Is Your Spending Out of Control? Compulsive Buying Disorder

Are you the kind of person who is smart about your money? Do you think about your spending in advance? Do you have a budget and almost never deviate from it? Do you actually know where you money comes from and goes every week? You’d be very surprised to know that a lot of people haven’t a clue about those things and in fact can’t control their spending. That’s hard to believe I know, especially if you’re a person like me, who makes knowing about my money a real priority. But for a lot of people, spending money, shopping, and going out on the town isn’t something they think about like I do. In fact, for many people, spending money (even when they don’t have any left) is an overwhelming urge or need. It’s a compulsion and is really part of an addiction. It’s called Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD).

Is Your Spending Out of Control? Compulsive Buying Disorder

CBD spending comes from someplace within the mind and is almost always a desperate attempt to satisfy some negative emotions like anger or sadness. It may be an attempt to block out something like stress or a sense of inferiority that buying something new or spending to an extreme will cure, if only for a moment.

Now you may at first think it can be a nuisance or even somewhat funny if you know or see someone who is addicted to the “shop ’til you drop” mentality of the 21st century. But it isn’t. Unfortunately, it is sometimes so significant that it can be a lifelong problem and cause issues with job and family and lead to divorce and bankruptcy.  Those suffering from CBD often have related conditions such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or bipolar disorder. In some cases, it can even lead to suicide.

Compulsive spenders can go on sprees that last for days, weeks and even months at a time. It may be purchases like clothes or jewelry, new cars, or even extensive and expensive vacation as well. In fact, the behavior is so damaging that huge debts and bankruptcy are most frequent by people with CBD. They are the most likely to be debt ridden of all Americans today.

CBD was first discovered over 100 years ago and although it was somewhat studied then, it was not really taken seriously until the 1990’s. In fact, one very famous person, Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln and First Lady in the 1860’s, was thought to have this disorder. She was diagnosed and treated and then confined to a mental institution partly because of it. In her case, she was known to compulsively spend and shop, and hide the items and receipts until they were discovered much later. It was part of a bipolar disorder and was a great weight on the Lincoln family through much of their marriage.

What causes this disorder is believed to start when a person is a child. It seem that if a child suffers from low self-esteem, it can trigger the urge to reward oneself with the good feelings that shopping and getting a “reward” can give them. If as a child they are deprived of things or if their only rewards are material gifts rather than love, attention or appreciation, they can harbor these urges for a lifetime.

The consumerism of the 21st century, which shows no signs of being diminished in any way, can only foster these feelings among those who grow up under these conditions.

What can be done about CBD? Well, first of all, recognizing that it is an illness is the first step. Getting someone psychiatric help and evaluation can do a world of good. In fact, studies show that someone who is counseled and treated for a period of about ten weeks for CBD can cut this behavior dramatically and with long term reinforcement can eliminate it entirely.

We all are guilty of the occasional spending spree, as it does have a therapeutic result which is why it’s often referred to as “retail therapy”. But there’s a big difference between once-in-a-blue-moon behavior and daily splurging that becomes a dark secret that can only cause more damage.

When you become aware of such behavior, you should try to reach out to the individual and give them some support. Ignoring it and rationalizing the behavior or making light of it can cause real devastation. Truthfully, there is not a lot that you can do but be supportive and provide some information to the individual and their family about places and people offering help. If you can do that, then you’ve done a lot to help turn this behavior around.

If the person spending compulsively is you, know that you’re not alone and that help is out there. Take steps now to modify your behavior and both you and your finances will be able to rebound.

Help is available through professional counseling as well as organizations such as Debtors Anonymous.

And for those of us who aren’t suffering from CBD, but still find ourselves tempted to shop to deal with our emotions, it’s helpful to stop and consider what’s driving us to spending and how we can address those issues without resorting to “retail therapy”.

Do you or does anyone you know suffer from out-of-control, compulsive spending?

Image courtesy of Ambro at (with changes)


  1. An interesting topic. I don’t think I know anyone who has had a spending issue to this degree. I have known people who have hid purchases from their spouses. That’s a real trust issue for me, but could be related to CBD and something they are not in control of.

  2. Jack

    I’ve seen plenty of retail therapy in my times, but no compulsive spending, at least not that I’m aware of.

    Makes you wonder how someone with that problem would survive financially. Sounds like someone who’d be a regular at the local bankruptcy court.

  3. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank

    Gary, my wife has this kind of habit, but not a disorder. I am just glad that she was willing to change for the better. I believe one eye-opening experience that changed her is when we were in great depth and she realized that she needed to contribute something for us to get out of the rut. Now, she’s completely changed and I just hope that she never go back to that again.

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