“Hi, I’m Rebecca, and I’m a shopaholic!” This line, along with the character, though from a comedy released in 2009, is cut from the fabric of everyday reality. Shopping has become an indispensable appendage of modern life. However, when it ceases to be just an accessory to a much more complex existence and moves to the centre of an individual’s focus, the leap from enjoyment to addiction becomes merely a matter of time.

The 2009 movie Confessions of a Shopaholic portrays a genuine shopaholic through the character of journalist Rebecca Bloomwood. Torn between her dream of becoming an editor at Alette, a prestigious fashion magazine, and her obsession with luxury clothing items, Rebecca finds herself trapped in a world of distorted values, where shopping becomes a tantalising game she can’t escape. A green scarf, a cashmere coat, or a pair of Italian leather shoes become the very tentacles that pull her back into a self-destructive dance every time she thinks she’s about to escape the labyrinth of debt created by her passion for fashion.

The high prices of luxury stores do not easily intimidate her. When the temptations of sales, even modest ones, flash their enticing smiles, resisting the feast of clothing articles becomes a Sisyphean task.

In reality, the stakes of this marathon of euphoria and agony are not the clothes themselves. “When I was a little girl,” Rebecca begins her story, “there were real prices and mom prices. Real prices got you shiny, sparkly things that lasted three weeks, and mom prices got you brown things…that lasted forever.”

What the heroine of the comedy buys, beyond textures, shapes, and bright colours, is the image of a perfect world. This world entices her with promises that quickly fade after a compulsive swipe of her card. Once the purchase is made, the world reverts to its drab outlines, threatening to remain in this bleak palette until the next dose of antidote, generously offered by the magical storefront.

Excessive shopping: from screenplays to everyday life

Rebecca Bloomwood’s story is reenacted countless times in consumer society.

Katie McCoy, an assistant professor of theology at Scarborough College within Southwestern Seminary, shares her own experience with the rollercoaster of compulsive shopping. Initially, shopping with a credit card seemed like nothing less than a passport to the promised land. The ability to defer payment, separating it from the pure joy of acquisition, along with accumulated points and providential discounts, all conspired to create a pastel-coloured here and now. This led to an escalating addiction to the act of shopping and its soothing, energising, and compensatory virtues. Shopping temporarily anaesthetised, only to later intensify, the chronic dissatisfaction of the consumer. The free-fall into the debt spiral prompted a reevaluation of her passion, which had insidiously morphed into bondage.

Luisa Beesly pens an article where she announces, right from the title, that she is a former shopping addict. What began as innocent fun and a way to brighten a dull day by purchasing a cute accessory or checking online deals, ended up consuming her life. She began shopping even during lunch breaks, gave up weekend social activities for mall pilgrimages, and accumulated increasing debt. A wool jacket, an expensive cosmetic, or fantasy boots were temptations she couldn’t resist, until, by her own admission, she reached the brink of obsession.

Shopping mania: a form of disorder

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders might soon include a new form of malady: oniomania, or shopping addiction.

In the early 1990s, Ronald J. Faber and Thomas C. O’Guin, authors of the paper “Classifying Compulsive Consumers,” defined compulsive shopping as a series of “chronic episodes of purchasing…where the consumer feels unable to significantly stop or moderate their behaviour.”

The psychiatric community in Germany has identified this type of addiction as a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder. April Benson, a psychologist specialising in treating this disorder and author of the book I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self, believes it’s only a matter of time before this behaviour is recognised as pathological in the United States as well.

Compulsive shopping has been a focus of psychiatric concern for over a century. German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin wrote about uncontrollable buying behaviour, coining the term “oniomania” (the buying mania).

Drawing from Kraepelin’s Compendium of Psychiatry, Swiss psychologist Eugen Bleuler described “compulsive buyers,” who see every purchase as a compulsion, often incurring unjustified debts.

Both psychiatrists categorised this behaviour alongside the reactions seen in kleptomaniacs or pyromaniacs, viewing them as forms of “impulsive insanity.”

Until the late 1980s, compulsive shopping remained on the periphery of behavioural disorder investigations. However, subsequent research by consumer behaviour experts and social psychologists revealed that this form of addiction is more common than previously thought.

A 1994 study involving 20 subjects found that 96% of compulsive shoppers had been diagnosed with mood disorders, and their first-degree relatives exhibited a high prevalence of similar conditions. This study highlighted the association between compulsive buying and other psychological pathologies, emphasising the psychological and relational costs borne by shopping addicts and underscoring the need for deeper investigation into this deviant behaviour.

In 2006, a Stanford University study found that 6% of American adults suffer from compulsive buying disorder, affecting both sexes equally. However, broader population studies exploring the relationship between this addiction and other behavioural disorders are still needed.

Profile of a shopping addict

The line between a regular shopper and a shopping addict can be blurry, as the tendency to overspend is widespread. Sometimes, what you might think is just a weakness could actually be a serious disorder, as noted in an article in The New York Times. Even if shopping hasn’t become a full-blown addiction, those who feel an inclination to overspend should take precautions, advises Dr. Richter from Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. They could set spending limits, make and stick to a shopping list, and pay with cash instead of a card. Experiencing pleasure from purchasing a product is normal and healthy, she says. Problems arise when shopping becomes an overwhelming habit that consumes time and money without return, and purchases are followed by episodes of remorse.

Katie McCoy outlines several symptoms of this addiction. It can involve a mix of excitement and anxiety whenever the addict spends money, an uncontrollable urge to shop when feeling down, significant time spent researching and buying various products, purchasing items that are not needed, or an inability to stick to a set budget. Sometimes, the addict may lie and hide purchases from family or friends to avoid disapproval.

The good news, says McCoy, is that there are ways to break free from this cycle of dependency, and recovery begins with a new perspective on material possessions and life as a whole.

Successful strategies in combating addiction

Jill Chivers, a former shopping addict, has created a website to support women struggling with this addiction, helping them develop a healthier relationship with money.

Shopping, she emphasises, is neither inherently good nor bad. It’s the relationship we form with it that can be healthy or problematic. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for curbing excessive shopping, says Jill, who adopted a radical method to tackle her own addiction—she banned herself from buying clothes, accessories, or beauty products for a year.

In the journey to overcome addiction, willpower is not the primary factor, says Chivers, drawing on the observations of psychologist Roy Baumeister. Baumeister’s studies indicate that the most effective self-control results come from individuals who organise their lives to conserve willpower. For instance, they avoid the temptations of “all you can eat” buffets and remove circumstances that invite temptation, setting up habits that ease the burden on willpower and prevent it from being constantly tested.

Chivers structures her plan to combat shopping mania based on this paradigm. Relying solely on willpower is challenging because it can quickly falter, so it’s crucial to build habits that support the decisions made, even when willpower wanes.

“Structures of success” are key to normalising the relationship with shopping. First, setting up barriers to make shopping more difficult is essential. This could involve unsubscribing from promotional emails or planning your day or week in a way that makes access to stores more challenging than usual. Enlisting the support of others in this recovery journey can also be highly beneficial. Additionally, replacing shopping with an activity that brings similar satisfaction is important. Creating a comprehensive list of “things I enjoy doing—besides shopping” can be helpful when the temptation to indulge in a shopping spree becomes overwhelming.

It is crucial, Chivers adds, to anticipate the difficult parts of the journey to prevent relapse. In some cases, avoiding stores altogether can be particularly beneficial. You can’t crave a fabulous pair of shoes if you don’t even know they exist, she concludes, reiterating the idea of compensation. Since we tend to avoid pain and gravitate toward what brings us pleasure, giving up shopping shouldn’t be seen through the lens of deprivation or punishment. To maintain a healthy perspective, it is vital to replace chaotic spending with other rewarding activities.

Religion and shopping

While it might be expected that shopping becomes a veritable religion for those addicted, few consider that religion might influence how one shops. Not so for Michelle Gonzalez, an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami. She writes about her effort to transform shopping into a Christian act.

In her exploration of the healthy relationship Christians should have with money, Michelle Gonzalez encounters the perspective of writer Eugene Peterson. He stated that “The Christian life is going to God. In going to God, Christians travel the same ground that everyone else walks on, breathe the same air, drink the same water, shop in the same stores…fear the same dangers…are buried in the same ground.” The only difference beyond the apparent or real similarities, says Peterson, is that Christians learn to live in the presence of God.

“If money becomes how we define our lives, if our material goods become the indicator of how we value the worth of others, then there is no way we can be leading a Christian life,” Gonzalez says. The impossibility lies in the fact that living by the rules of materialism means committing to a life for which we were not created. From Edenic times, we were designed to find fulfilment in God. Consequently, whenever we let something else guide our lives, we are doomed to perpetual dissatisfaction.

A Christian shopaholic should be an oxymoron, yet reality presents more complex scenarios. Katie McCoy and Luisa Beesly are not the only practising Christians who have found themselves ensnared in the web of compulsive shopping. Their stories bear a striking resemblance to that of the fictional character Rebecca Bloomwood when they reveal the core motivations of a compulsive buyer.

Katie recalls how a new sweater promised to mute her feelings of loneliness, dissatisfaction, or discouragement. Luisa describes her hunger for the shiny products in stores, whose steep prices promised to reward the buyer with a flawless image. And what better shortcut to perfection could a girl who felt “broken, worn, and complicated” wish for?

Sticking to a reasonable budget or heroically abstaining from shopping doesn’t necessarily mean that an addiction has been eradicated, Katie McCoy says. The real issue is not about the amount of money we have or spend.

The Bible offers a key to every possible dilemma regarding our money and spending. “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” (Matthew 6:22). This biblical statement aligns with an already confirmed reality: our attitudes and choices, including financial ones, are dictated by the direction in which our compass of devotion points.

Before worrying about where your money goes, you should be concerned about the direction your eyes are looking, McCoy concludes.

The Apostle Paul confessed that he had learned the art of living in a state of gratitude that did not fluctuate with external circumstances. “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).

Wherever there is food, air, water, and adequate shelter, the conditions for survival are met—that’s NASA’s conclusion. Despite any real shortcomings we might face, we generally have more than enough to meet our basic needs.

Building on this premise, Elane O’Rourke, in an article on christiansimplicity.com, presents the elements of genuine gratitude in a formula that is as simple as it is difficult to internalise in the age of consumerism: “I have enough. And it’s all God’s.” This attitude can fuel robust contentment and act as an antidote to the disorienting sense of deprivation that consumer society instils in us. The key is to treat this idea not as a mantra but to allow it to permeate both the rational part of our being and our everyday choices.