Compulsive Buying DisorderThe holidays can make even the most sensible, financially literate person feel like they’re spiraling down a rabbit hole of compulsive spending and impending debt, so it’s no surprise that this time of year can inflict even more stress for the estimated 18 million Americans who exhibit compulsive spending year-round and suffer from Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD).  That’s nearly 6% of the American population.  These shoppers experience overwhelming and irresistible urges to buy that persist despite the numerous adverse and devastating consequences that overspending can cause.

Compulsive Buying Disorder is characterized by excessive shopping cognitions and buying behavior that results in distress or impairment, and it’s found worldwide, including such places as the U.S., Canada, England, Germany, France, and Brazil.  Though women are more commonly stereotyped as compulsive spenders, CBD does not discriminate: In the U.S., 5.5% of men suffer from compulsive buying behaviors, which is only somewhat fewer than the 6% of women who suffer.  The age of onset of CBD appears to be in the late teens or early 20s, with a mean age at onset of 30 years.  It is likely that the age of onset corresponds with emancipation from the home and the age at which people first stablish credit accounts.

Are You a Compulsive Spender?

So what constitutes a compulsive spender?  Ask yourself these questions:  Do you often feel preoccupied with shopping and buying?  Do you go on frequent buying binges?  Do you use shopping as a way to handle stress?  Do you spend more time shopping than you intend to?  Do you experience guilt or remorse about shopping?  Do you find yourself hiding purchases from your spouse or your family or friends?  Are you encountering excess debt, partner or family conflict, or participating in illegal activities because of your shopping and buying habits?

Clinical symptoms of Compulsive Buying Disorder include:

  • preoccupation with shopping and spending
  • devoting a significant amount of time to these behaviors
  • shopping and spending are generally intertwined
  • experience of an increased level of urge or anxiety that can only lead to a sense of completion when a purchase is made

The impulse to buy actually stems from an emotional need.  Most people don’t realize that impulse buying is related to your state of mind.  Impulse buyers can be triggered to spend due to anxiety, unhappiness, depression, boredom, shame, impulsivity, low self-esteem, perfectionism, obsessions and compulsions, a desire to belong, and numerous other emotions.  What makes one spend impulsively is unique for each and every person, and the true psychological source of a person’s compulsive spending tendencies can be very difficult to pinpoint.  Buying provides temporary relief from negative emotions, but most people find that they feel remorse or disappointment once they make a purchase and their need is rarely filled by the activity.

Comorbid Conditions

The behavior of compulsive spending is not currently a diagnosable mental health condition; it is not found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), the bible that psychiatrists and other mental health professionals use to make diagnoses of mental health conditions.  Compulsive Buying Disorder is often linked to other psychological conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to addiction.  Some researchers identify compulsive buying as an obsessive-compulsive tendency, while still others view it as an impulse control problem due to the short-term gratification and dismissal of long-term consequences associated with the behavior.  Compulsive hoarding is particularly closely linked to CBD.

Compulsive Buying Disorder

The Four Distinct Phases of CBD

According to “A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder” by Donald W. Black (World Psychiatry, 2007 Feb; 6(1): 14-18), there are four distinct phases of CBD:

  1. Anticipation
  2. Preparation
  3. Shopping
  4. Spending
In the Anticipation phase, the person with Compulsive Buying Disorder develops “thoughts, urges, or preoccupations with either having a specific item or with the act of shopping.”  These thoughts and urges can become overwhelming and even obsessive, ruminating in one’s mind until the person makes the decision to go shopping or to purchase the specific item.
In the second phase, Preparation, the person makes preparations for shopping and spending.  This can include deciding when and where to go and even which credit card or other method of payment to use.  The third phase, Shopping, involves the actual shopping experience, and it can be done in a store or online (or any other venue).  Many individuals describe this phase as “intensely exciting.”  Finally, in the Spending phase, the act is completed with a purchase, which is often followed by the sense of let down or disappointment with oneself.

Consequences of Compulsive Buying Disorder

The Consequences of Compulsive Spending

It’s no surprise that 85% of those who suffer from Compulsive Buying Disorder express concern with their compulsive spending related debts.  74% report feeling “out of control” while shopping, and 92% try to resist their urges to buy but are rarely successful.  When a person suffering with CBD experiences an urge to buy, the urge will result in a purchase 74% of the time.  68% report that CBD has negatively affected their relationships (Source:  “A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder”).

Impulse buys add up.  They keep people from achieving their real goals if spending habits get out of hand, which can be quite quickly.  Because many, if not most, impulse buys are purchased via the use of credit, the debt incurred can be magnified by interest and finance charges.  Impulse purchases are rarely, if ever, budgeted for, resulting in the buyer not being able to cover the costs of his or her purchases, which can then result in not being able to pay the debt or making late payments to cover the debt.  Enter the costs of late fees.  Before long, the compulsive spender is spiraling down the rabbit hole of debt, which leads to a set of consequences all on its own.

Compulsive spending can result in a lot more than the stress of debt.  People with CBD can find themselves having difficulties in interpersonal relationships.  Due to embarrassment, compulsive spenders often prefer to shop alone unless their companion is one who either enables the spending or is a compulsive buyer him or herself.  Compulsive spenders often find themselves hiding their purchases from their partners and/or family members.  The excessive spending frequently results in arguments or conflict if the behavior is found out.

Individuals suffering from CBD are often found in a state of emotional turmoil.  Not only can their state of mind cause compulsive spending behaviors, but the compulsive spending behaviors usually cause a state of mind in which the person feels depressed, anxious, frustrated, angry, let down, fearful, and a wealth of other negative emotions.  Their minds are in a constant state of stress, worrying about how they will pay for their purchases, as well as whether their partner or family member will learn of the overspending.

How to Stop Impulse Spending

There are a number of tactics you can try if you believe you’re an compulsive spender and wish to stop.  Once you’ve identified yourself as an impulse spender, try to figure out what triggers the spending.  Are you feeling bored?  Restless?  Are you buying in order to cheer yourself up (aka “retail therapy)?  As a means to reward yourself?  To achieve a sense of belonging?

Following are some tips to stop impulse spending:

  • Eliminate opportunities.  Unsubscribe from the email alerts, deal sites, and catalogs.  Stay out of the stores and off the websites dedicated to things you like to purchase or collect.  Avoid your poison, and distract yourself with something else instead.
  • Use delaying tactics.  Often an impulse to spend will pass as quickly as it came to you if you’re able to delay the urge.  Tell yourself that you will revisit the idea in a week or month instead, and then DON’T set any type of reminder.  Chances are that you will forget about it.  If there’s something you still really want to buy, remember that there’s nothing wrong with doing so as long as you have the money set aside for it ahead of time.  Or try this strategy… Because it’s easy to spend money without thinking things through thoroughly, sometimes waiting a day, a week, or a month will yield an incredibly different result.  Set up a framework that allows you to at least sleep on an un-budgeted purchase.  For smaller items (e.g., a new pair of jeans, kitchenware, etc.), spend at least 24 hours before you make your purchase.  For high price items (e.g., furniture, a car, booking a vacation, etc.), spend at least a week doing research and at least another day or two before making your final decision.
  • Enlist help.  Ask friends and family to remind you that you don’t want to spend money on impulse.  Ask them to remind you of your bigger spending goals that you want to achieve and that impulsive spending will delay if you choose to buy.  Merely speaking your plan out loud to someone can sometimes cause you to pause and reflect on whether you’re reacting to an emotion or contemplating your true motives.
  • Don’t forget to plan for fun.  People forget that not impulse spending does not mean not spending at all.  Not impulse spending means limiting the amount you spend to what you can afford.  Budget for something fun, whether it be a fun activity or a purchase that you’d really like to buy.
  • Recognize when you’re at your weakest.  Carefully observe your own patterns of behavior and habits.  If you know you overspend during certain emotional seasons of your life, put safeguards into place to keep you from making an unwise decision.  Times of grief, stress, and lack of sleep can all influence the ways we approach spending money.  When you’re having a rough day, try to stay offline and out of the stores as much as you can.
  • Never shop without a list.
  • Set a budget before you head out the door.  This helps you choose your purchases more carefully and will help you stick to your list.
  • Carry cash.  If you can, take cash instead of a credit card or debit card.  Using cash makes it easier to not go over your budget.
  • Question yourself.  Ask yourself these three questions:
    1. Do I need it? – If the answer is no, put it back.
    2. Can I afford it? – If you can’t, put it back.
    3. Can I borrow it? – If the answer is yes, put it back.
  • Avoid sales in general.  The psychology behind sales is to get customers in the door to spend more money than they would in the first place.  Practice mindful spending, look for a deal when you’re going to buy, and ONLY buy that item.
  • Channel your feelings into something besides shopping.  Pursue an interest or hobby.  It may result in less free time to shop.
  • Indulge in a guilt-free way.  You can’t not shop.  Set a budget for items you like to indulge in, such as clothes.
  • Keep a spending log.  Record each and every purchase that you make.  Every day.  Don’t feel like a purchase is worth recording?  Then it’s probably a purchase not worth buying.  Keeping a log of the way you spend money can help you see where all your money is going and help you gain insight about your purchases.  An additional bonus:  The fact that you have to take the time to record each and every purchase is often a deterrent for some people to make a purchase, as they don’t want to record the transaction.
  • Find a therapist.  Working with a therapist can help you gain insight and increase emotional awareness.  They can also help you come up with healthy emotion regulation strategies and identify healthy alternatives to compulsive spending.  If you’re experiencing problems with your partner or with family members as a result of your overspending, therapy can also help address these issues.  In addition to other techniques, a therapist can teach you mindfulness techniques, which have demonstrated efficacy in helping people achieve control over their impulsive reactions and habits and acceptance of their emotions and moods.
  • Undergo financial counseling.  Financial counseling can teach you how to effectively manage your money and create a budget that you can stick to.  Financial counselors can also provide information on effective strategies to help you get out of debt and/or repair your financial situation.


If you think you have a compulsive spending problem or may be suffering from Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD), know that there’s hope.  Recognizing that you may have a spending problem is the first step in recovery.  You don’t have to spend the rest of your life in a state of stress caused by overspending.




Stop Letting Your Emotions Ruin the Way You Manage Money

10 Ways to Put a Halt on Impulsive Spending

What I Learned During Shopping Addiction Therapy

The Cost of Buying On Impulse

Compulsive Spending/Shopping

A Review of Compulsive Buying Disorder