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Updated 26 September 2013

Are you a shopaholic?

The difference between celebrity shoppers and the rest of us? They can usually afford their shopping sprees.

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Celebrity shopping sprees often hit the news. Victoria Beckham is estimated to spend £100 000 (R1,6million) per year on her wardrobe alone. The difference between celebrities and normal shopaholics is that the celebrities more often than not have the cash for these shopping sprees. The rest of us do not.

And what with the current worldwide credit crunch, the past habits of many shopaholics have come home to roost.

While it may not sound like a psychological disorder, the problem of uncontrolled buying sprees can bankrupt families and destroy relationships. Some compulsive shoppers are driven to suicide.

Unfortunately, many people regard compulsive shopping as a joke. "Taking illegal substances in excess is one thing. To shop till you drop arouses only amusement," says psychotherapist Adrienne Baker.

People with limited resources may appear to suffer the most, because they're vulnerable to easy credit and extortionate repayments. But the relatively affluent are, in fact, at greater risk of getting in up to their necks.

Of course, some people are just unlucky and get into debt through an unexpected event, such as redundancy. But for a substantial number, probably about one in two, getting into debt is linked with addictive behaviour - they just can't help themselves.

Experts are divided over what causes shopaholicism and how best to treat it. Compulsive shopping is often not treated as a unique disorder. Most experts see it as a symptom of a broader mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, accentuated by Western prosperity and the influence of advertising.

Psychotherapists believe that, far from being the bored, depressed woman of the stereotype, the typical shopaholic is, in fact, a deeply damaged person who needs to examine why she is spending so much time in shopping centres.

Even though compulsive shopping can be devastating, many people fail to get help. Often because people feel the problem is a sign of a weak will, but sometimes because some doctors or psychologists fail to take the problem seriously.

The signs and symptoms of compulsive spending/shopping are very similar to other addictions. Watch out for these signs (four or more of the above indicates a problem with shopping or spending):

  • Shopping or spending money as a result of being disappointed, angry or scared.
  • Shopping/spending habits causing emotional distress or chaos in one's life.
  • Having arguments with others regarding shopping or spending habits.
  • Feeling lost without credit/purchasing cards.
  • Buying items on credit that would not be bought with cash.
  • Spending money causes a rush of euphoria and anxiety at the same time.
  • Spending or shopping feels like a reckless or forbidden act.
  • Feeling guilty, ashamed, embarrassed or confused after shopping or spending money. Many purchases are never used.
  • Lying to others about what was bought or how much money was spent.
  • Thinking excessively about money.
  • Spending a lot of time juggling accounts and bills to accommodate spending.

Getting help

If you feel you have a problem, seek professional counselling or a self-help group to deal with the problem. Addictive behaviours tend to congregate, so if you have an eating disorder, a problem with drugs or alcohol, or gambling, you may be a candidate for shopping addiction. Many communities have credit counselling centres that will also help with shopoholism.

How do I prevent shopping binges?

  • Pay for purchases by cash or cheque
  • Make a shopping list and only buy what is on the list.
  • Destroy all credit cards except one to be used for emergencies only.
  • Avoid discount warehouses. Allocate only a certain amount of cash to be spent if you do visit one.
  • "Window shop" only after stores have closed. If you do "look" during the day, leave your wallet at home.
  • Avoid phoning in catalogue or Internet orders and don't watch TV shopping channels.
  • If you're travelling to visit friends or relatives, have your gifts wrapped before you leave. People tend to make unnecessary purchases when they shop for other people.
  • Take a walk or exercise when the urge to shop comes on.
  • If you feel out of control, you probably are. Seek counselling or a support group.

- (Health24, updated June 2013)

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