Compulsive shopping — sometimes called “shopping addiction” — is a disorder that goes by a variety of names, including compulsive buying disorder (CBD) or compulsive buying (excessive shopping, pathological buying and oniomania (from the Greek onios “for sale” and mania “insanity”), as well as the more colloquial “shopaholism.”
While the idea of an addiction to shopping might seem flip and easily dismissed, the truth is that just like other behaviors that can turn compulsive — gambling, video gaming, sex, overeating — feeling the need to shop, thinking about what to buy next and the problems that come from these habits can significantly impair a person’s life, finances and relationships. A shopping addiction can disrupt families and lead to bankruptcy and even legal difficulties. Shopping addicts find themselves preoccupied with thoughts of browsing and buying (and spend huge amounts of time doing both) and lack the ability to stop, so they repeatedly spend and purchase things they don’t need and feel shame and guilt about their behavior no matter how much buying is hurting their lives.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not currently recognize or include shopping addiction as an addictive disorder. Because an addiction to buying isn’t considered a true mental disorder yet, when diagnosed, it’s typically designated an “impulse control disorder not otherwise specified.”
When Spending Crosses the Line
Compulsive buying disorder was documented a century ago by psychiatrist Emile Kraepelin. Today, shopping has become a significant part of modern life; the hunter and gatherer instincts of our forebears have been taken to a materialistic extreme, spurred on by modern marketing techniques like instant credit, nonstop sales, 24/7 shopping online and free shipping.
Estimates on compulsive buying disorder vary greatly. Studies show that between 1.56% and 16% of the U.S. is affected — a significant range. One oft-quoted study done at Stanford University found that 5.5% of American men and 6% of women have compulsive buying disorder, with an average of 5.8% of U.S. adults affected. (It was once thought that as many as 90% of those with a shopping addiction were women, but research has since noted that men — who are more likely to call themselves “collectors” — were previously underrepresented.)
There’s no single profile of a compulsive shopper. While some research indicates that a shopping problem is likelier to appear in the late teens to early adulthood, and in those with incomes of under $50,000 per year, other findings show that the mean age of people with CBD is 30. Even so, anyone of any age or income bracket, can have a problem with overbuying. After all, it isn’t the number of dollars a person spends that matters so much (those who earn less might frequent consignment shops or garage sales instead of high-end boutiques), but rather the amount relative to your income, and any harmful consequences you experience as a result of spending.
If the compulsion to shop is hurting the relationships, career or finances of yourself or someone you love, or causing legal problems, it’s time to seek help to address this compulsive behavior as well as any underlying emotional, relationship and/or mental health problems that may be contributing to the overwhelming desire to shop.