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5 Patterns of Compulsive Buying

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Compulsive behavior refers to the continued repetition of a behavior despite adverse consequences. The compulsions are fuelled by the obsessions (e.g., intrusive thoughts of contaminations). Compulsive buying is characterized by excessive preoccupation or poor impulse control with shopping, and adverse consequences, like marital conflict and financial problems.

About 6% of the U.S. population can be said to have compulsive buying behavior with 80% of compulsive buyers being women. Many women have been socialized from a very young age to enjoy shopping with their mothers and friends (Workman & Paper, 2010). However, compulsive buying is likely to increase for men with the evolution of digital commerce. It is much faster and easier now to find what you are looking for.

Compulsive buying is similar to behavioral addiction, such as binge eating and gambling (Lawrence et al., 2014). Compulsive spending frequently co-occurs with other mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Unlike other addictions, which take hold in the teens, spending addictions mostly develop in the 30s when people achieve financial independence.

Compulsive buying is not listed as an addiction in the DSM-5. However, the impulse problem appears to share certain characteristics common in addictive disorders (Black, 2012).

1. Impulse purchase. Compulsive buyers often purchase things on impulse that they can do without. And they often try to conceal their shopping habits. Spending without adequate reflection can result in having many unopened items (boxes of shoes or clothes) in their closets as they continue the cycle of buying. Compulsive buyers may develop into hoarders later in life after their products have accumulated with time (Mueller, 2007).

2. Buyers high. Compulsive shoppers experience a rush of excitement when they buy. The euphoric experience is not from owning something but from the act of buying it. This rush of excitement is often experienced when they see a desirable item and consider buying it. And this excitement can become addictive.

3. Shopping to dampen unpleasant emotions. Compulsive shopping is an attempt to fill an emotional void, like loneliness, lack of control, or lack of self-esteem. Often, a negative mood, such as an argument or frustration triggers an urge to shop. However, the decrease in negative emotions is temporary and it is replaced by an increase in anxiety or guilt (Donnelly et al., 2016).

4. Guilt and remorse. Purchases are followed by feelings of remorse. They feel guilty and irresponsible for purchases that they perceive as indulges. The result may be a vicious cycle, that is, negative feeling fuel another “fix,” purchasing something else.

5. The pain of paying. Paying with cash is more painful than paying with credit cards (Ariely and Kreisler, 2017). The main psychological force of credit cards is that they separate the pleasure of buying from the pain of paying. Credit cards seduce us into thinking about the positive aspects of a purchase. In fact, CBD is only prevalent in developed countries where there is a system of credit and a consumer culture.

How to restrain the urge to spend? The most effective first step in treatment is to identify why and how your shopping initially became a problem. A useful strategy is to keep track of your triggers (negative emotions such as family conflict, anxiety, or loneliness). And one needs to be reminded that additional material goods and services initially provide extra pleasure, but it is usually temporary. The extra pleasure wears off. It is also helpful to emphasize the importance of managing credit cards or getting rid of credit cards. It is a known fact that the use of cash tends to reduce excessive spending.


Ariely D. and Kreisler J. (2017). Dollars and Sense. NY: HarperCollins Publisher

Black DW, Shaw M, McCormick B, Bayless JD, Allen J. (2012) Neuropsychological performance, impulsivity, ADHD symptoms, and novelty seeking in compulsive buying disorder. Psychiatry Res. 200(2):581–587.

Donnelly et al. (2016) Buying to Blunt Negative Feelings: Materialistic Escape From the Self

Lawrence LM, Ciorciari J, Kyrios M. (2014). Cognitive processes associated with compulsive buying behaviours and related EEG coherence. Psychiatry Res Neuroimaging; 221(1):97–103.

Mueller A, Mueller U, Albert P, et al. (2007). Hoarding in a compulsive buying sample. J Behav Ther Exp Psych;45(11):2754-63.

Workman, L., & Paper, D. (2010). Compulsive Buying: A Theoretical Framework. The Journal of Business Inquiry, 9, 89-126.

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