December is a time for family and fun in the sun  but it is also typically a time when spending is at an all-time high. File photo: Ross Jansen
December is a time for family and fun in the sun  but it is also typically a time when spending is at an all-time high. File photo: Ross Jansen

Is your spending out of control?

By Dr Anand Ramphal Time of article published Nov 13, 2013

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Durban - Most people splurge or go into debt once in a while. This is normal.

Buying a present occasionally to lift your spirits does not make you a compulsive shopper. It is a matter of degree. If the pattern repeats itself, and the bill gets bigger and bigger, there could be a problem.

Compulsive spenders splurge in order to feel good and to forget troubling thoughts and emotions. But the relief is always only temporary, and it may take ever bigger splurges to feel good.

Compulsive spending (oniomania) is a common symptom of bipolar disorder.

The number of South Africans who cannot control their desire to shop is unknown, but if we are to go by media reports, the percentage is disturbingly high.

Compulsive spending occurs in all socio-economic groups and genders, although women are more likely than men to become compulsive shoppers.


Some researchers believe that men and women react differently to low serotonin levels. Men tend to become more aggressive and risk-taking while women indulge in behaviours such as compulsive shopping and binge eating.

Money is a common culprit in marital disputes. Often spouses who buy compulsively try to conceal the amount they have spent.

When partners discover that money set aside for a child’s school fees or paying the rent is gone, they feel betrayed and angry.

In some cases, compulsive spending can be so substantial that it leads to bankruptcy. The family may lose all trust in the person who has brought them to financial ruin, and may resent what they see as selfish and self-destructive behaviour.

Also, in extreme cases compulsive shoppers may experience emotional blackouts. They return home but they don’t remember having bought certain items.

Compulsive spenders often have parents who were substance abusers, gamblers, spenders or borrowers.

Like other impulse control problems, compulsive spending tends to increase during times of stress and can be connected to problems such as:

* Explosive disorder (when a person loses control of his aggressive impulses and seriously assaults someone or destroys property).

* Kleptomania (when a person cannot resist the urge to steal something even though he does not really need it).

* Trichotillomania (pulling out one’s hair which gives the “puller” satisfaction and some relief from tension).

Similarly, in the case of a compulsive shopper the act of buying provides a brief moment of immediate gratification or excitement that temporarily “chases away” feelings of sadness or inferiority.

However, this “high” is over quickly as shoppers realise that their latest buys have not really put an end to their feelings of emptiness.


If you suspect that your spending is getting out of control, ask yourself:

* Recently, have I been setting aside increasing amounts of time and money for shopping?

* Have I been tense before spending money, followed by feelings of relief and satisfaction after I made my purchase?

* Have I used money set aside for something important (such as paying the dentist), for buying on impulse?

* Do I skip important family or work responsibilities to give myself time to shop?

* Has my spending landed me in debt or damaged any of my personal relationships?

* Have I shoplifted or done something illegal to raise money for shopping ?

If you have answered “yes” to several of these questions, it would be wise for you to seek the help of a mental health specialist. Your compulsive shopping could be a response to low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, loneliness or anger.

Also, financial counselling can help you become better at managing your money and drawing up plans for paying off your old debts.


How can compulsive shoppers help themselves?

* Identify what triggers your shopping spree by writing down what happens, or how you feel, just before you embark on your binge buying.

* Avoid the places where you shop, especially shopping centres in which you may be tempted to linger and browse.

* Schedule other activities, such as playing tennis or family outings during those times you are likely to go shopping. Distract yourself.

* Destroy all your credit cards, except the one that you may need to use in an emergency.

* Keep money in a savings rather than in a cheque account.

* Make a shopping list before entering a shop; limit purchases to the items on the list.

* Keep reminding yourself that you cannot afford to go shopping. You just do not have the money.

* Give most of your pay cheque to your partner, trusted relative or friend to pay your accounts. Also, limit your spending to a previously agreed allowance.

* Do not shop by television. Avoid order-by-phone shopping channels when you are bored, upset, and are most likely to order something you do not really need. - Daily News


* Ramphal is an educational psychologist with special interests in career counselling and the learning and behaviour problems of children and adolescents. Visit

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