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Stopping the Shopping Juggernaut

<i> Marks is a Los Angeles free-lance writer. </i>

December is the time for shopping and giving--a time when the spirit of giving is often stretched a bit, causing a strain on the budget after the first of the year.

For some shoppers, that’s OK.

Certainly the desire to award family and friends with pricey presents is an honorable trait, but when the well-meaning shopping spree ends in bills that can’t be paid or cash flow that stops flowing, it can be a disaster. Indeed, overspending is now being looked upon as an addiction.

Some psychologists, financial counselors and others are alarmed at the increasingly widespread addictive nature of consumer buying. Not just at Christmas or Hanukkah, but throughout the year.

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Overuse of Credit Cards

They are especially concerned about the large number of installment credit accounts the average individual is committed to, aided by the competitive credit-card issuers.

Credit cards don’t cause the problem; people who can’t control overuse of them are the culprits. While it is generally accepted that the average adult possesses more than six credit cards, Donna Fong at Consumer Credit Council of Los Angeles estimates that the average may be as high as 13. The downside of this feckless collaboration between borrower and lender resulted in an estimated $3 billion in national credit-card debt losses last year, with the emotional toll unquantifiable but growing, according to experts.

For the addicted shopper, a year-round buying bust can result in overextended credit, bankruptcies, failed marriages and finally, when confronted with the consequences of their overspending, massive feelings of shame.

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According to Brooklyn psychotherapist Janet Damon, who founded Shopaholics Limited three years ago, overspenders, like other addicts, typically suffer from low self-esteem, a feeling of powerlessness and a streak of perfectionism.

Such feelings originate in “difficult childhoods,” according to Mendocino, Calif., counselor Nancy Wallace, who is writing her Ph.D. thesis in psychology on overspending. In addition, she has conducted group therapy for Christmas overspenders for the last several years.

“Usually overspending is not just limited to the Christmas season, but is an overall problem,” she said, adding that all addictions are behavior designed “to mask insecurity needs.” People, she said, “are trying to fill that dark void, the hole that they feel somewhere in themselves.”

During the holiday season, these feelings are intensified and “people feel tremendous pressure regarding family tasks,” according to Dr. Dennis Munjack, Assistant Director of the USC Medical Center Anxiety Disorders Clinic. “People address these leftover family problems by trying to make everyone else’s holiday perfect,” which can lead to compulsive overspending, he said.

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Addictive Overspenders

Men and women, as well as people from all socioeconomic classes, can become addictive overspenders, although, according to Wallace, “females are much more apt to go for counseling on all issues.” In addition, therapists agree, females are more likely to use shopping as an outlet for their feelings of powerlessness.

In fact, “the most common example that leads to the biggest extremes,” Wallace said, is the marriage in which the husband is a workaholic and the wife, who “feels she doesn’t have enough power” in the relationship, becomes an overshopper.

While women most commonly overspend on clothes, such as the woman who owned 55 new coats, men often have their own no-less-destructive style of blowing it. Consider the middle-age attorney whose high income did not prevent financial problems: When he was at his most overextended, his habit was to go out and buy more jade “because if you can buy jade, then you aren’t really in trouble,” he theorized, according to one counselor.

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Unpaid Generosity

Or the case of the California Youth Authority counselor who used credit cards to support a life style that included chartering Lear jets to transport him and his friends to Las Vegas for the evening. He sought help when his unpaid generosity reached $42,000.

Or the unmarried policeman who was $13,000 in debt because of a high life style, yet he owned nothing, not even a car because it had been repossessed.

Although it might seem that the definition of an overspender is relative, according to whether or not one can pay the bills when they come due, Wallace believes that even if the family income can support extreme spending activity, “the problem is still the same if you are compulsively shopping day after day” in an attempt to hide from unresolved problems.

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Echoing this viewpoint, Dr. Munjack said: “I don’t think it is the level of spending but rather the concern about money that distracts people from other very important issues” in their lives.

According to these sources, very frequently these problems are the result of childhoods so negative that they include physical abuse, neglect, or at the other extreme, overindulgence and overprotectiveness.

“Too much indulgence without tempering based on appraisal of strengths and weaknesses, or when a child isn’t ever shown limits, can be as much of a problem (as abuse),” said Wallace. “This (problem) comes from parents being really afraid to discipline children. The child is not given enough feedback on his own strengths, weaknesses and limitations,” she said.

“The absence or death of a parent when a child is 2 to 4 years of age” or “molestation” at a young age--experiences that leave individuals with a “feeling of impotence"--frequently are factors in the development of overspenders, according to Damon. In fact, she says, of those shopping addicts she has treated, she estimates that “50% were molested as children.” Somehow, she adds, the separation phase of development was made “very frightening.”

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Metaphorical Security Blanket

Such individuals were somehow given the message by their parents that the world is not a safe place or that they were incapable of getting their needs met in it. As a result, shopping becomes an activity designed to metaphorically purchase a security blanket in order to make them feel less vulnerable.

A lot of spending addicts re-create that vulnerability in their adult lives, such as the Los Angeles woman who, when she inherited $400,000, “frittered it away on nothing” within two years. Or the New York man who inherited $2.5 million and blew it in three years on clothes and vacations, with nothing tangible beyond clothes to show for it when his binge was over. Or the woman who at the age of 48 had to return to her parents’ home to live because her compulsive spending addiction had made her destitute.

Overspending, like overeating, is a difficult addiction to deal with, because unlike, say, alcoholism or gambling, you cannot stop practicing the activity altogether.

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With the easy availability of credit cards--indeed, some say the pressure in our society to have and use credit cards--lack of cash is rarely a deterrent for the committed overspender.

“My view overall is that the credit industry and the media and the advertising have gotten so out of control with more and more malls and credit cards . . . and especially combined with the totally free and open Los Angeles life style, that it is harder for people to remain in control of their impulses,” Wallace said.

Yet impulse control is the crux of treatment for overspenders. The treatment approach, however, may vary from the pragmatic to the spiritual. But those who treat overspenders agree that people afflicted with compulsive behavior such as overspending are highly unlikely to curb it without professional support and intervention.

“People really resist treatment even when they know help is available,” because they are afraid to give up the nurturing they feel from shopping--no matter how negative the consequences are, Damon said.

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“People can talk about their sexual problems much more freely than their shopping problems,” she said.

Shame is a big part of addictive problems, according to Damon, who is writing a book on shopping addiction. For that reason, she considers group therapy to be the most effective form of treatment.

“They learn that they are not the bums of the world,” in a group-therapy setting, Damon said. Once the shame is diminished, they “can learn to enjoy shopping with ease and comfort. They gain hope and lose their sense of despair and a lot of healing goes on,” she said.

Psychological counselors also endorse behavior modification to gain control of shopping behavior and private psychotherapy to facilitate awareness of the underlying reasons for the shopping compulsion.

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Behavior modification may include supervised shopping trips in which the counselor points out the seductive ploys used by retailers to ensnare vulnerable shoppers. One counselor advised her clients to ride elevators because, she said, “there are people who cannot remain in control on escalators.”

Overshoppers who undergo treatment suffer from withdrawal syndrome, very much like that experienced by other kinds of addicts who become anxious, resentful and angry at the person who makes them stop practicing their compulsive behavior, according to experts.

And it is not easy to avoid shopping even if you stay out of the stores. Home shopping, the latest marketing phenomenon, encourages impulse buying without ever leaving home. Brought to viewers by the same medium that brings them “Life Styles of the Rich and Famous,” home shopping has some experts concerned, because they say it is one more way in which addicts will find it difficult to separate their desires from their needs. Shopping as entertainment may have been unbeknownst to Marley’s ghost, but to the addicted it is as one victim put it, “our reading, music, sports, and theater.”

Behavior Modification

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Through behavior modification, which includes log-keeping on moods and activities--including shopping--the frequency, duration and intensity of shopping binges can be brought under control. Even so, shopping sprees still recur for many patients. When that happens, the patient is encouraged to immediately return the bounty to the store.

“Self-monitoring is the key,” according to Wallace, who said that patients “must look at what the motivation for overspending is and ask, ‘Are we going overboard,’ and if so, ‘What other ways can we express those feelings.’ ” The idea, she said, is to “value yourself by giving yourself credit,” the theme of her therapy group.

On the pragmatic level, the Consumer Credit Counselors of Los Angeles, a 30-year-old nonprofit “place of last resort before bankruptcy” offers a free debt-management program that is designed to intercede with creditors and pay the bills directly, often on a reduced monthly basis. The catch is that clients must destroy all their credit cards and adhere to a pay-as-you-go cash-only system, accompanied by monthly visits with their counselor.

“Most people want us to help them but do not want to give up the credit cards. People feel very dependent on their credit cards,” said Donna Fong, a financial counselor in the downtown Los Angeles office (other area locations include Pasadena, Van Nuys, Lakewood, Inglewood, Redondo Beach and Gardena). Yet, she said,"to get from the red to the black, you must make choices.” Unfortunately, she said, “many people think of credit cards as their savings.”

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After putting a stop to credit-card purchasing, the “first thing we look at is how the clients can increase their income,” Fong said. They encourage people to take seasonal jobs, rent out rooms in their houses, anything to deal with the month-to-month insolvency.

Marilee Zdenek, president of Right Brain Resources Inc., Encino, and author of “Inventing the Future, Advances in Imagery That Can Change Your Future,” leads seminars to help people change their attitudes and gain control of their actions through positive imagery. She suggests the following three-step approach for overspenders:

1--Set aside 15 to 30 minutes when you won’t be disturbed. Use any of the relaxation techniques that help you enter a dreamlike state, such as deep-breathing exercises, meditation, biofeedback techniques or simply listening to relaxing music by a fire in a darkened room.

2--Create a constructive daydream by imagining yourself buying one of those expensive gifts. Feel your pleasure in buying the gift. Imagine the experience of giving it. Go deeply into that daydream. Then experience your feelings when the bills arrive. Let yourself feel the anxiety. Take your time. Then imagine buying a thoughtful, but less expensive gift--perhaps one that expresses a more sensitive awareness of the other person’s needs and your own creativity. Let your imagination play with the possibilities.

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3--Now evaluate your feelings about the dream. Do you still want to buy the extravagant gift? Sometimes it may be worth it, but often the extravagance is not worth the price.”

For the dedicated who manage to resist the call of Christmas catalogues and other of the season’s wiles, the sacrifices pay off, as indicated by a middle-age librarian and his wife, who stuck to a debt-management program until they got straightened out. His counselor remembers his final words to her:

“I have changed my whole life style. Now we have a garden. We have solar heating. But do you know what is the best part? There is no more fighting.”

Dickens’ Scrooge and Marley never had it so good.

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