My mother had a unique sense of humor. Weeks before she passed, she motioned for my husband to come closer to her hospital bed and hold her hand. “Yes mom?” he asked. “Son-in-law (her endearing nickname for him), I need you to promise me something ― I need your word of honor,” she said. “Of course mom, anything, absolutely anything,” he replied, expecting some juicy, hidden family secret to be unveiled. With a pause, she looked into his eyes, smiled, knowing she had him fully engaged, and simply said, “Just let… her… shop.”
There was a brief silence and then they both laughed so hard that tears ran down my husband’s cheeks and all of the medical alarms attached to my mom went off. But just a few years later, my shopping would no longer be quite so funny.
As an only child, my parents were loving and attentive, and I was most definitely spoiled. We were not wealthy, but you’d never guess that by looking at my bedroom, which was filled with all the latest toys. My mother, whose parents were immigrants, grew up poor with nine siblings. She had been forced to wear worn out, hand-me-down clothing, and she was ridiculed often at school. So when she had me, she was determined to see that I would have plenty.
My teenage years were filled with frequent shopping excursions with her. We’d often spend Saturdays at the mall, pausing only to grab a quick bite to eat. Shopping became the forum for us to discuss our lives. We chatted about problems I had, which boys I liked, or who was my current best friend. We did not, however, discuss finances or saving.
It was exciting to come home with shopping bags full of new things. Mom would joke about not telling dad about everything we bought or he would cut up the credit cards. I wasn’t taught any financial discipline. Instead, I learned that if you wanted something, you simply bought it.
My father was diagnosed with cancer when I was in college and he passed away soon after I graduated. My mom had not worked since before I was born, and so we were left with no income and plenty of bills. Thank God, I had been offered a great paying job and could help my mother pay the mortgage and utilities. I initially dealt with my grief by throwing myself into work. I didn’t have much time to shop, but when I did, the habits I learned in adolescence served me well. I wasn’t quite yet compulsive ― I was merely an irresponsible shopper who always carried a credit card balance.
“I wasn’t taught any financial discipline. Instead, I learned that if you wanted something, you simply bought it.”
When I met my husband I quickly learned we had different values regarding money. He worked in finance, enjoyed investing and was averse to having any credit card debt. It wasn’t long after we married that we started to disagree about our finances. He couldn’t understand why my mother and I always went shopping; I didn’t appreciate his need to save so much. Money was the topic we battled about the most, but we managed to find middle ground and pay off our charge cards monthly while still saving a little.
We began to have children at the same time as my husband’s career took off and we decided I would leave my job behind to become a stay-at-home mom. I quietly had reservations about forfeiting my own income because of the financial independence it brought me.
Motherhood in all its splendor was, of course, chaotic. So when my mother came to visit, we’d put the kids in strollers and head straight to the mall for a little shopping respite. Once there, she would entertain the kids while I mindlessly shopped. This activity resulted in both increased credit card balances and new arguments with my husband. We navigated our way through these squabbles primarily because of our love for each other, but resentments manifested themselves now and again, most usually around my need to shop.
When my mother had a heart attack in 2007, I knew she would likely never be discharged from the hospital and after several months of daily visits, I needed to come to terms with losing her. These next sentences may seem cold and shallow, but it is my truth. I recall one day, about a month before she passed, I was driving home from the hospital and decided to stop at Nordstrom.
“Can I help you find anything?” a sales girl asked while I was browsing. “Actually, yes,” I replied. “I am looking for an outfit to wear to my mother’s funeral.” The young girl touched my arm and told me, “I am so sorry for your loss.” I stoically responded, “Thank you, but she’s not dead yet. I’m just preparing.”
I can still recall the look of bewilderment on the girl’s face when she heard that. I was coping ― however dysfunctionally ― with the inevitable loss of my best friend and I thought shopping could help.
After my mother passed, shopping served as my foremost defense in dealing with my grief. It provided an escape from my ordinary life as a stay-at-home mom of four kids and helped to obscure the pain of no longer having the comfort of a parent’s love.
I soon coveted luxurious designer brands and became a “regular” at Saks Fifth Avenue, where I even secured my own personal stylist. On each excursion to the store, my stylist would compile a selection of beautiful clothing and have it waiting for me in a large private dressing room decorated with Prada shoes, Chanel handbags and other expensive, designer accessories.
All of the salespeople knew me and would smile as they complimented me on how I looked. I felt like a celebrity. My stylist and I would chat about our lives while I tried everything on. My time there felt more like an afternoon out with a girlfriend than taking part in a compulsive shopping spree. I never left the store empty-handed and spent $3,000 on average during each visit.
I drove away feeling happy ― my car full of new merchandise ― as I headed back to my real life filled with picking up the kids, carting them to their activities, cooking dinner and helping with homework.
“My compulsive shopping also affected various friendships as I often chose to go to stores alone rather than spend quality time with my friends for fear they would judge me. It got so bad that when we had guests over, I’d sneak away to my bedroom and log onto my computer to shop some special 'limited' sale.”
As time passed, I shopped more and more frequently and when the subject of monthly bills came up with my husband, I’d always try to change the topic.
My compulsive shopping also affected various friendships, as I often chose to go to stores alone rather than spend quality time with my friends for fear they would judge me. It got so bad that when we had guests over, I’d sneak away to my bedroom and log onto my computer to shop some special “limited” sale. With the advent of online shopping came a newfound cycle of buying and then returning, which occupied much of my free time.
By this point, my shopping habit had spiraled completely out of control and I was hiding it from everyone. It felt both duplicitous and emotionally isolating. Others saw me as a happy mother who always volunteered as “class mom,” lunchroom server, parent association board member and girl scout leader. Nobody knew that I was battling low self-esteem.
There were obvious underlying issues that brought about my insecurities, but they all seemed to dissipate with retail therapy. The high only lasted for so long, though, and my pattern of feeling great after a shopping spree was followed by a deep sadness because I could not stop this insidious cycle. I wanted to control it, but I felt I was simply too weak. Pining for whatever item I wanted was only satiated by the purchase itself, and every time I caved in, it only rendered me more stressed, more insecure and more alone.
Paying my credit card bills became a juggling act. My husband and I had agreed upon a set amount of money I could spend each month on clothing. This money resided in my own checking account and I then used it to pay my bills. Since I knew I couldn’t pay the full balances, I wouldn’t even bother to look at the actual amount due. I simply paid what I could, but knew a day of reckoning was imminent and I had grown weary of the charades and mounting guilt.
That day finally came when my husband and I were discussing finances and he asked about my credit cards. I tried to skirt the issue, but he insisted on knowing exactly what was going on. I knew it was time to come clean. At that point, I had credit balances from multiple retailers, Saks being the largest. I owed over $25,000.
Naturally, he was angry and felt betrayed. How could it get this far? After an intense and emotionally charged discussion, we decided to use our savings to pay off the debt. I then closed out my cards and we agreed I should seek therapy.
“And then it hit me: shopping had only made things worse. In addition to still being sad, I felt ashamed and hopeless after my buying lurched out of control.”
I stayed in therapy for a few months but ended it too soon because I was convinced “I got this.” What I didn’t realize then is that shopping addictions, like all addictions, are not easy to overcome without continued work and real commitment.
In the years that followed, I did change the way I shopped and for a long time my shopping remained manageable. I rarely visited the mall and instead did most of my shopping online. However, as time passed, I began to sign up for new credit cards and my insidious shopping behavior re-emerged. I was now hiding my purchases and would go so far as taking it upon myself to bring the garbage to the curb so that my husband wouldn’t question why we had so many boxes. He thought my dedication to garbage duty was just me lovingly helping him out in little ways to lighten his workload at home.
In the summer of 2017, before our oldest son left for college, my shopping problem cascaded out of control once again. Grappling with the fact that my children were growing up and they didn’t need me as much as they once did left me despondent. I wondered what this former software-engineer-now-housewife who hadn’t worked in 20 years would do with the next chapter of her life. How would I fill the void?
I escaped from having to deal with my emotions by throwing myself into more shopping therapy. Within months, I had racked up over $15,000 in charges.
And then it hit me: shopping had only made things worse. In addition to still being sad, I felt ashamed and hopeless after my buying lurched out of control. So, that September, I sat down with my husband and told him everything. After we talked, I returned approximately $9,000 of the merchandise I had purchased and also sold many of my designer shoes and bags. The remaining balance was, once again, paid off by our savings. I canceled my credit cards and rejoined therapy with an unyielding conviction to fix myself.
Now, fourteen months later, I consider myself to be a recovering shopaholic.
Through therapy I’ve learned to identify the things ― like sadness, insecurity or avoiding emotions ― that trigger me to shop. I have gained tools to better manage these urges when they arise. Now, before I make a purchase, I try to be certain I really need the item, can afford it and have a place to put it.
If I’m shopping online, I leave items in my virtual cart for a while before checking out. Often, the desire to buy them passes and I never complete the purchase. I no longer have secret credit cards or debt, and I have started to find new meaning in my life outside of being a wife and mother. I have taken writing classes and began a blog, Overcoming Overshopping, to share my recovery journey and provide support to others who also struggle.
By working on myself, I’ve gained some confidence and have set new goals for my future. My marriage is stronger and I am more present with my children and friends. I still have shopping urges and there are moments when I still overshop, but I have learned to recognize the compulsion faster and correct it as often as I can.
My journey has ups and downs, and I know that at times I will still battle urges to shop. But now I can confidently face each battle prepared with the tools and desire to win.
Antoinette Russell loves coffee, chocolate, watching Masterpiece Theatre and, of course, shopping. She writes a blog, Overcoming Overshopping, to share her journey as a recovering shopaholic with the hope of helping others who struggle with compulsive and overspending issues.