Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Do You Have A Problem With Impulsive Spending?

November 20, 2006

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. True. Too true.

Overspending is a hidden disorder in our society that has addictive-like qualities. It serves the same functions as overeating and substance abuse. It is used as a defense against feelings of low self-esteem, loneliness, depression and emptiness.

Do you have a problem with impulsive buying that goes beyond the normal acquisitiveness promoted by our culture? Try answering these questions.

1. Does excessive spending cause a problem in your work or home life?

2. Have you "maxed out" your credit cards?

3. Do you buy things for others to get them to like you?

4. Do you go shopping to pick yourself up from a low mood?

5. Do you spend money on items that you don't need or use?

6. Do you feel a rush of excitement with the purchase? Is the experience of purchasing more important than the item purchased?

7. Is your basement, closet or garage filled with new or duplicated items of things you already use or wear? Women buy clothes, makeup, jewelry, gifts. Men buy big ticket items such as tools, computers, stereos, hunting and athletic equipment.

8. Do you hide the bills and purchases, hide the bank and credit card statements, borrow secretively and cover up spending from your spouse?

9. Do you prefer to shop alone?

10. Do you frequent certain stores because the salespersons know you by name, flatter you and make you feel good?

11. Do you take great pride in your bargain hunting and show off your skill to your friends?

12. Have you run into credit problems because of your out-of-control spending?

Shop till you drop. Overspending problems have accelerated in the past 10 to 15 years with the explosion of credit card use. Stores have gone to evening hours. Warehouse type stores with everything under one roof provide a powerful stimulation to spend. Malls are the gathering places for our materialistic culture. Even 800 numbers are at our fingertips 24-hours a day. We are taught to focus on what we have and what we do than what we are. Salespeople act like your best friend and give you their business card.

The Internet has become another place to spend money with trust and security. The range of choices is incredible.

The sophisticated advertising industry subtly bombards us with fuzzy, feel good ads in which their product is the key that helps us feel as good or successful as other people. They give the message, "Buy this and have a happy life." Ads suggest their products are rewards for hard work or an instant personality transplant. Stores advertise to get us to buy now and pay later. "No interest until June of '95." A good store is laid out precisely to stimulate impulsive buying.

Overspending is hard to recognize and easy to cover up. A shopper is enjoying the fruits and benefits of our consumer-oriented culture. An overspender is not as easy to identify as nicotine-dependent individuals. It's not considered a big problem.

What a bargain! Binge buying is a way of gaining attention, recognition, power, prestige and love. However, the most powerful effect is not in acquiring an item, it's in the lift or rush that comes with the purchase. Again, it's a legal, culturally approved, addictive-like, temporary fix for bad feelings and low self-esteem. Shopping functions the same way as overeating, sexual promiscuity, gambling, and other addictions that are not physiologically based.

What would a child want? There are some childhood experiences that overspenders have in common. As children they had unmet emotional needs - they grew up crying for attention in a family where individual attention wasn't given them. They often felt that their siblings were favored over them. Parents may have substituted buying things for love, time and affection. Childhood was often empty and lonely.

Some overspenders felt deprived as children because they lived in poverty. If they become wealthy, they never seem to have enough material possessions.

Overspenders were often "almost perfect" children who grew up in families who put great emphasis on getting along and hiding conflict. The problem often comes out in their early twenties when they are on their own.

No matter what gets overspending started, it takes on a life of its own with the reinforcing qualities of the buying experience. Overspending has now become a symbolic nurturing of self.

Psychologists Faye Girsh of San Diego, Jerrold Pollak of Providence, RI and Bonnie Kin of King of Prussia, PA along with consumer behavior specialist Ronald Faber of Minneapolis MN were consulted for background information on impulsive spending.