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Holiday Spending: How to Tame Your Inner Shopaholic

Laura McMullen

A woman--let's call her Jane--was admitted to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, not for drugs or alcohol, but for something we've likely all been doing this holiday season: shopping. Sitting in progress groups with cocaine addicts, Jane felt unique, as though her problem wasn't as severe as those surrounding her, explains Coleen Moore, marketing and admissions manager at the Institute.

Then she had an "aha" moment. Before checking into the facility, Jane had to have one last buy. She purchased an item online and had it shipped to the facility. When the package arrived, "you could literally see her high and euphoria," Moore says. The staff explained to Jane that the package would be left unopened and sent back--after all, you wouldn't give an alcoholic a shot of whiskey in rehab. Jane began sweating and showed signs of both psychological and physical withdrawal, Moore says, "because she wasn't able to complete that euphoric feeling."

Indeed, Jane is addicted to shopping, like an estimated 5 to 10 percent of Americans. Shopping addictions are defined as an impulse control disorder, in which repetitive purchasing becomes so difficult to stop that it often ends in disaster--think maxed-out credit cards and family stress. In fact, research suggests that more than half of people with a chronic buying disorder experience relationship strain as a result.

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"When people see these things coming up--financial problems, not being able to control themselves, and other people noticing and being impacted--that's when you've probably jumped the rails from someone who just likes to shop a lot to someone with a shopping problem," says Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and addiction expert featured on Oxygen's My Shopping Addiction. In a 2007 review of compulsive buying disorder, Donald Black, a University of Iowa psychiatry professor, noted that most people with the disorder are women. They go through four phases with each shopping experience: anticipation, such as a preoccupation with having a specific item; preparation, perhaps by deciding which credit card to use at which store; shopping, commonly described as "intensely exciting"; and spending, which often leads to disappointment.

If these stages sound familiar, Durvasula suggests seeing a mental health provider with expertise in addiction or compulsive disorders. Group treatment, like the kind Jane received, has been successful; Debtors Anonymous, for example, is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. Many times, folks also benefit from financial counseling, and sometimes marriage or couples counseling, too, if the addiction has damaged more than their wallets.

While many of us are guilty of stretching our credit for a pair of shoes or going a little overboard during the holidays, Durvasula says most people are not shopping addicts. Still, this time of year can bring out that borderline addiction that lies deep within. "There might be people who are very mindful of their spending throughout most of the year, but at Christmas, they go hog-wild to the point where they get themselves in debt or they exhaust themselves and overdo it," says Terrence Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending, & Hoarding in Franklin, Mich.

Around the holidays, our expectations, which are often programmed by media, stores, and family, can get a little out of whack. The expectation, Durvasula says, is "to buy gifts, to give gifts to someone who's given you gifts--the holidays are supposed to look a certain way, and one of those ways involves gift-giving. No one is walking around in the middle of April thinking, 'I've got to buy lots of people gifts.'"

Nope. It's December--well, November, too--when we obsess about shopping for gifts. Commercials with spouses buying each other diamonds and luxury cars are on every channel. Friends ask if we've started holiday shopping yet because they finished theirs months ago, and can we believe what they snagged? Sale ads fill mailboxes, online and on the street--but hurry, that deal is only good today. A rushed timeframe and pressure to "buy! buy! buy!" can turn a moderate shopper impulsive. Plus, we're already exhausted in December, thanks to holiday parties, work deadlines, travel, family time, and shorter days. That's bad news for shoppers, who tend to make poorer decisions when tired, Durvasula says.

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Luckily, even those with a tendency to overdo it can tame their inner shopaholic this season. Consider these tips:

Skip the stores. If your shopping habit is a real problem that's leaving your family financially stressed, stay home. "If you have an alcohol problem, you probably wouldn't hang out at the bars," Shulman says. Make a shopping list for your partner and send him or her to the store in your place. Or, if filling your online shopping cart gets you into trouble, block the sites that burn a hole in your pocket.

Leave the credit card at home. If you think you can handle the store or you can't get out of going, take a debit card that's linked directly to an account--or better yet, take cash. That way, you have to stop shopping when you run out of money. If parting with the plastic isn't an option, Durvasula suggests attaching a sticky note to the card with exactly how much you can afford to spend that day. Write the amount of every transaction you make on the note, subtracting from the total each time. Online shoppers can stick the note to their computer screens.

Unsubscribe from email lists. Remember Pavlov's Law, with the dog drooling in anticipation of food every time a bell rang? That's comparable to when we receive a sales email from a store, Shulman says. We anticipate deals every time we see the email, and decide we have to seize the bargain. And it only takes a click or two to spend major money. Unsubscribe, because if the emails stop coming, so will the temptation to indulge.

Shop when you feel your best. We're not great decision makers when we're tired. (Ever inhale leftover pizza as a midnight snack?) Shopping when depleted won't end well, says Durvasula, so head to the mall when you're alert. If you're typically weary after a full day of work, opt for a Saturday morning shopping trip. Added bonus: If you go early enough, you may be able to beat the rush.

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Walk away. If you're on the fence about buying an item, Durvasula suggests setting it back on the shelf and walking away to think about it. "Sometimes it doesn't have the same allure the next day or even in an hour," she says. "A lot of times in the frenzy of the moment, you just think--I want to buy this thing!"

Rethink gift-giving. "People often view a gift as something in a box with a bow," Durvasula says, "but I think the most precious gift you've got is your time." Take a friend out to lunch, she suggests. Or invite everyone who gave you gifts to your house for a party. Shulman suggests building a holiday tradition of going ice skating, exploring a museum, creating a snowman, or volunteering, instead of showering your family with material things. "I think we've lost track of how to show and express our love to each other besides giving gifts," he says. If you ask your kids down the road what they remember most about Christmas or Hanukkah, they'll more likely remember the stuff they did rather than the stuff they got. "Those are the really great memories," Shulman says. "The toys are cool, but the memories of them will likely fade."