THE BLOG
06/13/2016 12:30 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2017

5 Ways to Tell if You Have a Shopping Problem + What to Do About It

Uwe Krejci via Getty Images

It's no secret I used to have a spending/shopping problem...a big one. So large, I ended up with $10,000 in credit card debt by age 21 and had to see a therapist to curb my shopping addiction. 

Because I've written so openly about my shopping problem in the past, from time to time I'll get email questions from readers about the subject. And then sometimes on a special day a reader will ask me a great question that just begs to be shared.

Shania* (not her real name) wrote in to me and asked, "Where's the line between having fun (if you enjoy shopping) and doing it too much? How do you know if you actually have a shopping problem?"

Great question. Here's my answer.

I know that for me my little habit started out with me shopping before and after my shifts at my mall job and spending close to $200 a week on clothes. This was an average. I took some breaks, but I remember a large part of my leisure time in college being spent shopping at the mall. If you add the numbers up... that's close to $800 a MONTH on clothes, or $9,600 a year.

I don't spend that now as a working adult with my own business. Imagine keeping up that kind of habit as a college kid making $9.00 an hour at the Wet Seal and you can see how I wound up in so much debt.

But I think the shift from fun, happy-go-lucky shopping trips to "this behavior may be a problem" happened when I was out, getting my cardio in at the mall, binge shopping same-as-always, but I realized I was returning a large portion of my items days or weeks later.

I call this behavior shopping bulimia.

What is shopping bulimia you ask?

It's the shop-overspend-return-shop again behavior that mimics an eating disorder. Some may consider it insensitive that I am choosing to name it after such a controversial issue, but it's really the only name that truly justifies how unhealthy the behavior is.

Some argue that shopping bulimia isn't really all that bad. After all, you're getting your money back, right? (That is, IF You end up returning them and if they give you cash instead of store credit.

But the fact of the matter is that even IF you return the items, the desire to purchase impulsively and overspend is still alive and well in your heart.

And one day that urge will meet it's favorite kissing cousin, low willpower.

You'll be out shopping after a bad day, or you'll be tired or bored (or both), or mulling over something someone said that upset you and suddenly you are taking home a bunch of stuff you don't need and USING IT, even though you never wanted it in the first place.

And even if you return the bulk of the items and keep only the ones you love... those little purchases add up over time, and suddenly you are swimming in credit card debt.

You don't have time for a shopping problem. So even if you don't have "shopping bulimia," I've outlined a few other warning signs below.

Suspect You Might Have a Shopping Problem? Here's a few tell-tale signs.

  • Spending More than you Can Afford - If you can't pay your bills, REALIZE you can't pay your bills and still continue to go to the mall or make online purchases, this is probably the biggest clue that a) you have a shopping problem and b) you can't afford your lifestyle.
  • Shopping and then returning items- more than once a week - I could give two flying squirrels if you bought it on sale or "got a really good deal." We all love a good deal. But shopping isn't truly satisfying unless you're bringing the items home, using them, and genuinely enjoying how you spent the money.
  • You have a closet full of clothes (or closet full of tech gadgets...pick your poison) that are unused and/or still have the tags on. - This sign is indicative that you're not even using what you buy. 
  • You "shop your feelings" - I'm sure we're all guilty of buying ourselves a little "pick me up" or "treat for working hard." Everyone deserves a break or something special every now and again, (#TREATYOSELF) but my point here is that if you find yourself EXCLUSIVELY shopping or making significant purchases when you've had a bad day or are upset about something, it's probably worth it to pay attention to that behavior. 
  • You are in a lot of credit card debt and don't know how you got there - There is a difference between getting into a car or medical emergency and having to put it on the card, and waking up one morning in thousands of dollars of debt due to mindless shopping.

But the good news is that you CAN curb your shopping habits with a LOT of work.

Here are some tips I used to break my own shopping addiction:

  • Seek Professional Help - A therapist who specializes in addiction therapy can help you plan behaviors for coping with your problem, as well as help treat the problem that led you to try shopping as a soother in the first place. 
  • Make a list: Every season when I am in the process of replenishing my closet, I go through and make a list of the things I am missing and truly need (tights this season, and a new pair of black pumps because I wore out my old ones). Keeping this list on hand and in mind ensures I only go to the store when I have to (as opposed to one Saturday afternoon when I am looking to kill time) and that I only spend my money where I need it most.
  • Try a No Spend Challenge Attempt not spending any money for a full 30 days.
  • Try Minimalism: I keep a "one in, one out" rule for my home. I did a purge over the summer and got rid of a TON of stuff (226 items, in fact) around the house that had crept up in the corners and crevices of my home. You don't need all that. Focusing on minimalism a) helps you save money for important things like financial goals and retirement and b) focuses your spending on quality over quantity.
  • Wear out the floor: On the rare occasion I am shopping "for fun" I do several, and I do mean SEVERAL laps around a store with my items in tow before I make it up to the register. Eventually I will get tired and/or hungry and leave the store without waiting in the checkout line. Or if I do make it to the register, it means I really, really wanted it.
  • Sleep on it: If it is a day where I have more willpower, I usually try on something (or if I'm shopping online, put an item in my cart) and walk away without buying. Then I'll sleep on it. If the item was just so perfect that I can't stop thinking about it after a day or two, I know it will be a good use of my money in the long run.
  • If I quickly forget the item, then it wasn't worth the time or the money and I just prevented myself from having to make a return down the road or buy something that wouldn't increase the value in my own life.
  • Declutter Your Inbox: If you can't resist the siren call of a flash sale email in your inbox, do yourself a favor an unsubscribe, or use a service (I like Unroll.me) to "roll up" all your newsletters, communications from stores and brands, and Sale notifications into a one-daily digest that you don't even have to read.

If your shopping and spending behavior has caused you enough concern that you begin to ask yourself, "Do I Have a Problem?," those patterns are, at the very least, worth exploring further.