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Stopping the Shopping Juggernaut

December 03, 1987|MARJORIE MARKS | Marks is a Los Angeles free-lance writer.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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