Spending Addiction: Is it the Love of Money or Medicating Pain?

Brian M. Murray, MS, IMH

There is a type of addiction that exists that is commonly and affectionately, referred to as “shop-a-holism.” While it may sound like a term of endearment on the surface, there are some people who strongly identify with it and have serious problems with spending money. So what is behind this behavior - is it the love of money? Does it feel good to spend money?

The real problem behind a spending addiction – just like any other kind – is that it makes the person feel good. When we medicate something painful in life, it makes us feel better and reinforces the desire to indulge in the activity. So what is the big deal about going out and spending money? Spending money is okay, but just like drinking a little wine every once in a while doesn’t impair most people, there are some who can’t touch the stuff as it will lead them down a path of destruction. However, when spending money is put into the context of what constitutes an addiction, then it becomes a problem.

Addiction is the compulsive habit of turning to a substance or behavior that leads to dysfunction in multiple areas of a person’s life, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Often the underlying question is how come this is happening? The answer is typically that the compulsion is being used as a coping mechanism for some undesirable feeling such as sadness or unresolved anger. The rush of spending money sends a chemical to the brain that involves feeling good, resulting in the perception of happiness. It feels good at the time but when the activity is over, so is the elation. The reality of sadness and undesired feelings creep back in and the person returns to the thing that makes them feel good. 

This turns into a vicious cycle of addiction where a person is avoiding their unresolved pain and instead learns to live in a world that makes them feel good. This forms a kind of love bond with the behavior and they become attached to it. The only problem with the method is, like any addiction, it takes more and more to get the same result. The reason it takes more and more is that the coping mechanism is faulty; it’s not true healing and does not resolve the problem. The checking account runs low, savings accounts disappear, retirement funds get cashed out, second loans are taken on the home and then foreclosure happens, relationships and marriages are lost, cars get repossessed and the list goes on. It is not usually until a person who has an addiction hits rock bottom that they finally admit they have a problem and reach out for help. They have no more resources left to mask the problem. They have exhausted their friends and family and they have a debt they cannot repay.

So what does a person who has a spending addiction do? First is to know that any addiction is a symptom of an underlying issue. Seek professional help to help identify the root cause of the problem. One of the main issues regarding behavioral addictions is low self-esteem and depression. When the mood is lifted, it is because it was lifted from a low place into one of elation. Developing healthy coping mechanisms that do not lead to destruction is a good place to start. This involves doing things that are enjoyable and require little if any funding to pursue. Taking walks in the park, visiting with friends or volunteering to help the less fortunate can be great places to start. To help with undesired feelings, journaling thoughts through handwritten expression, art, woodworking or other methods that involve the use of hands can be great for providing distractions to old addiction coping mechanisms. These therapeutic tools are also useful for relieving everyday stress, anxiety and depression which are common relapse triggers.


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