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Compulsive Spending: What You Need to Know

Keep yourself in check during the holiday season.

In the rush of holiday gift-buying, virtually everyone begins feeling a bit flustered. Many of us overspend. So it can be tough to tell when spending is merely overdone, and when it's truly out of control. Compulsive spending can land you in debt, wreck your relationships, and cause depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and other mental health problems. Here's what you need to know if you think your spending might be out of control.

What is Compulsive Spending?

Compulsive spending, sometimes called compulsive buying disorder or oniomania, is spending far beyond what is necessary. Though it often causes financial harm, people of means may engage in compulsive spending without suffering serious financial disaster. In an increasingly materialistic society, it can be difficult to differentiate compulsive spending from the overbuying in which most people engage.

The defining characteristic of compulsive spending is that the spending feels irresistible. Compulsive buyers continue spending money even when doing so causes them emotional or personal distress, even when they have little money to spend, and even when the things they buy give them no joy or go unused. Like other addictions, compulsive spending tends to escalate over time, with spenders needing to spend more and more money to get the same “high” they once achieved with a single purchase.

Can Spending Really Be Addictive?

You don't have to use drugs or alcohol to be an addict. Pleasurable activities such as sex, spending, and eating activate the brain's reward centers, stimulating the release of dopamine. Dopamine triggers feelings of pleasure and reward similar to those associated with drug use. Thus you can get “high” without taking a drug.

As with drugs, it takes more and more spending to trigger dopamine surges over time. So compulsive spenders end up chasing a dopamine high, just as a heroin user might chase the next great heroin fix. The happy feelings associated with compulsive buying can provide welcome relief from depression, anxiety, or boredom.

Symptoms of Compulsive Spending:

If your spending feels out of control or causes problems in your life, it's time to seek help, regardless of what other symptoms you experience. Some signs of compulsive spending include:

  • Spending a significant portion of your income on discretionary purchases.
  • Accumulating a large amount of consumer debt.
  • Continually spending despite resolutions to stop.
  • Hiding purchases from loved ones.
  • Being more excited about making the purchases than owning the items; you might feel a letdown or a sense of shame after purchasing something.
  • Not using everything you purchase.
  • Buying a large number of things you do not need.
  • Experiencing relationship problems due to your spending.
  • Feeling ashamed of your spending.
  • Feeling agitated or excited while shopping.
  • Feeling like the next big purchase is the one that will really improve your life.
  • Using spending to manage unpleasant emotions such as depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. Most people engage in “retail therapy” from time to time. For compulsive spenders, retail therapy is the primary or only means of coping with stress.

How Compulsive Spending Affects Your Life

Compulsive spending can harm your financial future, but some compulsive spenders have enough money to fund near-endless purchases. Others only spend money on inexpensive items, enabling them to continue making purchases without going into debt. You don't have to experience financial ruin to be addicted to shopping. Some of the other ways compulsive spending can tear lives apart include:

  • Nurturing feelings of guilt and shame.
  • Undermining relationships. You may experience relationship problems when caught in lies about spending, for example.
  • Removing the time you used to spend on more meaningful pursuits.
  • Accumulating far more possessions than you have space for.
  • Hoarding. Sometimes compulsive spenders become hoarders, living in increasing chaos amid needless possessions.

What Causes Compulsive Spending?

Compulsive spending, like many other addictions, is a way of coping with stress, pain, trauma, and other negative emotions. People who engage in compulsive spending respond to negative emotions by spending money. After they make a purchase, they may feel guilty or disappointed, leading to more negative emotions and more spending.

Anyone can become a compulsive spender. Some risk factors include:

  • A history of mental illness (particularly disorders involving impulse dyscontrol) or previous addictions.
  • A family history of substance abuse or compulsive buying.
  • Being heavily invested in consumer culture.

Treatment for Compulsive Spending

Unlike some other addictions, compulsive buyers cannot go cold turkey. Particularly around the holidays, when gift-buying feels mandatory, going cold turkey is not possible. Instead, treatment focuses on addressing the underlying emotions that cause the compulsive spending. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can be especially helpful, since it aims to identify and correct problematic thoughts while addressing the behaviors these thoughts trigger.

Some compulsive spenders find assistance through 12-step programs such as Debtors Anonymous.


Black, D. W. (2007). Compulsive buying disorder: A review of the evidence. CNS Spectrums,12(02), 124-132. doi:10.1017/s1092852900020630

How to manage compulsive shopping or spending addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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