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This is an audio transcript of the Money Clinic podcast episode: ‘‘The dopamine is so high’ — the psychology of shopping addiction’

Brooke
For me, it’s comparable to a drug addiction. You know, like, this week I have been thinking about all week, like, when can I get my next fix of going into a store and buying something and getting that hit of, like, dopamine?

Claer Barrett
Meet 30-year-old Brooke. She is a self-confessed shopping addict from North Carolina in the US.

Brooke
So when I am in a store, none of the stressors of the outside world matter. You know, I’m there and I don’t have to think about the stress of work. I don’t have to think about, you know, the fact that I don’t have a whole lot of friends. So sometimes just being able to walk around the store, it’s like I can take a deep breath.

Claer Barrett
But, Brooke’s shopping habits are taking a toll on her life.

Brooke
I live pay cheque to pay cheque and I always have. And the sad part is I don’t have to live pay cheque to pay cheque.

Claer Barrett
The thing about Brooke is that her addiction to shopping isn’t so unusual. An estimated 6 to 7 per cent of Americans say they suffer from the same affliction. But how many of us regularly buy things that we don’t really need? With Black Friday and now Christmas on the horizon, when does overspending become a real problem?

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Welcome to Money Clinic, the weekly podcast from the Financial Times about personal finance and investing. I’m Claer Barrett, the FT’s consumer editor.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Coming up, what to do when shopping becomes an illness, I’ll be getting advice from LA-based financial therapist and coach Amanda Clayman. Plus, addiction specialist Pamela Roberts will be explaining the psychology of addiction. But first, back to Brooke. Some of her earliest memories of shopping are actually very positive.

Brooke
We would go, like, with my mom and her sisters and, like, my grandma, and we would go shopping for Black Friday. It was just a really fun time, you know, shopping always, you know, were all such fun and good feelings, you know. And that’s some of the earliest memories I have. And then in high school, my mom showed me like second-hand shopping.

Claer Barrett
Brooke says part of the thrill of shopping for her as an adult is getting a good deal. Something that I can definitely relate to.

Brooke
I, you know, we’re getting a good deal like a badge of honour. It is just an excitement and a high is the best word. (laughter)

Claer Barrett
But somewhere along the line, that bargain-hunting got out of control.

Brooke
I went into a second-hand shop and I found a one pair of shorts for $8. Great deal. While they were doing a 70 per cent off clearance stuff. So I got a bag of leggings and shorts and, like, exercise clothes that, like, I didn’t need — 100 per cent did not need. I came out of that store and I turned to my husband because he was actually in there, too. I turned to him and I said, this was stupid. And I literally could have just bought the $8 shorts and then done. I didn’t need anything else. But it’s like the guilt doesn’t outweigh the addiction.

Claer Barrett
And were you tempted to go back and get a refund for it all?

Brooke
No. I think it comes from this place of, like, a scarcity mentality. Like if I don’t buy it now, I’m not going to be able to get it later. And I don’t know where the scarcity mentality comes from because I’ve never had an issue. You know, we’ve always had like food on the table, you know, I’ve always had everything I’ve ever needed. But I have this feeling of, you know, I have money right now. If I don’t buy it now, I may not be able to buy it in the future.

Claer Barrett
Brooke’s addiction obviously has a huge impact on her emotionally, but where does it leave her financially?

Brooke
My husband has to hold on to my credit card. The only reason why I have it right this second in my wallet is because it’s maxed out.

Claer Barrett
May I ask how much money do you think you are owing now on your credit cards from shopping like this?

Brooke
This one credit card is maxed out right now at $6,500. I do not have any other credit cards. I will not get any other credit cards. But, you know, I paid down a good bit of it and then ended up right back in the same situation.

Claer Barrett
Mm-hmm. And you said that you’ve had some therapy in the past. Is this something that’s ongoing?

Brooke
So I’ve had a few different, like, therapist over the years. And, you know, no one really takes shopping addiction seriously, I guess. None of the therapists that I’ve had so far, you know, it’s a pretty simple thing of, you know, we’ll just don’t go into the store. And I’m like, yeah, that’s, uh, yes, obviously. (laughter) You know, I struggle a lot with the not feeling great about myself and having a low self-esteem. You know, I got in the gym last year. I lost 35 pounds.

Claer Barrett
Well done.

Brooke
You know, I’m in the best shape of my life. I ran a 5k and, you know, I thought making some of these changes would help the shopping addiction. And it doesn’t. It doesn’t fill that void of, you know, low self-esteem and then feeling lonely. So a lot of times I go into the store and even be able to talk to other people shopping and talking to the cashier. That makes, it gives me a human interaction. What did I miss?

Claer Barrett
Let’s talk a little bit about the about the pay cheque to pay cheque. I mean, you don’t have to live pay cheque to pay cheque. What alternative could you see for yourself?

Brooke
As far as, like, what I would like to do in the future? I mean, I would like to go on a big vacation. You know, I would like, my husband and I, we both enjoy travelling. We don’t go on big vacations. We don’t do big things that cost a lot of money because we can’t, because of me. And, you know, I would like to own a house one day. I mean, we can’t. We can’t keep a savings account because I spend the money.

Claer Barrett
It’s a part of you that maybe deep down inside thinks, “I don’t deserve these things.”

Brooke
Yes. You know, I, on a very fundamental level, I feel deeply unlikeable and probably unworthy of the great life that I have right now. I mean, I have a wonderful husband, a wonderful dog. I mean, I love my job. I love my co-workers. You know, I shouldn’t feel so empty.

Claer Barrett
Well, we’re really glad, Brooke, that you came on the podcast because we want to help others who are listening to this. What are the kinds of things that you would like to ask our podcast experts?

Brooke
Really, you know, what are other people who are in recovery for this, you know, what have they done that works?

Claer Barrett
Mm-hmm. And then on the financial side, I mean, to give you some hope, would it help to look at some financial plans that you could put into place with the money that you’re able to save or perhaps help with paying the debts off?

Brooke
Yes. Look, at this point in my life, I’m up for any suggestions. I will try them. You know anyone who could possibly help?

Claer Barrett
Well, we can’t solve Brooke’s shopping addiction on the podcast. This is a condition that requires long-term treatment. We’ve linked to lots of resources that could help in the show notes for this episode. But I did want to speak to some people who might help us to better understand it.

Amanda Clayman
My impression of Brooke is that she’s so perceptive about her situation. She’s actually, like, I feel like if she had written a clinical assessment of herself, it would be accurate.

Claer Barrett
That’s Amanda Clayman, a financial therapist and coach. I spoke to her from her base in LA.

Amanda Clayman
So for Brooke, the fact that she knows that she has low self-esteem. She knows that she has tried these different ways to address some of the feelings inside and has made some changes in her life. She’s talked to her husband, et cetera, and she feels like this behaviour is just so sticky. And one of the things that we know about compulsive buying disorder is that it tends to co-occur with a lot of other stuff that’s going on with us. So, like, it wasn’t a surprise to me, for example, that Brooke was reporting that she experiences a low level of social support.

Claer Barrett
And in all of the conversations that we had about her shopping addiction, how it manifests itself, she really didn’t spend any time talking to me about the things that she was buying. It was more about the experience, the feelings, the interactions with shop assistants, the conversations that she’s having with people — that for her is what is really driving this. The desire for contact.

Amanda Clayman
The desire for contact, but also a very specific kind of contact. When we go into a shopping situation, we have in some ways the appearance of social interaction. I mean, we really are interacting, but it’s a not a deep level of connection, right? Like these are ways that it can, it absolutely does serve to kind of fill up our emotional bucket, which is feeling very empty when we walk into those situations. It does work. It’s just that it doesn’t work reliably, right? Like Brooke mentioned, I feel so terrible when I get out to my car and, you know, that’s when the bubble bursts or the moment is over and she is getting what she needs in the beginning of that behavioural cycle. It’s just that by the end of it, it ends up being more dissatisfying because it has failed to live up to the hope and the promise of what we engage in that behaviour thinking it’s going to do.

Claer Barrett
Can you offer any hope to Brooke and others listening to this podcast with similar problems that it is possible to overcome these kinds of problems, even if it’s complex?

Amanda Clayman
So, first of all, don’t think of it as a personal failure. Think of it as a process or a programme that’s kind of running in your brain and body. And the first step is to pay attention to it. So if we can get really clear on some of the specifics, like what is the shopping behaviour, what’s the feeling that I have before it? Where is my level of tension? So become like a scientist in the field, just observing yourself with as much neutrality and self-compassion as we can. So we assess, we get information, and then we start to identify options for things that might be adjustable.

Claer Barrett
So once you’re clear on the scope of the problem, after becoming a scientist in the field of your own tension, as you said, how can you start to adjust? What sort of treatment should you look at?

Amanda Clayman
You can explore practitioners or models in cognitive behavioural therapy. Because when we have these compulsive patterns, it’s like our brain, it’s like somebody clicks on a programme and then that programme runs. And once it gets clicked on, it’s very difficult to stop that programme from running. Like cognitive behavioural techniques and interventions allow you to really get in on this granular level of specificity about the behaviour and start to identify where we can maybe take an off ramp. Like, before we go fully on to that highway where this programme is just going to run.

Claer Barrett
And what other tools or techniques which you learn through cognitive behavioural therapy, like how would you get off that highway?

Amanda Clayman
I love this one, it’s called “urge surfing”, which means, like, when this feeling comes up, one of the things that people have to learn is that when tension level or stress level feels like it’s on level ten and we go, “Oh no, this is an emergency, how can I bring my stress level back down?” When we surf the urge, we go, “Ooh, I really want to stop. How can it. I’m just going to pause for five minutes. And then see how this feeling feels.” The idea is that we practise tolerating that feeling and especially experiencing how that feeling will peak and then it will start to ebb and fall. So sometimes it’s just teaching people that when that feeling feels like it’s on ten, that’s not a moment that lasts forever.

Claer Barrett
Mmm. Now, on the financial side of things, we heard how Brooke is stuck in this cycle of credit card debt, being unable to save and not being able to do the things that she would really like to do, like travel or buy a house. Now, as a financial coach, how could somebody like Brooke go about working towards these financial goals at the same time as learning to surf the urge and get a handle on her spending habits?

Amanda Clayman
So the thing that will really unlock, I think, for Brooke is that when she starts to experience herself and really centre herself in where she wants her money to go and how she wants to take care of herself with money, so to give money a different job in her life, other than emotional soothing, which is kind of the role that it’s in right now.

Pamela Roberts
But I understand why addiction is commonly known in the world of addiction is that it’s a way of managing emotions. So it’s a way of self-soothing that has become its own problem.

Claer Barrett
That’s Pamela Roberts. She is a UK-based psychotherapist and addiction specialist at the Priory Hospital in Woking.

Pamela Roberts
That’s one of the definitions we get that addiction is a process that takes place and cannot be stopped despite the negative consequences. And at that point, we say, OK, this is addiction. Something else needs to be done.

Claer Barrett
For Pamela, addiction is a catch-all term for a lot of things going on.

Pamela Roberts
Our culture, our society encourages shopping. We talk about it as something that is soothing if you’re having a bad day go buy yourself something.

Claer Barrett
Yes. It’s retail therapy.

Pamela Roberts
Exactly, it is very normalised. But for some people it becomes a problem.

Claer Barrett
So if Brooke came to you for help, how would you work with her or other shopping addicts to help her overcome or manage and live with this addiction? Because you can’t give up shopping. We all need to buy things. (laughter)

Pamela Roberts
I think some of the ways would be, first of all, establishing the routines of what is healthy shopping, what’s unhealthy shopping, what’s necessity. Sometimes to begin with, it might be actually getting someone else to do the shopping just to give a period of abstinence to then explore what are the triggers, what’s going on, what’s creating the urges that might be an extreme situation, or even getting someone to go along, going along with lists. So having a list of what is essential shopping right now. Another thing I would often do is ask people to record absolutely every single spend. So if it’s a cup of coffee, if it’s a newspaper, just for a little while, keep her notes of every single spend so that we start to create a pattern to see what’s going out, starting to be accountable and responsible for every single penny that’s being spent. So creating self-awareness. But also looking at, you know, in intoxication when that desire in that state of intoxication, judgment, decision-making rationale almost gets dumbed down. So again, in the state of intoxication is when I would be saying, “Let’s take 15 minutes out. That’s all you need.” Just to see if we can turn up the volume on judgment, decision, rational reasoning, and then we can start questioning, is this actually about the shop or is there something going on that I’m not processing, something emotional, something relational that needs a little bit more time and investigation?

Claer Barrett
Well, that’s really interesting because we did talk about her earliest money memories and one of them is remembering going shopping at a young age on holidays with her family, which was a really happy experience for her and one that she has kind of almost golden memories of. I mean, would you say that’s common for shopping addicts?

Pamela Roberts
I think there’s experiences in life. This relates to somebody a long time ago that I was working with and very, very sadly lost her mother at a really young age, and her father spent money on her. He bought her presents. Really, what she probably needed more of was his time and being able to share their grieving together. And in his, you know, in his best way, he bought her lots of gifts. And it certainly seems to be a link with that’s how she managed her grief. And so with Brooke, I think it would be so interesting to look at what was happening around that time. What made that shopping so intoxicating that it lingers? Can we change the money script in a way around shopping and challenging that intoxicating feeling? I’m not for one minute suggesting that’s easy, but you can do something different. Of course, you have to want to. You have to want to enough. There has to be desire enough to want to make changes that are almost like a rewiring of patterns.

Claer Barrett
For other people listening, how would you recommend they could think about switching the thinking, as you say?

Pamela Roberts
Writing. Sometimes actually writing the thoughts down and noticing. So becoming conscious of thoughts. You can’t stop the thoughts, but you can readdress them. You can check: is this rational thinking right now? Am I feeling something? Am I feeling overwhelmed that I believe I can’t manage? So I’m thinking shopping. Is there another way? Could I call somebody? Could I talk this through with somebody? It’s not going to tell me to do something or not to do something, but call somebody who can just listen to what I’m doing, what I’m thinking, how I’m feeling. For some people, 12-step fellowships are really useful because there’s a group of people who also understand. But there’s other groups, there’s other fellowships you can find on Instagram. People who really understand addiction. Or other sources like that. Keeping a list of all the spends can be useful and then noting down the negative consequences it can be can be useful to just refer. Last time I spent this is how I felt afterwards. So starting to rationalise things.

Claer Barrett
We caught up with Brooke to see what she made of what the experts said.

Brooke
It was a lot to take in. I’m doing great. We are celebrating Thanksgiving here and this week, which unfortunately also means Black Friday.

Claer Barrett
Wow. Yeah.

Brooke
And being bombarded with, you know, the emails and the marketing online and just all of that. So, but I’m really trying to be more mindful after our last conversation that kind of, you know, gave me a lot to process and consider.

Claer Barrett
So do you feel a bit more hopeful after hearing from the experts that you might be able to work through or start to change and improve your relationship with shopping?

Brooke
I honestly do because they both said things that I had not ever heard before. And I, you know. I didn’t realise the self-esteem was as low as it was until you said that afterwards. I was like, wow, you know, I really, I think on a really deep, profound level, I don’t think I deserve, like, the big things I want, like a vacation and a house and all that. So I settle for a $5 mug that still doesn’t make me happy either.

Claer Barrett
If there are other Brookes who are listening to this episode hearing the story and finding that it is triggering for them, what would your message to them be, Brooke?

Brooke
OK. If I can speak to all the other Brookes out there, you know, you have enough. You are enough, and it’s going to be OK.

Claer Barrett
I’m tearing up now hearing you say that.

Brooke
I’m tearing up too, my gosh.

Claer Barrett
But, you know. But you are you are enough. You are enough. And it’s so amazing to hear you say that. And I really am convinced that talking about financial problems, whatever they are, that’s what this podcast, the show is about, you know, getting out into the open and helping people to come to terms with problems, get help and solve them. So you’ve done an amazing thing just by taking part, and I wish you all the best in the future. Have you got a tissue?

Brooke
No I have my shirt. Oh, my gosh. I do not know why that was, like, oh.

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Claer Barrett
For anyone listening who has been affected by the issues in this podcast episode, there are links to resources in the show notes. You can also reach out to Amanda or Pamela via their websites, and we’ve included a link to those too. That’s it for Money Clinic and we hope you like what you’ve heard. If you did, spread the word and leave us a review. And if you would like to chat with me on a future episode of the show, get in touch. You can email me. Our address is money@ft.com. Or DM me on Twitter, Instagram or TikTok. I’m @ClaerB. Money Clinic was produced by Persis Love. Our executive producer is Manuela Saragosa. Our sound engineer is Breen Turner, and the original music is by Metaphor Music. And finally, the Money Clinic podcast is a general discussion around financial topics and does not constitute an investment recommendation or individual financial advice. For that, you’ll need to find a financial adviser. That is the small print over and done with. See you back here soon. Goodbye.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
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