Out-of-control spending on frivolous purchases can wreck relationships and cause stress among family members when spending habits cause excessive debt or inability to meet basic living expenses. While it's obvious that shopaholics create financial stress for themselves, many shopaholics don't realize just how much stress their overspending and hoarding causes for their loved ones.
If you have a spouse, sibling, parent, adult child, close friend or other loved one with a compulsive spending problem, there is a limit on what you can do to help, because the person with the spending problem must be willing to change their own habits to get to a permanent solution.
Hoarding frequently goes along with the overspending-the frivolous items that are purchased have to be stored, and this leads to the related problem of household clutter.
It often takes a financial crisis, or support from a credit counselor or an organization like Debtors Anonymous, to help the compulsive spender get out of debt and establish healthy spending habits. Meanwhile, the loved ones of the compulsive spender suffer, especially those who live in the same household with them. Some compulsive spenders have no desire to change their habits, and their loved ones have the stress of witnessing the shopaholic digging themselves deeper into debt.
Those who have responsible and healthy spending habits have difficulty understanding frivolous spending. It seems incomprehensible to buy things that you don't need. Some compulsive spenders have explained that they get a thrill out of the act of buying. While people with responsible spending habits may enjoy shopping for a new fishing rod (or sewing machine, or shoes, or whatever) their main enjoyment comes from actually using the item.
In contrast, a shopaholic buys multiple items he/she doesn't need and will never use, and can rationalize any purchase. The excuses are unlimited and can be nonsensical (for example, a compulsive spender may call their hoard of sixteen second-hand sewing machines an “investment"). Items are often hidden or stowed away. In particular, expensive items are hidden in order to conceal how much is being spent. The compulsive spender may have hoarded so much that he/she no longer remembers what they've bought and their storage area may be stacked with a nightmarish amount of clutter.
Family matters. If your loved one is a compulsive shopper, it's likely that you're all too aware of their habits. Overspending can lead to obvious problems such as marital arguements about spending habits and difficulty paying bills. The shopaholic's habits include secrecy about their money and how much they're spending. Compulsive spenders say that there is guilt related to their habits, which goes along with wanting to cover up their actions.
However, a shopaholic may be more than willing to talk to you about the details of your own finances-after all, they are obsessed with money and spending. If they are a close relative, they may ask you detailed questions about your salary, how much you paid for household items, etc. But they are not willing to share their financial details with you.
Therefore, if you know or suspect that you have a shopaholic in your family, you are probably wondering how much they are in debt. The answer could shock you. Credit card debt in six-figure sums is not uncommon when a middle-class shopaholic with multiple cards has been overspending for years. Even relatively small amounts can create major stress, if the shopaholic doesn't earn enough to make their credit card payments.
Bailouts. Another stressful situation is when debt rises to a crisis point where the spender is having problems meeting their minimum payments. They ask friends or relatives for a sizeable loan or bailout-and then ask for it to be kept a secret from other family members.
A related situation is when the hoarding area becomes intolerably cluttered. Hoarding can get to the point where rooms can no longer be used because they are jammed with purchases. Family members or friends may help clear out the clutter from the hoarding area, but when the clutter is cleared out, the shopaholic is likely to continue their habit of spending and hoarding, unless they are committed to changing their habits.
Lack of savings. Because the compulsive spender's money is being spent on frivolous purchases, saving for future needs is ignored. Getting by with paying the bills just in time this month is a concern. This has a ripple effect on the rest of the family when saving for a college education and setting money aside for emergencies and unexpected expenses (such as home repair) are ignored.
Copycat buying. When you mention buying something new, the compulsive spender cross-examines you about the details: how big it is (for example, a TV), how much you paid for it, where you bought it, how well it works. Later, you find out that they've bought one just like yours, or a more expensive version of the same item. You feel guilty because you mentioned it in the first place, and blame yourself because you didn't realize their compulsion would urge them to buy one in order to keep up with you. Your pleasure with your new purchase is spoiled, because now you are worried about your loved one digging themselves deeper into credit card debt. Friends or relatives of the shopaholic may tell you in an irate voice "don't tell so-and-so when you buy a new TV. "
So, you avoid discussing future purchases with them. This has you walking on eggshells when you have a conversation with the overspender, because you avoid talking about anything having to do with shopping (or vacations, or whatever you think they'd be copy-catting you on). This is hard to do when the compulsive shopper is a close friend or relative. Shopaholics will shop for anything-you may casually mention a new software you recently started using, and they may go buy the same software, even if their computer skills are minimal and they have no knowledge or use for it. Remember, the thrill for them is in buying, not in using, the item.
Blaming others for their problem. The shopaholic is always ready with an excuse, and it's convenient to blame others. Excuses are limitless. One debtor complained that their six-figure mountain of credit card debt was due to the expenses of bringing up their children-although the adult children in this case were employed, self-sufficient, and out of the nest for over 15 years. Many shopaholics have a long history of overspending, starting as young adults.
Guilt. Compulsive spenders often feel guilt associated with their excessive spending. They may be generous by nature, or unconsciously attempting to alleviate the guilt by giving expensive gifts. The result is that the loved one feels bad about receiving a gift, because he/she knows that the giver couldn't afford it, and it went on a charge card, adding to a pre-existing mountain of debt. The loved one may ask the debtor to refrain from giving them gifts, and this may (or may not) influence the debtor.
Coping with stress. Having a close relationship with a shopaholic is stressful. It is important not to blame yourself for a problem you didn't create. You cannot control the spending habits of other adults, who have minds of their own. You can give sound advice and try to help, but don't allow anyone make you feel guilty about a problem they created all on their own. Be prepared that advice you give a shopaholic may be ignored.
If your loved one is willing to get credit counseling or join Debtor's Anonymous, that is wonderful. However, many compulsive spenders are unwilling to change anything, and even deny that they have a problem. There may be nothing that will change their minds, short of a financial meltdown that forces them into a situation such as bankruptsy or foreclosure.
"How to get out of debt, stay out of debt and live prosperously" by Jarrold Mundis is an enlightening book full of practical advice. This book details the effects of debt on the debtor's loved ones, and gives sound advice if your loved one is a compulsive spender. It is available at many libraries. If your compulsive spender realizes that they have a problem and is willing to change their habits, this book can be eye-opening for them. This book also explains the consequences of family loans to compulsive spenders, and the dark side of family bailouts.
If stress is getting to you, consider talking with a credit counselor or other professional. Although you're not the one with the spending problem, they can help you understand your loved one's compulsion better.
Also, it is very important to guard your own finances from the consequences of a loved one's behavior. For example, non-debtors have been saddled with debt by co-signing loans or being co-listed on the shopaholic's credit card and bank accounts.
Love the person, not the problem. Realize that your loved one has many beautiful qualities that are not related to their debting. They may have good intentions behind their extravagant spending (such as giving nice gifts), and they probably don't realize the stress they create for those who love them.
Empathy and understanding
The purpose of this article is to help loved ones of compulsive spenders realize that they are not alone in their stress. This article does not replace professional advice from a credit counselor or financial aid organization. Please seek professional advice for stressful debt problems. I have no involvement in the credit or financial industries, and intend this article simply as empathy and understanding for others who worry about their loved ones. Good luck to you and to your loved ones.
Ramona is the author of Dynamic Belly Dance, the Joyful Journey of Dancemaking and Performing. See free belly dance videos, read book excerpts and order an autographed copy at http://www.DynamicBellyDance.com
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