Happy SMART Day Everyone!
After I completed my first article about why people continue to try to buy happiness—even when knowing it won’t work—I realized there was plenty more to say. As I mentioned in the part one post, author James Roberts says that most of us have “short-term amnesia as consumers and could use a lot more self-control.” What he avoided saying was that many of us have what could be considered an all-out addiction to spending. Is that why we continue to spend even though it is but a short-term high? What does such an addiction look like? And if people are addicted to consumption, what can be done about it?
Now that I think about it, we don’t hear much in our culture about the downside to shopping. Even former President Bush saw shopping as one of the big solutions to getting over the tragedy of 9-11! Our culture is built around the capitalistic perspective that spending is good for the country, good for business and good for every single one of us. In fact, US citizens are now commonly referred to as “consumers.” This implies that one of our highest human values to and for our country is the amount we consume and spend. No wonder we encourage spending and ignore over-consumption or binge spending.
But what happens when any bad habit gets too compulsive? Yep—it becomes an addiction. What might start out as rather harmless in some people and under some circumstances, can eventually drag a person, his or her family, and just about everyone they come in contact with, down into the pit of debt. And where do you draw the line? Is a person a compulsive shopper if they buy things they really can’t afford on a regular basis? If that is true, then a huge portion of the American population (think credit card debt) is surely suffering from compulsive spending disorder.
Unfortunately, just like smokers who know that smoking kills, or overweight people who just can’t resist that extra piece of cake, a habitual spender often can’t stop their destructive behavior. And just like any addict, heavy consumers are usually in deep denial about whether they even have a problem. That is until they either hit bottom or something jars them awake, and they start making more aware and informed choices.
The problem is compounded because not only does our country encourage shopping, our culture consistently promotes shopping as a fun and entertaining outlet. Don’t have anything interesting to do? Go shopping! Advertisers spend billions of dollars every year not only pushing their products—but portraying the act of obtaining their products as wonderfully joyful—as though it/they were the simple solution to overall happiness. Some ads even go so far as imply that their product is the way to create peace on Earth! And while most of us will admit that owning a particular car, pair of shoes or earrings might feel good for a while—we know deep down they don’t even come close to equalling long-term happiness.
How do you know if you’re a spending addict? There are actually several ways that a shopping addiction compares to other addictions. They are:
- Preoccupation with the experience. Women can spend hours shopping for clothes, shoes or even other family members. (Yep, expensive Christmas or birthday gifts qualify!) Men can spend days looking at cars in a car lot, buying tools at Home Depot, or insisting on picking up the check every time they dine with friends or relatives.
- Routinely spending lots of money (and usually more money than you can easily afford) on the activity without an awareness of a boundary to the budget.
- Hiding the activity from others and/or refusing to talk about it. Just like an alcoholic who hides the bottle from family members, many heavy consumers will hide their purchases. Some will feel so guilty they return the purchases and start the vicious cycle over again.
- Relationships suffer because of the addict’s over-emphasis on the buying-spending obsession.
- Lying about the activity and everything surrounding it.
- Juggling financial accounts and resources to accommodate spending.
Compulsive consuming also compares to other addictions in that it is highly ritualized. Heavy shoppers spend much of their time planning the experience and describe it as “pleasurable—even as an ecstatic experience” that brings relief from “negative feelings.” Of course, the final addictive pattern is the “crash” where the shopper feels heavy disappointment, shame and depression, particularly with him or herself.
Why do compulsive shoppers shop? Like many addicts, heavy consumers use buying as a way of escaping negative feelings like depression, boredom, loneliness, anger and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. And just like with most addictions, the high they get from the experience is typically short-lived. That’s why many compulsive shoppers end up hoarding the item they just bought instead of enjoying the purchase for even a short time. Instead, the compulsive buyer often just starts planning the next shopping experience as soon as possible.
While most of us probably do not fall into an extreme case of compulsive spending—the current state of our US economy and the amount of debt held by most Americans proves that a large number of us over-indulge a little too frequently. One symptom of over-spending nationally is the current housing crisis where thousands of homeowners purchased homes that were much more expensive than they could realistically afford. Plus, statistics show that the average household carries $15,799 in Credit Card debt for 2011. What’s much worse of course is that the official debt of the US Government on 11/1/11 is estimated to be $48,445 per PERSON! Not only do Americans have a difficult time managing our own consumption and spending habits, that over-indulgence is reflected in the national scene as well.
Until we all sober up and admit to ourselves that we have a problem, our country and its citizens will continue to try and buy happiness with whatever means available. Unfortunately, like most addicts, many will continue to blindly consume and then face the inevitable crash that always follows a binge.
So what can a person do? Again, as recommended by James Roberts in part one of this article series, a good place to start is fiscal self-awareness and practiced self-control. Plus, if the addiction has reached a serious level, reaching out to others for help might be necessary. I think it is wise to remember that one of the main reasons that people habitually spend money they don’t have is because they are frequently using that experience to overcome emotions like unhappiness, loneliness, boredom and depression. Rather than compounding the pain by attempting to cover up those negative emotions, finding healthy, responsible and sustainable ways to address unmet needs is a SMART way to live 365.
For Part One and Part Three of this Series:
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.” –Carl Gustav Jung
“Meaning doesn’t lie in things. Meaning lies in us. When we attach value to things that aren’t love – the money, the car, the house, the prestige – we are loving things that can’t love us back. We are searching for meaning in the meaningless. Money, of itself, means nothing. Material things, of themselves, mean nothing. It’s not that they’re bad. It’s that they’re nothing. (“A Return to Love“)”— Marianne Williamson
Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dancingtuna/6112684438/sizes/l/in/photostream/