Jack’s shopping addiction started when he was a child, when he first learned the connection between money and goods.
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“It began from the time that I started getting money as a child and realized it could get me candy and gumballs,” he says. “The compulsion evolved from when I was fairly young to the point where I hit bottom. I was sick and tired of being obsessive and keeping the secret over my obsession.”
His purchases were never lavish, but they were things that Jack, now 61, says he didn’t need and couldn’t afford on his $45,000 a year salary. He bought mostly $1 and $2 used books, model boats and even a Rolex, but his overspending veered into hoarding tendency.
“I would obsess over things, and I wouldn’t be able to get them out of my mind,” he says. “I’d focus on that rather than paying my rent, or getting food, or taking care of my pets. I had about $2,000 in debt, but it was my personal threshold, and I was looking for a bridge to jump off of.”
Finally at age 37, Jack realized he had a spending problem and turned to professional help to learn how to deal with his compulsions.
In his more than two decades in Debtors Anonymous, Jack says he has seen members go bankrupt with more than a million dollars in debt, and others with compulsive shopping tendencies with only $1,000 in debt. Shopping addictions don’t always mean massive spending, it’s about not having the control to say no and stop spending—whether it’s a toy boat or yacht.
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“It’s not about what we are buying, so much as needing to buy something so that we can feel better. We are shopping for the rush,” Jack explains.
While shopping sprees and addictions are often stereotyped with women, more men have been developing addictions in recent years, according to Terrence Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding. Famed sports writer Buzz Bissinger sent a ripple through the sports world last week when he admitted in GQ Magazine that he blew more than half a million dollars on designer clothes, mainly Gucci, in two years.
Shulman estimates there are about 30 million Americans with a compulsive shopping problem and 50% are men. While men and women shop differently, Shulman says the trend has ignited and overlapped in recent years, as society has become increasingly consumer oriented.
“Men will overspend on vacations, new homes, cars—they bite off more than they can chew to keep up with the Joneses,” he says.
His typical client is married or engaged, in their 40s or 50s and well educated. Many Many have prior addictions to alcohol or drugs and have shifted their compulsions into spending because it is viewed as less deterrent to their daily lives.
“I had one client who was a recovering alcoholic from Florida who stopped working due to a disability, so he had a lot of time on his hands,” he says. “The guy spent over $200,000 on computer equipment, then built a C.D. radio tower in his back yard. But he would never finish his projects. Then he started buying guns—that kind of shifting can happen a lot.”
Shulman says he works by phone or via Skype with about 50 clients per year who are male and one-third are compulsive shoppers. Many have substantial debt, from tens of thousands of dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As Bissinger recounts in his confessional, shopping addiction is easier to fuel than in the past since shopping can be done anytime from anywhere.
“Because of easy access with computers, TV, Internet and smartphones, things that men use a lot rather than going browsing in stores… we are becoming more of an impulsive, consumerist society and men are even more susceptible to this. I also think we're becoming an increasingly materialistic and empty culture,” Shulman says.
Jack says his addiction did push him into isolation and contributed to the end of his marriage. His obsession, shame and compulsion had him in a vicious cycle for decades. He accredits Debtors Anonymous for helping him get out of debt, develop a spending plan and foster a healthier relationship with money and material items.
“It’s up to the individual to admit it isn’t working,” he says.
Here are three signs you may have a shopping addiction:
No. 1: Obsession over items. The things you are buying or swooning over may not be fancy or costly, but the idea of buying is intoxicating. Jack says he racked up thousands in debt on $1 and $2 items- and it got to the point where he couldn’t get them out of his mind.
No. 2: Keeping secrets about your purchases. Shulman says many men, especially in relationships, will keep their items hidden from their partners. “It’s financial infidelity,” he says. “When people have an addiction, they lie and hide, and it’s a breach of trust.”
No. 3: Isolation.In hiding his addiction, Jack says he stopped socializing with friends and relatives to avoid having them see what he had accumulated. Shulman agrees, and says, “Although shopping is legal, there is a lot of shame and embarrassment with it.”