Money Mic: I’m a Recovering Shopaholic

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And now, on to the story: 

Hi, my name is Tiffany, and I’m a recovering shopaholic.

I got my first credit card when I was in college. It had a 26% interest rate; it was definitely a “my first credit card” for students. At the time, my father was paying for my tuition, but I had a job to pay for my living expenses. In other words, I didn’t have a ton of money to throw around.

The credit card, on the other hand, felt like free money. Don’t get me wrong—I knew that I was going to get a bill at the end of the month. But I didn’t fully grasp that it would need to be paid back eventually.

Even so, initially, I was fairly responsible. I would only use my card if I needed art supplies for class, or if it was the end of the month and I needed food. I tried to keep it reined in. But I was going to college in New York City, which has pretty incredible shopping.

And I like shopping.

Getting in Deep

Shoes were my gateway drug. It started when I went into a fabulous SoHo boutique where everything in the store was hundreds of dollars, and I picked out something special and put it on the card.

Some shopaholics feel guilty and try to justify their decisions, telling themselves, “I deserve this today!” Not me. I saw it, I wanted it, I had a credit card and I bought it. I felt totally guilt-free. Why not? I had this fabulous thing in my wardrobe, and it was my favorite thing I had ever bought.

But then, I was on to the next kill, the next most amazing thing I had ever bought.

It proceeded this way, with each shopping trip being only a single purchase: a really expensive pair of shoes or a really expensive coat. But then it turned into whole shopping excursions, like when I needed a t-shirt and would leave the store with $350 worth of clothes. When I got home and found myself hanging up five shirts and a dress and a coat in my closet, that’s when I started feeling really guilty. I realized that this problem was taking up physical space in my life.

It wasn’t even a status thing. I just really loved consuming. It made me feel good to own new things. I mean, it’s not like I was shopping in designer stores. I shopped in the same places as all my friends. I would just buy a lot more. That was my way of being reasonable, I guess.

I would tell myself, “Oh, I can pay my credit card back at the end of the month.” It was this game where I always said, “Tomorrow! Later!” It’s a pretty classic addict’s way of never taking responsibility.

The Turning Point

This went on for a couple years, and I started to feel overwhelmed. I was getting statements in the mail and barely making minimums. And now, I was using my credit card to pay for my basic essentials too, like food and school supplies, because my money was going toward this shopping habit. I had accrued $5,000 on a single credit card, with that 26% interest rate. I was only making minimum payments, and it was growing fast.

There wasn’t just one exact moment I remember as a turning point, just a gradual realization that this had gotten out of hand, and that I needed to grow up and stop doing this before I graduated college.

Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to know what was driving my shopping addiction. When I was in the store, I coveted all the beautiful things I saw, and just had to own them. To break my habit, I still needed to get that feeling somehow, just in a less expensive way.

The Three Dwindling Steps of My Recovery

I figured out a three-step process to save me from myself. The general idea is to get the joy of acquiring items, to feel and touch the beautiful things I want, but to avoid blowing all my cash. Bit by bit, I was able to cut down on each step to make it more manageable (and more sane).

In the beginning:

  1. I would go into a store and pick up everything I wanted to buy.
  2. I would go try it on, make my ‘yes’ and ‘no’ piles, and then I would take the ‘yes’ pile to the register and buy all of it. I would take it all home and hang everything up in my closet.
  3. The next day (or two or three days—sometimes it would take that long to convince myself I truly didn’t need those things), I would return it all to the store and get my money back.

I did this enough times to realize it wasn’t even owning that gave me that rush … it was the possibility of owning these things. From there, the process got shortened a little:

  1. I would go into a store, pick up everything I wanted to own, go into the dressing room, try everything on, decide what I wanted to keep, and—this is important—walk around the store with it in my arms.
  2. Then I put it all back, shirt by shirt, dress by dress, right where I found it.

In the final stage of my recovery, there was only one step. I didn’t even need to try anything on, just to feel it in my arms:

  1. I picked up everything in the store that I liked, carried it around and then put it all back. I was leaving the store empty-handed and under control.

I had managed to tame my shopping addiction.

Staying Vigilant

Like any recovering addict, I could still relapse if I’m not careful. I’m still capable of going into a boutique and buying everything I see.

You know how you don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry? I don’t go into a store when I’ve just read a fashion magazine. I go when I really need a new shirt, or a pair of jeans. If I find myself obsessing over a dress in the process of perusing the jeans, I’ll let myself try it on, and then put it back.

It’s been more than seven years since I graduated with $5,000 in credit card debt, and I’m proud to say that I’ve paid it all down.

My self-made, three-step program worked. And I haven’t gone into debt for shopping ever again.

  • Engchik

    I like this- you recovered!!! i work in retail as my third job, and whenever i come to work the home furnishing store i pickup all the new items, envision where they will go, think of all the money i will spend, think of how I have no place to place new said item, put i back, wait on customers, go home at the end of the night empty-handed!

    • Tiffany

      Pinterest has actually really helped me when it comes to new things for my apartment. I get to collect ALL of the things I want for my dream livingroom.  What I’ve discovered is that when I check back in on my board there are things I initially LOVED and HAD to have that I don’t love so much anymore.  So when I am ready to buy something I’ve sort of “lived” with it for awhile.

  • NY Shopping Addit

    I love this three step process!  My problem is always when the store clerks get involved and start adding to the excitement of a new item that “looks so great on me.”  Mmmm hmmm.  I’m sure the $500+ item looks great on everyone.  How did you avoid this when putting items back?  Sounds silly to ask, but I swear that’s what makes me feel guilty about leaving empty handed.  

    • Out of Debt Too

      Just remember that it’s not personal.  The people working there have an interest in getting you to buy their products.  You’re not obligated to purchase anything if you pick it up, try it on, or dance around with it.  It’s not personal.  It’s business.  If you feel like you have to respond, just tell them it’s something you need to think about.  If they get pushy (happens sometimes but infrequently) then just walk away.

      • Tiffany

        This is great advice and EXACTLY what I do. You probably do look amazing in said $500+ outfit, but you’ll feel so much better leaving empty-handed. The rush of buying is just that — a sugar high.  But you’re in control.  If someone is extra pushy tell them you want to bring a friend back, or like “out of debt too” said, say you need to think about.  

  • Ana Machado

    Good for you! I like how real you were about your addiction and how you were able to recover in such a positive way – very inspiring! Thatnks for sharing!

  • Mara

    I had similar debt coming out of college (prob 6k) but for a different (in a way similar) reason.  I was addicted to show my family that I could surprise them with nice things, give them money if they needed it, taking my mom for vacations when she visited me from my home country…I was addicted to try to get their approval and I still feel I they took it for granted.  I am not 100% recovered and I cannot blame them because it was my decision to do and buy things I couldn’t afford. I payed everything off but now I recently made some new purchases to improve my little rental home because the may be visiting again. AHHH! I don’t know how to fully stop!

    • Tiffany

      I can totally relate to this! Just remember that they love you for who you are and not what you have. They are proud of you and what you’ve accomplished regardless of the stuff.

  • Cc11782n

    Thanks for your article and insight! I’m definitely a recovering shopaholic as well! Right out of college, I “needed” a whole new work wardrobe. I had just started a job at a firm in corporate America, and even though I had clothes from when I interned, those were only summer clothes and very lightweight. Come winter I was shivering at the train station lol. So, what started as an intial trip to add heavier pants/winter clothes turned into a non-stop shopping palooza over the next year or so. Initially, I didn’t have the money saved up to do this, so, like you, I charged everything with the idea that I would pay it back at the end of the month. That turned into just careless spending though, since I didn’t stop to think whether that $50 shirt was worth it – I wanted it and I wanted it now!

    Now, I’ve cut back drastically on what I spend on a work wardrobe. I’ve actually switched jobs to a company where jeans are acceptable in the office, so now my work clothes and outside “life” clothes overlap a bunch. I’ve found I just need to avoid the mall and my favorite stores totally, unless I have CASH budgeted out to spend if I want to be successful. I’ve also locked up all of my credit cards, except for one which I only use in absolute emergencies.

    Its tough, but I’m glad to hear that someone else went through it and got out of that mountain of credit debt. I’m still in the middle of climbing that mountain and it gets discouraging sometimes.

  • MMm1660

    Thank you so much for this article.  I always worked and recently started to see a pattern that may get me into trouble.  You had really good tips.  This was very inspiring!

  • lizlemony

    Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this! I haven’t shopped myself into debt yet, but I can SEE myself falling into that trouble if I don’t calm myself! And I even started doing the same ritual — picking things up, walking around, putting them back… and the minute I’m outside the door I feel SO MUCH RELIEF for not falling into the trap…

    It’s a daily struggle, hang in there!

  • Mandyleigh129

    I HAVE shopped myself into debt and I am in the recovery process now… it started when I was a senior in college with my first credit card and it’s grown since then. I HATE that I am in so much debt from shopping, but I’ve learned my lesson and I’m glad I’ve learned it at 25, it’s just going to take SO long to pay it down and I just itch for the day when the debt is gone!!

    • Cc11782n

      I’m in the same boat as you!! I can’t wait until I don’t have to log on and look at credit card balances anymore!

  • vm

    It is great advice you have given. I myself had fallen to credit card debt due to shopping and trips during college. I didn’t make enough from my jobs out of college and had to turn to credit counseling and I am happy to say by next month, Sept., I will be debt free!! I had to ask for help for a payment plan and for someone to say you can not use your cards or open any accounts up while paying down your debt! this worked so well for me. It is hard but in time and patience each person in debt can overcome the guilt and learn new ways of feeling great they dont have a bill to pay at the end of each month. 

    • Tiffany

      Good for you!  That is an incredible accomplishment!

  • http://twitter.com/MarathonLegs Michelle Kreifels

    I do the last step on your recovery program:  “I picked up everything in the store that I liked, carried it around and
    then put it all back. I was leaving the store empty-handed and under
    control.” I do this a lot.

    I’m in credit card debt because I buy a lot of running gear online. So I bought my last pair of running shoes before the marathon and told myself that was it until the next marathon (a year from now).

    Now when I shop online, I put everything I want into the virtual cart look at it throughout the day and then before I leave for work, I close the tab. It’s the online version of holding the items in your had while walk around the store just to put it all back before you leave empty handed.

    Great job on paying off your debt and staying that way!

    • Tiffany

      Such a good tip! I’ve definitely had to waste money in shipping to return impulse internet sprees.  I’m going to try this.

      • LLBeanTown

        Tiffany, shipping is another trap for those of us who love shopping. When you feel the need to spend and splurge, perhaps you could try shopping only sites that offer free shipping both ways (hello, Zappos, Nordstrom, Shopbop, etc.!). Then, when you buy and return, there’s absolutely no guilt, and no money lost! I’ve banned myself from shopping at sites like Anthropologie, Macy’s, and J.Crew, unless they’re running a free-shipping promotion. It’s helped me! I hope it helps you, too.

  • Amber

    Awesome article! Thanks for sharing Tiffany. I’m so glad that you were able to take control of the problem and learn an important lesson. I just don’t even go to the mall anymore unless I know exactly what I need. This is exactly the type of article I enjoy reading on LV.

  • Kayla

    This was a great article. I am very bad with my shopping habits. I’ll do so good and then one trip to the store is all it takes for me to blow all of the hardwork. I have a younger brother who is 4 and I love taking him places and just spoiling him. I’m trying to get my spending under control but it’s so hard to see money stay in my account. After paying my bills I have $500 left for the month and still have to pay for groceries and medical needs. I don’t know how to control it. When I shop and grab something, I always buy unless I have time to walk around with it and talk myself out of it. The worst for me is birthdays and holidays. I LOVE buying stuff for others, even if it’s pricey. I also love the high I get from buying off of sales. I’ve started keeping a journal now of my spending since yesterday was my payday but I’m just over 2k in debt and i want OUT! All I do is keep digging myself deeper.

    • Amanda Smith

      I keep myself on a $500 budget (after bills and savings and everything) and I do it by keeping a running total of $15/day.  So if I spend $10 on the first of the month, I have $20 to spend on the second.  But if I spend $25 that first day, I only have $5 to spend the second.  I try only to go into the negative for necessities (like gas) and if I’m buying something for fun, I have to make sure I’m still on budget.  On a 30-day month, I have a $50 cushion and on a 31 day month, a $35 cushion.  I don’t make it all the time but writing it down every day definitely helps.  Good luck!

      • Gues

        My friend also used this strategy and thank you for the reminder that this is an excellent idea!

      • Kayla

        Thanks for the reply Amanda! I might have to try that. I’ve been doing better but I still get the urges bad. Bills went up a little so now I’ll have $400 after bills for the rest of the month. I’m gonna give this a try and see how it goes. :) Thanks for the idea!

  • amisha

    My question is: how can I overcome debt from loans for college.

    I have a credit card.. 9% interest rate with Discover Student after 6months and I pay off the balance religously.

    I do not have income as of yet..I’m a junior in college, and I need another loan.

    • LeAnne

      You can only overcome debt from student loans if you get a degree that will increase your earning potential enough to pay for these loans.  If you choose a major that does not have a good rate of employment after college, you may drown in debt.

  • LeAnne

    I love that this article featured someone who overcame their issue without blaming anyone else for their situation.  I also really like how she came up with her own solution.

  • Mle_3983

    This is me! I have just stopped going in to stores and shopping all together because I know I am out of control. Maybe I will try some of her techniques and see how I do :). Great article.

  • LLBeanTown

    This must ring true for so many of us girls. I know it does for me. My problem is mainly online shopping—it’s so easy! I’ve learned to curb my habit in a big, big way by doing something similar to what Tiffany did. I still allow myself to peruse my favorite online clothing stores, and I put all the stuff I want into my shopping cart, but instead of buying, I simply log out and let the stuff sit there in my cart. Then, from time to time I’ll check back to see if any of my items have gone on sale. Occasionally, if a sale is drastic enough, I’ll allow myself to make a purchase, but more often than not I find that I’ve lost interest in the items and don’t even want them anymore. I get a small thrill from seeing these items go on sale, and an even bigger thrill when I’ve realized I don’t even want them anymore!

  • Rockstar_chick87

    In college, there was a year I had to use my credit card for food and gas, because I either didn’t have a job at the time, or cuz I only worked part-time, and my parents didn’t have the money to give me, so I racked up over $1,000. But I’ve never had a problem to that extent. I maybe buy stuff I shouldn’t, but I’m always spending within my budget. When I do go to the mall, I like to take my best friend who loves being cheap lol. If I try to get something, she’ll talk me out of it, or tell me of somewhere I can get it cheaper. I love shopping with her because of that definitely.

  • LEM84

    You’re lucky you managed to curb this before it got out of control.  I lived that way from 19 to 26 and finally, at 28 years old, I am on a strict repayment budget for my $27000+ in credit card debt.  It’s going to take me a very long time and it’s extremely painful, but one day I will be proud to say I paid it all off myself.  Kudos to you for doing it earlier than I.

  • ranavain

    Wow, I love that you included discrete steps about how you overcame your addiction. That’s awesome!

    I’m also addicted to shopping, but I feel OK about it. For me, the single biggest thing I looked forward to my whole life about having a solid income was being able to buy the clothes I wanted to buy. And after a year or so of the occasional purchase but still feeling like the clothes I wore didn’t really express who I was, I decided to change my habits and spend more. 

    The main way I keep it in control? I shop almost exclusively on Ebay, and I very very seldom buy things that cost more than $10, including shipping. It’s hard, but it also makes shopping more satisfying for me… I can buy cool stuff, still not spend all that much money, and it’s more of a competitive hunt to find the best bargains. 

  • http://www.chicfromhair2toe.com/ NERLINE GERMAIN

    My addiction stopped when I walked into a prada store on fifth avenue in NY. There was a pair of shoes on sale for $400.00. I was going to try them on when my girlfriend woke me up. I was living somebody else’s dream. I was living a lie. I could not afford those shoes, what was I thinking? I realized it was all over when I went to a target store, filled my cart with stuff, and put them all back before I left the store.

    Thank you so much for this post.