“I often buy outfits I never end up wearing,” Cindy said. “I know I shouldn’t have bought them, but shopping always cheers me up. It makes me feel alive.”
Cindy, 34, moved to Taiwan sixteen months ago. Her husband has gotten on her case lately over her spending habits. She feels ashamed and depressed.
“In fact, he’s right about me. It doesn’t matter how much he gives me, I end up spending it all. I’m really no good with money.”
Cindy is a compulsive spender. Although she recognizes that she exceeds the family budget, she can’t resist her impulses. She ends up feeling guilty and frustrated for over-extending herself financially, but the more frustrated she feels, the more she spends.
Compulsive spending may not sound like a serious problem to most people, but in fact it is a form of addiction. It is no different from other material addictions, such as pathological gambling or kleptomania.
Not all enthusiastic shoppers are problem spenders. The signals that a problem exists are when you feel little or no control over your impulses, or you repeatedly buy things that are never used.
Compulsive spending is caused by both social and psychological factors. Expatriates in particular are vulnerable to this specific problem. It affects equally both men and women, but is often blamed more on female expatriates.
Many working wives accompanying their husbands overseas must either totally give up their careers or settle for something other than their chosen profession because of limited opportunities. Others find their former role as homemaker taken over by their live-in maid. Feeling lonely and frustrated, they often use shopping and dining out as a way of feeling better about themselves.
The modern urban lifestyle, with its emphasis on consumption and acquisition, certainly promotes the impulse to spend. All the latest fashions and electronic gadgets besiege our vision at every turn in almost every major city on earth. Elsewhere, ethnic handicrafts, jewelry, antiques and artifacts inspire the “collector” in us. Fancy boutiques and pricey cafés provide limitless opportunities for people to consume and spend beyond their limit. Such temptations often are difficult to resist. Peer pressure to possess luxury brands too often makes it feel mandatory.
The nouveau riche syndrome also encourages spending. Many middle class families arrive in a foreign posting and suddenly find themselves among the elite of society. New-found affluence and the need to keep up appearances encourage them to upgrade their lifestyle accordingly.
However, affluence and temptation alone do not cause compulsive spending. The key problem is a psychological one. The act of spending is stimulating, providing immediate gratification. For example, buying a new dress makes someone feel good about herself. At that particular moment there is an uplift of self-image and boost of self-confidence. There is a surge of adrenaline which can become psychologically as well as physically addicting, as with any stimulant.
During the course of spending, the overspender may experience a sense of pleasure, gratification or release. But often following the act he or she will feel regret, self-reproach or guilt. The feeling is relieved only by another shopping binge. This turns into a cycle that is difficult to get out of.
People suffering from emotional turmoil or poor self-esteem are vulnerable to this sort of addiction. They use shopping as a way to temporarily lift them from depression or fill a void in their life. In Cindy’s case, when she feels depressed she tends to spend more. It helps her “feel more alive.”
Compulsive spenders often spend money in order to gain approval and acceptance from others, by treating friends to fancy dinners, buying presents, and so on. Though their budget may be stretched to the limit, the reward of being accepted and appreciated is far more important than the money spent.
Though this problem is often unfairly identified with women, expatriate men, too, are vulnerable to spending addiction, though often for slightly different reasons. They may accumulate expensive hardware, such as cars, mobile phones, new watches, home entertainment and sports equipment, as well as designer clothes. Probing deeper, though, we are likely to find a person attempting to compensate for his own perceived inadequacies.
The way to deal with compulsive spending is first to focus on the spending behavior itself. Consciously avoid opportunities to consume and keep away from areas full of buying temptations. Restricting your access to money by canceling credit and automatic teller cards can help discourage impulsive spending.
It is important to realize, however, that compulsive spending is caused by feelings of unfulfillment, insecurity, and self-deprecation. The battle is against low self-esteem rather than a financial budget. Thus, dealing with compulsive spending requires more than merely cutting up the credit cards or avoiding high-priced boutiques.
You must look deeper within yourself to understand why there is such a need and what triggers it. Making positive efforts toward finding a genuine source of fulfillment in life is the surest cure for self-destructive—and expensive—behavior.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.