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Field Guide to the Shopaholic

Observing retail lovers in the wild.

Latin Name: Retailium Extremis

Notable Characteristics: Gets a serious buzz from the act of retail acquisition. Buys items in multiples. Loads up on unnecessary goods. Hides new merch from loved ones and feels guilt or shame after shopping sprees. Is on a first-name basis with all salespeople in town. May alienate friends and family with sheer scale of acquisitive habits.

Songs & Calls: "The next-generation iPad is gonna be epic!" "Does this come in a size 6?"

Identifying a Shopaholic in the Wild

Shopping is a classic American pastime for good reason: Navigating the mall with loved ones can promote social bonding, and a well-tailored new outfit can do wonders for your self-esteem. But beyond your run-of-the-mill department store credit card holder is a different species altogether: the shopaholic.

True shopaholics develop retail habits that put other areas of their lives in peril, explains psychologist April Lane Benson, Ph.D., author of To Buy or Not to Buy. "They're put on probation at work because they're caught shopping online, or they're working two or three jobs to pay off their credit cards," she says. "Their personal lives are in a shambles because of the secrecy and the humiliation." Their relationships may also suffer, as shopaholics often get into spats with loved ones about their spending sprees.

Compulsive shopping's triple hit on time, energy, and (of course) funds trickles into other life realms, as well. "There are shopaholics who have allocated so much of their money to their spending habit that they don't have any funds left to pursue hobbies and interests,"Benson says. "They wonder if this is all there is."

About 18 million Americans—more than 1 in 20—have a retail habit so intense that it places their relationships or careers in jeopardy, according to a study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Subspecies: Emotional Shopaholics (Retailium dramaticus)

This group loves retail therapy—going on spending sprees directly to alleviate bad feelings. "Shopping brings me out of a depressed mood," says Dee Burrell, an author and professional consultant from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, who considers herself an emotional shopaholic.

During shopping jaunts, a brain area called the nucleus accumbens floods with dopamine, the same chemical that's released during sex and cocaine use. "But the pleasant mood doesn't last," says Lorrin Koran, a psychiatrist in Palo Alto, California, who has studied compulsive shopping. Once the retail excursion ends, emotional shoppers plummet back to their previous state—often lower, as it dawns on them that they're out a few hundred dollars.

Members of this subgroup often use splurges to fill a perceived hole in their lives, Benson says. By uncovering the habit's emotional roots, they can find alternative ways to meet those needs. Someone who shops to banish a feeling she's not worthy of respect, for example, could bolster her self-esteem by moving full speed toward a career goal.

Subspecies: Bipolar Shopaholics (Retailium manicus)

When certain people with bipolar disorder hit a manic high, the first thing they think to do is shop. They may tell themselves they can act without consequences, which includes splurging beyond their means. Psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison describes the mindset in her memoir, An Unquiet Mind: "When I am high, I couldn't worry about money if I tried, so I don't. The money will come from somewhere; I am entitled; God will provide."

Sometimes out-of-control spending is the primary presenting symptom of mania; the disorder often starts as depression, and since shopping is a socially acceptable activity, people may not realize they've swung into mania until they tally up their receipts.

While other overshoppers may feel guilty at the end of their retail escapades, manic shoppers persist in their high mood, treating a spiraling spending spree like a meth binge, Koran says. Bipolar shoppers may benefit from drugs like lithium, which help moderate their emotional ups and downs and may curb manic shopping episodes before they start.

Subspecies: Obsessive Shopaholics (Retailium obsessis)

If you feel an urge to buy the same top in six colors or to replace your coffeemaker monthly because you keep finding "better" models, you may be an obsessive shopaholic. Subspecies members hit the mall not because it gives them a true "shopper's high," but because they must shop to feel that everything is OK. Often, they experience "intrusive, senseless thoughts" that compel them to shop, Benson says.

This behavior tends to stem from an uncompromising perfectionism—buying better and better kitchen appliances helps them inch closer to an imagined ideal, for example. Antidepressant medications like Prozac and Celexa, thought to raise the brain's serotonin levels, may limit compulsive behavior, but have shown mixed success at curbing obsessive shopaholism, Koran says.

A more effective solution may be exposure and response prevention therapy—repeatedly planting obsessive overshoppers in contexts that compel them to splurge (e.g., the middle of a J. Crew store). Over time, they learn it's possible to refrain, and the urge to go wild in such environments cools.

Gender Divide

The stereotypical shopaholic is a female clotheshorse with a walk-in closet and an arsenal of store credit cards, but the data don't necessarily support that notion. Koran's research found that nearly as many men as women are overshoppers, and a British study earlier this year suggests that more men than women make purchases on the Internet—fertile ground for shopaholics.

Male shopaholics, however, may stock up on items like tools, books, or electronics, whereas women gravitate toward clothes, shoes, and jewelry. And while many women view a shopping spree as a social occasion—a chance to spend time with friends who aid and abet one another's buying behavior—men may treat it like a competition, getting their buzz from, say, winning a heated eBay auction or snagging the best deal on an in-demand item.

Although there are plenty of covert male shopaholics out there, women are more likely than men to seek help for a shopping problem. That may be because cultural mores dictate that shopping is a feminine pastime, which makes it more embarrassing for men to admit they have a problem. "Sometimes the men are called collectors," Benson says. "That keeps it highbrow."