved into the realm of self-harm.
Then I had an idea: I have an investment account that I can access without penalty. It’s for retirement, but I figured one withdrawal wasn’t a big deal.
Of course what initially felt like a get-out-of-jail free card quickly morphed into permission to keep spending. Another withdrawal followed, and then another. Each email to my money manager was increasingly apologetic, as if I were seeking complicity in something criminal. “Hi!” I’d write cheerily. “I spent more money on vacation than I thought. Oops! 🙂 Hopefully this is the last time I email you!”
My retirement fund was disappearing. I pictured myself old and alone, struggling to survive financially because I’d wasted all my money on stuff. I’ve never been suicidal, but I sometimes found it comforting to think, Maybe I’ll get hit by a bus and won’t have to worry about it.
I was in debt and didn’t have a clear way out. The worst part is that I never needed to be—I wasn’t taking out loans for college or a down payment on a house. I had spent my money frivolously. I was angry and ashamed.
Compulsive buying disorder (CBD) is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Health Disorders (DSM), a manual created by the American Psychiatric Association to help classify and diagnose mental health conditions.
“It’s a controversial arena,” says Robert Bilder, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. “I think CBD’s not being studied as much, or as well, because there is a stigma associated with it that people who are afflicted should simply stop, but the problems are more complicated than that,” Bilder says.
When you purchase something, the hit of dopamine you get creates a chemical response called a “shopper’s high.” If you could look inside your brain during a buying frenzy, it would be a firework show of happy hormones—buzzing, bouncing, and blazing. For some, that feeling is addictive and becomes the thing that can solve a bad day, mask an emotion, fill a sense of hollowness.
“Shopping is legal, and it’s greatly encouraged, so people are skeptical—it’s like, oh, we’re calling everything an addiction now,” says Terry Shulman, LMSW, a mental health counselor and founder of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding, which offers counseling services for those struggling with CBD and related disorders. “It’s assumed the person is materialistic or a poor money manager. But CBD can really get people in trouble.”