Confessions of a shopaholic: How having a love for fashion can turn into an addiction

The circle of people around the rectangle table was deep in thought about a not-so-deep question: How did your week go? Everyone took turns giving their response along with their self-given title.

“Hi, I’m Judy and I’m a compulsive spender with clutter issues.” Her voice seemed to boom in the white-walled multipurpose room above San Diego’s Kensington Community Church. Other members echoed back, “Hi, Judy. Welcome.”

“This was a tough week.” She was dressed in minimal attire accessorized with bags under her eyes. “I got a larger storage unit because I couldn’t fit all of my stuff in the small one anymore. This overspending is hurting me and it’s hurting my family.”

Nods of agreement rippled around the circle.

“I don’t get suicidal, just suicidal thoughts,” she continued. “Like, ‘I wish I didn’t wake up tomorrow’ because when I do, all of my clothes, shoes, and handbags are there, right in front of me. It reminds me that I have a problem.”

Some people like fashion, some love it and some are addicted. At Spenders in Recovery, people are turning those 12 new pairs of shoes into 12 steps. These steps are aimed at helping the helpless; people who have gotten themselves into financial troubles due to their compulsive and impulsive spending.

“Compulsive spending is when you tell yourself a story for purchasing the item,” said Chris Mercier, a marriage and family therapist and founder of this local Debtors Anonymous group. “You say, ‘This is the only time this shirt will be on sale, I can wear it with this, this and this.’ An impulsive spender is one that picks up three items right before checking out just because they see them. There is a difference, but they are both problems.”

Mercier has been leading these meetings for 12 years. He is also a fellow member.

“Hi, I’m Chris and I have clutter issues.”

This is his third 12-step program: Alcohol Anonymous and Nicotine Anonymous are accomplished, so now onto his overspending.

“It allows you to be around people who are struggling just like you. Then you find things that associate with you that you didn’t know that did,” Mercier said. “It’s a safe place.”

On the far side of the table was Jim, a part-time teacher.

“I was at the supermarket before I came here and I realized I don’t even know how to shop the right way,” he said. “I don’t even know how to not ask someone for money.”

With his rosy cheeks and greased-back grey hair, he labeled himself as an overspender and an underearner, which means that he spends more money than he earns. This led him to become a debtor. It was only his second week at Debtors Anonymous and progress was already ensuing, hitting roadblocks along the way. He and all his belongings were living out of his car after being evicted for the second time.

“You can only take what you really want when you get evicted. Luckily, I can’t get evicted from my car because I own that,” he joked knocking on the wooden table, superstitiously.


“If you are a shopaholic in San Diego, you could be drunk with confusion debating where to start your retail therapy sessions,” Dr. Michael R. Mantell, a behavior science consultant and coach wrote in San Diego Magazine. “From Bazaar Del Mundo to the Viejas Factory Outlet Center, with the Carlsbad Premium Outlet, Del Mar Plaza, Fashion Valley and Plaza Bonita all in between, San Diego is a shopaholic’s dream. Or nightmare.”

Pop-culture has perpetuated a young woman living in New York City with a designer fetish as the poster child for shopaholics, when in reality it could be anyone.

“I like my money where I can see it—hanging in my closet,” said Carrie Bradshaw from the hit series “Sex and City.”

The rom-com “Confessions of a Shopaholic” centered on Rebecca Bloomwood, a college graduate in debt from school loans, maxed out credit cards and a label junkie. She, too, attended Debtors Anonymous meetings, which resulted in her having an ultimate garage sale to pay off her debt. It seemed so simple.

A Stanford University Landmark Study estimated that as many as 17 million Americans (more than one in 20) can’t control their urge to shop, even at the expense of their job, their marriage, their family and their finances.

According to Elizabeth Svoboda’s “Field Guide to the Shopaholic,” published in “Psychology Today” (2010), there are three types of subspecies.

The emotional shopaholics go on spending sprees to alleviate bad feelings. These overspenders shop to fill a void in their life. A bipolar shopaholic tells themselves they can act without consequences, which includes splurging beyond their means. An obsessive shopaholic stems from uncompromising perfectionism that urges them to buy that same top in six different colors because it makes them feel that everything is OK.

“When people go shopping, it is this natural reinforcement that occurs,” said Daniel L. Jenkins, professor of psychology at PLNU. “They get something that they desire.”

When someone goes after something pleasurable and obtain it, they are more likely to repeat this process, Jenkins continued. This is called the reinforcement theory.

“When someone is feeling a little down or wants to perk up a little bit, some people go for a jog or go to the movies,” Jenkins said. “But some people want to change how they feel by going shopping. This becomes very rewarding and reinforcing.”

Like any addiction, according to Jenkins, it feels as if the person is in control by doing these external behaviors, but in the long run, those external behaviors begin to control them. It is a way to distract from reality.

At Spenders Recovery, in addition to being an overspender, clutter and time issues were added to the list. All these issues root from Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

“This becomes a time management issue because with OCD, they might have to go through a ritual before leaving the house,” Jenkins adds. “Each time they do it, it may become more elaborate until it may take them an hour just to get out the door.”


The meeting paused and everyone closed their eyes and lowered their heads. They began reciting the Serenity Prayer, a prayer adopted by 12-step programs:

O God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, the courage to change what can be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Mercier explained that step one of Debtors Anonymous is to admit powerlessness over debt and shopping, that one’s life has become unmanageable.

Oscar’s trouble of overspending and collecting spiked after his divorce. He continued to buy despite his limited space.

“Even though I had all the money I could ever need at the time, I took out some high interest loans, I bought clothes, new stereos, TVs, and of course, I needed the new car, so I had to borrow money for that too,” he said staring at the table, avoiding eye contact. “Every time I tried to declutter, it was like I was removing a part of myself. It was painful to throw away things.”

Jenkins compares this materialistic physical attachment to the attachment to other people. If someone that was close has passed away, there would be a grieving process involved, just like removing an item from the storage unit.

Layla shared that she recently sold her car to purchase a bike, but that money from the sale is causing her high levels of anxiety. She’s eager to spend it on something, anything really.

“I’m so used to having zero balances in my accounts,” she said. “I’m tempted to just withdraw the money and stuff it under my mattress so I don’t see it.”

In closing, each person rose, held hands and expressed hopes for the upcoming week.

“My goal is to empty one box,” one member said.

“My goal is to not put anything on my credit card this week,” said another. The group burst into applause.

Then, in sync, they optimistically chanted, “Keep coming back, it works if you work it, so work it ‘cause you’re worth it.”