Can’t Buy Me Love: Recognizing the Symptoms of Shopping Addiction

In 1983, Sandi Gostin, was sentenced to a year in prison for embezzling money from her employer to support her addiction. Unlike most prisoners convicted of addiction-related crimes, Gostin wasn’t an alcoholic or hooked on illicit drugs. She wasn’t abusing prescription medications or finding inventive ways to get high on household substances. Gostin, a 48-year old divorcee with two children, was addicted to shopping. After her release from a California penitentiary, she shared her story on radio and television programs and was promptly contacted by hundreds of people, who saw themselves in her descriptions of spending-related self-destruction. Overwhelmed by the response and frustrated by the lack of resources available to help, she went on to found SpenderMender, a support group for people suffering from compulsive spending. While SpenderMender eventually disappeared, replaced by newer and bigger groups, Gostin’s pioneering work helped raise public consciousness about the devastating effects of shopping addiction, and lay the foundation for our understanding of the meaning behind compulsive spending.

Today, shopping addiction is recognized as a legitimate mental health disorder, also known as Compulsive Buying Disorder, affecting 5.8% of the population in the US. And yet, too often compulsive shopping goes unseen or is dismissed as a frivolous character flaw, trivialized, and seen as the result of vanity. It is also perceived as a habit that affects primarily women. In fact, shopping addiction is a deep-rooted psychological disorder with biochemical components that affects both men and women in equal measure, and can result in profound emotional, social, and financial distress when left untreated. As Gostin’s story shows us, it can even lead to drastic, criminal behavior with severe legal consequences.

Beyond Retail Therapy

Because retail consumption is a necessary part of life, it can be difficult for some people to accurately identify when their behavior crosses over from benign (if overindulgent) consumption to a true process addiction. This is particularly true in a culture that encourages excessive and conspicuous consumption to express self-identity, mark milestones, and manage difficult feelings. The term “retail therapy” is symptomatic of an environment in which shopping is viewed as a common and acceptable way of escape, to sooth and reward yourself in times of emotional upheaval. While this is partially a sociocultural phenomenon, there is also a chemical basis for associating consumption with pleasure: both the anticipation and act of shopping floods your brain with dopamine, lighting up the reward centers in your brain, producing feelings of joy, satisfaction, and elation, creating a powerful chemical incentive for you to engage in the behavior. However, shopping addiction differs from ordinary overindulgence due to its compulsive nature and the repetition of behavior–even in the face of damaging consequences. Symptoms can include:

  • An obsessive drive to purchase more than you need or can afford
  • Shopping to deal with emotional distress
  • Experiencing feelings of euphoria after making a purchase
  • Hiding your spending from loved ones
  • Reveling in the anticipation of shopping
  • Feeling regret and remorse after making purchases, but continuing to consume
  • Engaging in unethical or illegal behavior such as lying or stealing to continue shopping
  • Running up debts you are unable to pay off
  • Lacking the ability to regulate or stop your shopping

The cycle of shopping addiction follows the same pattern as substance addictions, starting with a buildup of anxiety and intense craving, followed by euphoric release when you make a purchase and often feelings of shame, regret, and self-loathing when the high dissipates. As with drug and alcohol addictions, you develop tolerance over time, and need to shop more to recreate the euphoric reaction, leading to increasingly reckless behavior. Your compulsion to consume may be generalized or focused on one particular type of product, and you may convince yourself that this will be the last time, after this you’ll stop, but when the cravings come you are unable to resist making purchases.

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Undoing the Damage

Shopping addiction can be particularly insidious, its symptoms conspiring to keep you locked in a pattern of self-destruction and isolation. You may experience shame and humiliation, causing you to hide your behavior from family and friends, alienating you from the vital support networks you need to overcome your compulsions. The anxiety of carrying debt, the potential for financial ruin and bankruptcy, and the consequences your behavior can have for the security of your loved ones can produce devastating anxiety and feelings of depression that can contribute to the addictive cycle, propelling you to shop to escape your pain. With the best of intentions, you may try to deal with your compulsion through money-management techniques and budgeting self-help products, but these are typically only temporary solutions, as the psychological underpinnings of your compulsion remain.

In order to take control, you need to address the behavioral, neurological, and emotional components of your shopping addiction and learn how to handle triggers, process your feelings in a healthy manner, and create new ways of experiencing pleasure and joy without self-destruction. Often, people with shopping addiction have a co-occurring mental health disorder that exacerbates their compulsion and requires specialized care to treat the complete scope of their distress. If you are ready to end your shopping addiction, it is vital that you seek professional help from experienced, compassionate clinicians who can guide you toward wellness, self-regulation, and psychological harmony while giving you the insight you need to understand your compulsive drive. The sooner you treat your addiction, the faster you can begin to repair the financial damage you have done, rebuild trusting, honest relationships with your loved ones, and live an authentic, fulfilling life.


Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for process addictions, including shopping addiction, and specialized programming for people with a co-occurring mental health disorder. Contact us for information about how we can help you or your loved one and start on the path to healing.