When you think 'shopaholic', you might picture a fluffy Hollywood film, or a co-worker whose desk is always surrounded by Amazon boxes and ASOS parcels. But for those who suffer from a shopping addiction, the reality is much less cute than the Isla Fisher Confessions Of A Shopaholic version.
Shopping addiction, clinically known as oniomania (from the Greek onios, meaning 'for sale'), is defined as an overpowering urge to buy, regardless of need or financial means, to avoid negative feelings and to feel good.
A recent study found that up to 7% of adults have some form of compulsive buying issue, with experts calling for a greater understanding and recognition of how dangerous the condition can be. Just like other more common addictions, such as drinking or gambling, the addiction often comes with debt, severe depression and anxiety, feelings of guilt and shame, and damaged relationships.
And though it may seem more trivial, shopping can be just as hard to quit cold turkey as other addictions. Living in the world we do, where shopping is part of life, it’s harder to avoid feeding the addiction, when every day offers up a new dopamine hit in the form of adding more items to our physical or digital cart.
UK household debt is at the highest level since records began and is expected to rise again, but despite warnings we don’t seem to be getting any closer to getting our debt under control.
Grace*, 29, works in finance in Scotland, says she has always struggled with overspending but her debt started to spiral out of control when she was made redundant from her job at a bank.
She joined the company in 2007 and expected to work for them forever – "a bit naïve," she admits, but this was before the global financial crisis hit.
"It was all: find a company, a big one, a stable one; pick something you’re good at and just have at it. So I did. [The redundancy] was a huge shock to my system, I didn’t cope with it very well, and that’s when financial situations started to change for me."
Between the ages of 19-25, when she was working at the bank, Grace kept getting in and out of debt, putting holidays and "big blowout weekends" on her credit card. She usually paid off the debts within a few months. Sounds like no big deal, right?
There is that short-term fix – until reality hits home and the guilt sets in when you realise you’ve overspent, or spent money you shouldn’t have.
Maggie King, addiction therapist
Yet Maggie King, a therapist with UK Addiction Treatment, stresses the link between addiction and mental health.
"With any addiction, what you’re doing is feeding the feeling or the emotion and there is that feelgood, short-term fix in that moment until you come away from it and reality hits home and the guilt sets in when you realise that maybe you’ve overspent, or spent money you shouldn’t have."
Grace says her emotional state definitely has an effect on her shopping habits. "I’m either bored and sit online buying stuff or I’m really upset and I buy things to make myself feel better or I’m angry about something and I buy things to distract myself. When I was made redundant, I was buying stuff to distract myself."
That 'stuff' she was buying as a distraction? Clothes, shoes, jewellery and travel.
In the years since being made redundant, Grace has had different jobs and her income has fluctuated. Now she lives with her fiancé in the house she owns and in the last year has taken a job where she can work from home.
When asked how much debt she currently has – excluding the mortgage – she is silent for a moment as she does the calculations in her head. "£25,000," she eventually sighs. That figure is spread across bank loans, credit cards she got interest-free through balance transfers, and another credit card she uses as her 'spending' card.
Her minimum monthly repayments are currently at about £800 a month, and although she always makes sure to pay more than the minimum, she admits she is on the verge of not being able to pay them every month and needs to be careful with her spending, especially at times like Christmas.
"I’m disappointed in myself, of course, but I’m not surprised because it’s proportionate to my behaviour in the past. For example, when I made half of what I am on now, I had £10,000 debt, and I managed to pay that off.
"Even though I have managed to get out of debt several times in my life, I didn’t feel as rewarded from that as I do from the stuff that I spend the money on. I get more joy out of being on holiday than I do out of being debt-free."
Yet she does worry about not having an 'emergency fund', which according to some financial advisors should be the equivalent of three months' salary. Grace currently has £1,000 in savings.
As well as that, she says working from home makes it even harder to resist the temptation of online sales. "About six or seven weeks ago I was bored. I went on H&M and I clicked 'View All' and then filtered to black, and clicked on loads of stuff I thought looked cool, put it in the basket and bought it. I knew I was 'bored shopping' but because I identified it at the time I was doing it, I didn’t go pick up the stuff. I just cancelled the order and it all got processed back."
Susan Rose, a professor of consumer behaviour at the University of Reading, tells Refinery29 that online shopping has taken off because it offers consumers a number of benefits – including convenience and speed. But her research has found that these benefits may also contribute to what she describes as "problematic online shopping behaviour".
Retailers have put a lot of money into tracking our purchasing habits to make buying their products as simple as possible. Whereas previously we might have stepped into a number of different stores to find that perfect winter coat, in just the right colour and within our budget, online retailers now try to take any mental effort out of the purchasing process, according to Professor Rose.
We can buy too quickly, too readily and not do the very important process of looking at the information and making a comparison. Retailers push us into that purchase quickly.
Professor Susan Rose
"When you think of something like Amazon one-click, they’re encouraging you not to spend time, because they move you to a position of purchasing very rapidly from actually seeing the products. There is some concern that perhaps we’re not making such effective purchase decisions anymore, because we can buy too quickly, too readily and not do that very important process of looking at information and making a comparison. The retailers push us into that purchase quite quickly."
Another seemingly convenient feature of online shopping, which Professor Rose identifies as contributing to overspending, is the return and refund policy. Such is the ubiquity of the 30-day free returns safety net that few among us would make a purchase without one.
"It doesn’t feel like you’re spending money," Grace says. "The money comes out at the time and then you think to yourself, 'Okay, I bought £200 worth of stuff, but I’m returning £150, so that’s not so bad'. So in your head, that’s returning £150, not 'I spent 50 quid on nothing!' It feels like you’re not spending money but like you’re getting money back."
Professor Rose’s 2014 research into the causes of online shopping addiction also looked into whether women were more likely to be susceptible to it than men.
"Women do most of the grocery shopping, have most of the household responsibility for decision-making around clothing, household products and so on. So is it the case they’re more susceptible to this, or are they more involved in the shopping process so there's a higher percentage they are influenced by it, because they’re doing more shopping anyway.
"Women are more programmed to be concerned about purchasing ... So it creates more likelihood that women appear in the stats as suffering from these sorts of things. For men they have a greater prevalence in gambling," she says.
Grace says her fiancé, who is far more frugal, knows she "buys a lot of crap" but he doesn’t know how much debt she’s in. "It’s me that wants the house and the good TV and the speakers and nice candles and ornaments and artwork. He wants these things too, but he doesn’t dream of them like I do because he doesn’t have the money. Whereas in my head if I can get access to the money, then I do have the money."
Part of her problem, Grace says, is she shops for other people too. "If I see something that I think someone will like, I just get it for them." When her fiancé needs a new pair of jeans, she’ll go to the high street or online to buy him some, because she knows he doesn’t have the money, she says.
“All of the holidays we’ve been on, I justify it to myself because I have the income to be able to – even though it’s not my money. When I wanted us to go to on a city break, I paid for it. When I wanted us to go to sun holidays, I paid for it."
Grace might be aware of her compulsive spending, but she still can't control it. "Because I have been working in financial services for 10 years, I am well versed in how I should be doing these things. In my position at work, I manage millions down to the penny, so I am very capable when it comes to looking at the numbers, analysing the figures and my spend and what goes in and out and what I have left," she says. "But even when I do that and I see a number for what I have left, it doesn’t seem to matter to me."
While shopping addiction is not yet recognised as a medical or mental health condition, experts believe it should be treated like any other addiction.
Maggie King recommends that anyone who is concerned should seek professional help, whether through cognitive behavioural therapy or a support group.
This time of year can be particularly difficult for shopping addicts, with January sales everywhere – but actually, when you think about it, we never really get a break from being encouraged to spend, whether it's a mid season sale, Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Black Friday, Christmas...
The good news is that StepChange Debt Charity says it sometimes only takes a couple of adjustments to get back on track. This involves making a budget and putting any disposable income towards your debt; looking for other ways to make some extra cash, such as picking up extra hours at work or returning unwanted Christmas presents, or switching to cheaper transport options and a cheaper supermarket.
If that is still not enough to pay off the credit card bill at the end of the month, speaking to a money advisor is the way to go. StepChange sees an increase in people seeking help in January for this very reason, though it acknowledges that most of its clients at this time of year are in problem debt due to an unexpected change in circumstance, such as illness or unemployment, rather than overspending.
Grace says she needs to let the controlled part of her personality take over "and shut down the whimsical, magical part of my brain that wants to buy shiny things".
Another trick she has learned to stop herself from spending too much is to remove her credit card details from the auto-complete function on her phone and computer, get a new card and put it away in a drawer before she has a chance to memorise it.
"I’ve managed it before and it’s a good way to do it, and I’d recommend it to anybody, even though I probably shouldn’t be giving advice to anyone."
*Name has been changed.