How can you spot - and help - a shopaholic?

How to spot - and help - a shopaholic
How to spot - and help - a shopaholic

We all have moments when we spend more than we should, and we might laughingly hold our hands up to being a 'shopaholic' or 'spendaholic'. The question is how often we have those moments. While overspending once in a blue moon is hardly cause for intervention, we all know someone for whom it has become a dangerous habit. In fact, between 8% and 16% of British adults are actually addicted to shopping. So how can we help?

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It can be hard to spot when someone is addicted to shopping, because the line between addiction and normal behaviour is a very fine one. The vast majority of people occasionally spend money we know we really shouldn't, so it can be difficult to spot when it becomes a problem.

There's also the fact that so few people consider it to be a real illness - despite the fact it was discovered 20 years ago. This is largely because of the trivial way we use words like 'shopaholic' to describe small, occasional overspends.

It's therefore worth getting to know the signs that someone may have a problem:

1. They respond to stress or emotional distress by shopping
2. When they return from shopping they show signs of having had an adrenaline-fuelled experience
3. They hide their purchases from others
4. They admit they have been shopping but lie about what they spent
5. They buy items that don't make sense to outsiders
6. They have an unusual number of unused items lying around the house
7. They have a number of credit cards, and are likely to be getting into debt
8. They hide credit card bills
9. They are defensive in conversations about their spending
10. They fall out with people over spending too much

What can you do?

The first (and most difficult) step is to recognise this as an illness. For anyone not suffering an addiction, this kind of shopping seems selfish, stupid, reckless and damaging. It may well have caused serious problems for the wider family, and run up debts that will be a major source of stress for months or even years to come.

If you are angry, resentful, anxious and frustrated with the sufferer, you won't be in a position to find a proactive way out.

It means it's vital either to get help yourself before you start trying to help the shopaholic, or find someone close to you both, who can open up the conversation from an independent standpoint.

Even when you are ready for the conversation, however, it doesn't mean your loved one is.

Because of the blurred boundaries between normal behaviour and addiction, it can be incredibly difficult to get someone to admit they have a problem.

The best thing people can do for their loved ones is to get them to think about what they are spending, and why. Some sufferers have been encouraged to keep a spending diary to help them see they had a problem.

Once they appreciate that they have a problem, you can help with the practical steps. This means taking control of their credit cards, so they have no access to further borrowing. It can also mean encouraging them not to carry their wallet at all times, or only to carry a small amount of cash for emergencies.

They can be persuaded to stay away from shops, and you can help them develop other hobbies to focus their energies. Running, for example, creates an endorphin buzz that may help to replace the one they got from shopping.

They can't avoid shopping opportunities entirely, but the risk can be mitigated. So, for example, when they go into a supermarket, they should be armed with a list - and only take enough cash for the items on the list, so they cannot overspend.

If you can get them to talk to a sympathetic GP, they can look at any underlying issues that sparked the problem in the first place. Nearly two thirds of shopaholics suffer from depression, and many use it as a method of self-medication. If they can get help with their depression - whether that's therapy or medication - it can reduce the likelihood of them overspending.

In some cases, they may recommend seeing a counsellor, to understand the reasons for the shopping addiction. Cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, has proven to be very useful to some sufferers. Mindfulness was also proven to help - both in reducing negative thoughts and helping people understand their motivations and real needs.