Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Why Do Shopping Addicts Keep Spending Their Money?

Out-of-control-shopping is primarily driven by poor credit card management.

Did you know that approximately 10 percent of adults in western countries are believed to have a compulsive spending disorder? Their spending habits lead them to lose control over their buying behavior, and this trend is on the rise. Interestingly, these shopaholics are addicted to buying things, regardless of whether they want or need them.

Am I a compulsive buyer?
Importantly, compulsive consumption, or chronic and repetitive purchasing that is accompanied by a loss of control over buying behavior, results in continued shopping despite numerous harmful emotional, social, and financial consequences. Specifically, compulsive buying often contributes to debt, guilt and disappointment with self, and worsening social relationships.

So, why do shopping addicts, or compulsive buyers, keep spending their money even in the face of harmful financial, emotional, and social consequences?

We wondered the same questions, and so my students and I conducted four studies to answer this question. We surveyed more than 1,600 adults who answered questions about their money management, shopping habits, and how much they value material possessions. What we learned is that compulsive buying is fueled by poor credit management and a belief that new purchases will create a happier life.

In sum, our results showed that a lack of money management predicted individuals' compulsive spending, regardless of their personality, gender, age, and income. In particular, out-of-control-shopping was primarily driven by poor credit management, such as not paying attention to credit card statements, not paying credit card bills on time, and exceeding credit limits. Compulsive shoppers reported that they bought items to get a buzz or put themselves in a better mood. They also believed the purchases could change their life, for example by transforming their appearance, self-confidence, reputation, and relationships.

Our result demonstrated that compulsive shoppers tend to be people who bury their head in the sand and ignore credit card bills, as we found that these individuals keep on buying because they are looking for that "buy high." We think that one possible reason why credit cards may facilitate compulsive shopping is because they allow consumers to separate the pleasure of buying from the pain of paying.

So is there any hope? Yes.

While we know that a person's values impact their shopping habits, values aren't the easiest thing to change. However, our statistical models showed that, even if you are materialistic and you have the desire to acquire more possessions, it's how you manage your behavior that counts. Our findings suggest that you can keep your shopping under control by paying attention to your credit cards and checking in with yourself about whether you are shopping for emotional reasons.

Beyond The Purchase is a website dedicated to understanding the psychology behind spending decisions and the relationship between money and happiness. We study how factors like your values and personality interact with spending decisions to affect your happiness. At Beyond The Purchase you can take quizzes that help you understand what motivates your spending decisions, and you’ll get personalized feedback and tips. For example:

Is shopping an addiction for you? Take the compulsive buying scale and learn about your spending habits. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

How do you score on the five fundamental dimensions of personality? Take our Big Five personality test and find out.

How do you feel about your past, present, and future? Take the Time Attitudes Survey and learn about your relation with time.

How happy are your Facebook updates? We can analyze your last 25 Facebook status updates and determine how happy you have been.

How happy is your subconscious? Take our Happiness IAT and find out.

With these insights, you can better understand the ways in which your financial decisions affect your happiness. To read more about the connection between money and happiness, go to the Beyond the Purchase blog.

"Sadness, Identity, and Plastic in Over-shopping: The Interplay of Materialism, Poor Credit Management, and Emotional Buying Motives in Predicting Compulsive Buying," was published in the Journal of Economic Psychology. I co-authored the paper with former SF State graduate student Grant Donnelly and undergraduate student Masha Ksendzova.

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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