Jeannie Campbell

Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit and has worked with families, teens, parents & kids for over 10 years. She loves her day job so much that she crossed over to diagnosing make-believe people. She's the owner/operator of The Character TherapistTM, an online therapy service for fictional characters...and their authors. You can connect with her at


Main Entry: shopaholic
Pronunciation: \ˌshä-pə-ˈhȯ-lik\
Function: noun
1: a frequent shopper, especially one who is unable to control his or her spending.

A while ago I focused on The Cheapskate, the opposite of a shopaholic. I wanted to call this month’s article “The Spendthrift,” but a cursory Google search showed that most people do not understand spendthrift is synonymous with wastrel or big spender. Not wanting to confuse anyone, I settled on the colloquial and informal stereotype: shopaholic, which, thanks to author Sophie Kinsella, most everyone is familiar with.

Everyone has to shop. Human necessities include toilet paper, toothpaste, and food. For some people, shopping is perfunctory: making lists, checking off items, contemplating the merits of off-brand versus brand name or organic versus pesticide-laden. These are normal aspects of shopping by normal folk.

Then there is the shopping by shopaholics.

For the shopaholic, an outing to the store—and I do mean any store—is an event, an experience. One to be savored, lengthened, enjoyed. Price and time isn’t as much a consideration as feelings and desire.

Before we get started, a word of caution: It’s a mistake to equate all shopaholics with Kinsella’s quirky heroine, who had a taste only for designer imports she did not need and could not afford. “Did not need and could not afford” is key, not “designer imports.” Shopaholics like to spend money, period, whether at a high-end boutique or a consignment shop. Regardless of their budgets, they all suffer the similar consequences of overspending that Becky Bloomwood does.

Psychological Factors
Breaking Character StereotypesShopaholics spend an inordinate amount of time preoccupied with shopping, be it online or through catalogs or in malls. They use one credit card to pay off another, and maybe take on additional jobs to pay them off. They can have unused products, bought in bulk, scattered around their houses or squirreled away from their friends and families in attempts to hide the purchases and possibly to avoid skirmishes with loved ones about their buying habits.

What makes these folks do this?

A 2000 study by British researcher Helga Dittmar found that people purchase things for three reasons: usefulness, improving their moods, or enhancing their self-images. However, compulsive shoppers are significantly more likely to buy things because of mood improvement and self-image improvement features promised by a product than were non-compulsive shoppers.

Some researchers have gone so far as to determine that dopamine, the same neurochemical released during sex and drug use, is also released during shopping. This effect is pleasurable, and, of course, people want to recreate pleasurable experiences as often as possible. The danger is when the person comes back to earth, realizes his or her wallet is lighter, and then often feels worse than before the shopping event.

There is some debate in the clinical world about where shopaholics should fall in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, called the DSM-5 for short. Is it an impulse-control disorder, like kleptomania? Should it be classified under non-substance addiction disorders, like gambling or pornography? Or is it more of an anxiety disorder compelled by obsessions and the compulsive need to shop to make them go away? Or possibly a symptom of a mood disorder?

Since there is no consensus, and each disorder provides shopaholics with a different motive for their behavior, authors who have an understanding about these particular disorders can be more creative with breaking this stereotype. Following are a three examples to hopefully get your creative juices flowing.

Blue Buyer
This is the shopaholic who needs to spend money when she’s depleted emotionally. Most people are familiar with retail therapy, but the Blue Buyer takes it to a new level. It’s not about acquiring things or keeping up a certain image. It’s more about managing negative emotional states like depression, frustration, jealousy, embarrassment, or anger. A twist on this could be to have your character head for the mall only when a certain subject comes up that she absolutely has to avoid at all costs because of the difficult feelings it brings up. She might decide to go shopping if she even has a hint that this subject might come up.

Control-Freak Consumer
Sometimes, compulsive shopping can be a result of feeling inferior or insecure. These individuals might ruminate over their perceived inadequacies and see shopping as their ticket to popularity, respect, importance, success, or leaving a legacy. Control-Freak Consumers might focus on buying things that connect them to something they are personally interested in, or to a phase in their past, or to remind them of their ideals or goals. Or their social aspirations require the purchases to help them fit in or get closer to real or imagined audiences or significant others (Dyl and Wapner, 1996).

The Powerless Purchaser
In some severe cases, the shopaholic is obsessed with and addicted to shopping. This is when the term shopaholic might be most fitting, as it’s fashioned after alcoholic or workaholic. These people get an addictive high from shopping that’s so pleasurable, they want to seek it out again and again. They are literally powerless over their purchasing.

The Powerless Purchaser is consumed with an inordinate amount of thoughts about shopping. They might shop on their cell phones at work, even lose their jobs due to taking too long lunches (where they shopped) or consistently arriving late (because they were shopping). These are the types to keep tags on merchandise to return later and squirrel bags away from loved ones to avoid conflict, just as an addict would try to hide his beer breath with gum or a smoker who tries to cover her tobacco smell with body spray or perfume. It could be interesting to explore this type character as being a part of Debtors Anonymous, a real program based on the 12-step literature of Alcoholics Anonymous.