Your Order Has Been Placed: Are you a compulsive buyer?

Written By Ellen Murphy, MA, LPC, CAADC

Have you ever found yourself in this scenario? While checking your email, a bold,
capitalized word in the subject line catches your eye: SALE. Chances are that this word at one time or another not only lured you into opening that email but has also resulted in a purchase. A purchase you made with no hesitation or no intention of buying before opening your inbox. You are now the proud owner of another set of quirky West Elm animal plates, purchased while sitting in a cozy bathrobe, on your couch, with a cup of warm coffee in your hand. Your self-talk is similar to that of Rebecca Bloomwood in Confessions of a Shopaholic: “Well, these cashmere gloves I need because it is winter, and I have…hands.” Ignore checking your bank account or paying off your car loan. You now have even more dishes to show off at your next dinner party! And they will be delivered right to your front porch! It’s like Christmas on any random day of the year.

The visualization, the smell of a new product, and our endless imagination of what we
will wear with that new pair of shoes, or what wall the new frameset will go on, enhances our excitement. The feeling that so easily pulls us back to the next impulse purchase, and then the next, is what the clinical world refers to as “dopamine-fueled excitement”. The “natural high” that can be achieved from these shopping impulses can so easily get out of control. The ones that we may not even remember what the package arriving at the door contains. The reality of this natural high, (as in any type of high) can often be followed by an overwhelming feeling of guilt, powerlessness, and disappointment in oneself. Do you return the items? Scramble to validate your purchase? Sell something to justify the replacement? This is when the excitement shifts from the item purchased, to the buying process itself and separates compulsive buyers from normal consumers.

It becomes a shift from a therapeutic shopping experience to a problematic behavior and
occurs when our shopping habits, like other unhealthy habits, become our personal band-aids for coping with stress, loss, or anxiety and becomes hard to control. Compulsive buying behavior (CBB), also known as Oniomania, buying shopping disorder, shopping addiction, pathological buying, or compulsive buying disorder, is a mental health condition that is characterized by continuous, impulsive, uncontrollable buying of products despite consequences. These consequences can be psychological, social, occupational, and/or financial. So what should you be aware of?

Signs of Shopping Compulsion include:

  • Repetitive, irresistible, and overpowering urges to purchase goods
  • Preoccupation with and difficulty resisting buying unneeded items
  • Spending a lot of time researching items that may or not be needed
  • Financial difficulties because of uncontrolled shopping
  • Problems at work, school, or home because of spending that’s gotten out of control…

A 2016 study published in Frontiers of Psychology, compared women and men in the categories of compulsive buying. sex addiction, internet addiction, and gambling addiction.

Where men had the highest percentage in sex addiction, women-led in compulsive buying by over 40%. The study further identified variables characterized by compulsive buyers as those who had a higher level of education, were married or living with a partner, higher levels of employment, and lower levels of smoking or other substance misuse when compared to the other addiction groups evaluated.

Similar to substance use disorders, positive reinforcement plays a role at the beginning of compulsive buying (that dopamine high mentioned earlier), while negative reinforcement is identified when the behavior is evaluated over time. Despite similarities with other reward-based conditions that are categorized as addictions, compulsive buying is not recognized in the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Health Disorders. Some studies suggest that nearly 60 % of compulsive buying patients meet the criteria for at least one personality disorder and that the ideation that these behaviors may turn into addictions is mostly descriptive as opposed to biological or evidence-based, according to an article in Current Addiction Reports.

This does not mean that shopping is “bad.”. It simply suggests that you are not alone if
you have been drawn in by quirky plates or have felt guilt after excessive purchases. It
encourages self-awareness. Self-awareness is what opens the door for change and knowing
change is never easy, it is a great first step forward. No change happens overnight. In my
experience working with addiction, success is more likely when realistic goals are set for oneself.  With support, and patience you can toward that change. If you feel you may have a shopping problem or really just want to rein in your spending, there are resources that can help.


Granero, R., Fernández-Aranda, F., Mestre-Bach, G., Steward, T., Baño, M., Del Pino-Gutiérrez, A., Moragas, L., Mallorquí-Bagué, N., Aymamí, N., Gómez-Peña, M., Tárrega, S., Menchón, J. M., & Jiménez-Murcia, S. (2016). Compulsive Buying Behavior: Clinical Comparison with Other Behavioral Addictions. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 914.

Piquet-Pessôa, M., Ferreira, G.M., Melca, I.A. et al. DSM-5 and the Decision Not to Include Sex, Shopping or Stealing as Addictions. Curr Addict Rep 1, 172–176 (2014).

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