For compulsive spenders, a trip to the store is a quest for self-worth

July 17, 1991|By Daniel Goleman | Daniel Goleman,New York Times News Service

Neither of them could control the urge to go on spending sprees. Finally, at the end of one month -- even though they had a combined income above $350,000 -- the couple found themselves penniless, their credit cards to their limit, their checking account overdrawn.

They did not know how they would find the money to eat for the last few days of the month.

So, in desperation, they cashed in their last liquid asset: travel and hotel awards they had earned for airline travel. The couple flew to Hawaii and stayed there in a hotel with a prepaid meal plan. And so they survived another month.

The tale of the Hawaii trip came to light during a meeting of a self-help group for compulsive spenders that the couple had joined to fight their buying habits.

Of course, most of the stories told by members of the group were far more grim; rare are the compulsive spenders with such elegant solutions to their desperate finances.

Those in the self-help group are part of a growing number of compulsive spenders for whom shopping has little or nothing to do with the specific objects purchased. Instead, new studies are finding, the trip to the store has become a ritual assurance of love and self-worth, offering an escape from loneliness, despair and anxiety.

While many shoppers occasionally make a purchase for such reasons, the new research focuses on those who continually act against their own better judgment, making purchases that they ignore or regret afterward. The research offers a methodical diagnosis of the problem, analyzes some of its psychological causes and suggests what treatments might be most effective.

The problem cuts across all income levels.

"We find compulsive shoppers with incomes under $10,000 a year, and over $300,000 a year," said Dr. Thomas O'Guinn, an associate professor in the College of Communications at the University of Illinois. His research has found that for compulsive spenders of all income levels, an average of 40 percent of household income after mortgage or rent goes to pay for past purchases, compared with 22 percent for the general population.

About 6 percent of people fall into the category of compulsive spenders, according to a 1989 study by Dr. O'Guinn and Dr. Ronald Faber, a researcher in the School of Mass Communications at the University of Minnesota.

They define compulsive spenders as people who say they are continually unable to control the urge to buy despite the overwhelming burden of debt.

They base their estimate on data from 386 people who have joined self-help groups and from a comparison survey with a random sample of 285 people.

They used the first group to construct a profile of the compulsive spender and then questioned those in the random sample to estimate how many there were in the general population.

Researchers say the problem seems to be more common among women than men: In self-help groups for compulsive spenders, about three-quarters of the participants are women, said Dr. O'Guinn. But, he added, "Women may be more likely than men to admit the problem or seek help. The true proportion may be closer to 60 percent women, 40 percent men."

Other researchers see the problem as extremely common.

"Almost all of us are compulsive buyers to some extent, some more than others," said Dr. Alain D'Astous, a business professor at the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec.

One hallmark that immediately sets compulsive shoppers apart is the repeated purchase of things that they do not use or that they even hide away.

"It's not the products they buy, but the process of buying that matters to them," Dr. Faber said. "When you ask them, 'Can you tell us about something you bought that was really meaningful?' they typically can't think of a thing, even though they've spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Researchers are finding the emotions that drive people to compulsive spending have much in common with those seen in people with other addictive habits.

One of the most marked is feelings of low self-worth; shopping seems to be used to bolster sagging self-confidence.

That may be the reason that interaction with salespeople matters so much to compulsive shoppers, Dr. O'Guinn said.

"They'll tell you about a shopping binge: 'I knew I shouldn't have bought this, but I didn't want to hurt Maggie's feelings,' " he said.

"When you ask, 'Who is Maggie?' They'll tell you she's the clerk at Neiman Marcus. Some of them will list shopping clerks among their best friends."

Dr. Faber added: "Clerks give some compulsive shoppers a much-needed feeling of importance, of feeling good about themselves. One woman said her most valued possession was a thank-you note from a clerk from a store where she often shopped."

Another factor that abets the compulsive shoppers' habit is an unusually strong ability to fantasize.

"They can easily dissociate spending from its consequences," said Dr. O'Guinn.

"That's how they rationalize going over their credit card limit or writing bad checks. They're easily capable of deluding themselves with a vague fantasy that they have some extra money coming in."

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