Personal Finance

You could be an online shopping addict. Here’s how to tell

Key Points
  • As online retailers sweeten deals for consumers, experts say more shoppers are at risk for becoming addicted to online shopping.
  • Watch for key symptoms that show your online shopping is getting in the way of other areas of your life, particularly your time and money.
  • Take steps to curb your spending, including blocking favorite retailers' sites and taking your credit card information offline.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Shopping online can be as easy as click, click, buy. But if you don’t watch out, it could become a habit that wrecks your finances.

The combination of anonymity, the convenience of not having to go to a store and the variety of products available can fuel online shopping addiction, according to April Lane Benson, a psychologist specializing in compulsive buying disorder.

“All of these are triggers for people who are compulsive buyers,” said Benson, who is also the author of the book “To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop.”

Those tendencies can be hard to fight as online retailers sweeten deals through events such as Amazon Prime Day and other flash sales.

And psychologists and financial experts alike say they have seen an uptick in patients and clients who struggle with these habits.

Financial advisor Winnie Sun, founder of Sun Group Wealth Partners, said she sees bad online shopping habits forming especially among her millennial and Gen X clients.

“The default is, ‘I’ll just Amazon it,’” Sun said. “They don’t really take the time to shop or compare price.

"For them, it’s all about immediate gratification," she added.

Older individuals are also fueling their online shopping habits via mobile phones, tablets and computers, said Terrence Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending and Hoarding.

And both women and men fall prey to these tendencies, Shulman said.

Amazon 'Prime Day' deals draws more volume, says expert
Amazon 'Prime Day' deals draws more volume, says expert

Signs you have a problem

Online shopping addicts may get emotional satisfaction from shopping for different reasons.

That can include needing to portray a certain image, getting a thrill from finding deals or even the need to buy for loved ones, according to Shulman.

“If it starts to become more of a regular thing — more time, more energy, spending more than you wanted to — you want to keep an eye on that,” Shulman said.

Often family or friends will be first to point out a problem. And if your loved ones are expressing concern, you should take note, Shulman said.

Other warning signs include hiding your purchases to make sure someone else does not see or intercept them; having trouble keeping track of your budget or falling behind on bills; running out of room to store all of your purchases; or showing up late, or altogether, missing social or work events so as not to miss out on an online deal.

Getting back on track

Shopping addicts could be turning to purchases to sooth the impact of other problems in their lives — marital issues, work problems or big, unexpected changes.

“It’s like looking for love in all the wrong places,” author Benson said. “Shopping is never going to, in an enduring way, meet your need for love and affection.”

In addition to confronting those triggers with the help of a professional, there are steps individuals can take to curb their spending.

Sun, of Sun Group Wealth Partners, said she will typically require clients who have a tendency to overspend to leave their purchases in a corner of a room for a week.

“If you don’t touch it for a week, that means you can live without it,” Sun said.

And because it’s frustrating and embarrassing to return things, those clients eventually get to the point where they do not make as many purchases, she said.

For everything you buy, assess how much you really need the item. If you’re eyeing $300 black boots, and you already own several pairs, that purchase is likely entirely unnecessary, Benson said.

Other tricks to help curb your shopping, according to Shulman of The Shulman Center, include setting a time limit for how long you can shop, restricting your budget to exclude online purchases, putting a blocker on certain websites and taking your credit card information offline.

Make a plan for situations in advance — such as holidays — that could rekindle your old spending habits, said author Benson said. And, be prepared for a long road to recovery, she added. “It is very likely that there will be lapses and relapses."

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