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I’ve always been a huge fan of romantic movies (as predictable as they are). The anatomy of how the main elements of the storyline highlight the instant connection, and chemistry of a romantic couple, promising a ‘happily ever after’ ending, always manages to steal my moments of escape. This got me thinking about how this scenario plays similar to the stages of a relationship one might have with retail stores… 

They usually start off rosy and as soon as you sign that dotted line, you are showered with a wide range of options waiting for you to pick and choose from. When your fantasies of owning that amazing pair of branded boots or that handbag you’ve always wanted, or perhaps taking that ‘much needed’ holiday to the Maldives, becomes a reality, all you want, is to continue floating in that cloud… until it all goes downhill and you start receiving hate mail, detailing the calculated amount of your mindless swiping, and endless phone calls and threats reminding you of your payment deadlines.

“I used to shop until there was no money left,’’ says Ntsako Peterson, a solution analyst in tech industry who considers herself to be a recovering shopaholic. “With no shopping budget, I used to convince myself that I could afford everything I was buying, and since all my basics were covered, I was saving a little bit of money. In my head I was disciplined – so I thought,” she shyly expresses.

Financial Advisor, Sheila Anne-Robey defines being a shopaholic as being a consumer that has an addiction to buying or shopping, and this is sometimes referred to as oniomania. “It is described as the most ‘socially acceptable’ addiction, however, when the addiction impacts the life of the consumer negatively, in terms of their financial wellbeing, then it becomes a problem. When a consumer spends their income on unnecessary items instead of expenses they need to survive such as; rent, bond, food, vehicle payment etc.. they may suffer from this addiction. Often a shopaholic will be in denial, lie or justify their behaviour, so as to continue fuelling their addiction,” she adds.

Robey expands in detail that there are various genres of shopaholics that can be found. The types of defining characteristics include:

  • Compulsive shoppers or Retail therapy seekers: They buy when they are feeling emotional distress (sad, depressed, lonely etc…)
  • Trophy shoppers or Brand addicts: They are always looking for the next big thing and feel pressure to “keep up with the Joneses.” They desire the attention that comes with having ‘nice’ new things that meet the approval of others.
  • Bargain shoppers: They purchase things through sale, even if they don’t need or desire it as the “savings” satisfies an urge, and momentarily suppresses the guilt.

Reatlegile Mampa, commissioning editor in broadcasting is a recovering shopaholic and traces back the void she was trying to fill through shopping. “Losing my mother in 2014 had me dealing with grief, and left me with the feeling of abandonment. She was my best friend and I felt even more connected to her because we shared a birthday. That took a huge toll over my life. On top of that, I had broken off a ten-year relationship with the father of my child, had just recently got a car, became a new home-owner, and had to relocate my son who had been staying with my parents in Limpopo. All these changes and adjustments became overwhelming, yet I still wanted to live each moment of my life without feeling alone, and that meant filling my place with flowers, wine and all the comfort food money could buy. I went to unbudgeted pamper sessions at the finest spas, and shopped without thinking about tomorrow while dishonouring debit orders,” she explains.

Robey says that there is always an emotional driver behind the need to shop, buy, have, and consume. “For me personally, I have identified my shopaholic trait, in that I am highly satisfied by doing major grocery shopping and having a full fridge. Not because I have any food addiction, but because of growing up poor and often not having enough food, I now get great satisfaction though providing for my family in this abundant way. Some of the major emotional drivers I have identified in my clients are:

  • Loneliness or the need to fill a void created by some emotional trauma.
  • Boredom.
  • The need for approval or keeping up appearances.
  • Stress.
  • Sadness, depression, and anger.

“Growing up, I saw my mother and aunts have various clothing accounts to keep up with their corporate looks. I would often listen to them complain about not having money a week after getting paid. I knew if I opened an account, I would also be in debt. It was so bad so much that I would go shopping and have to ask someone to fetch me because I would spend every bit of money, and not have any left to pay for a taxi to get home, several times,” says Nompumelelo Kumalo, BBA student, travel enthusiast and campaign manager.

“On average, South African’s have between R100,000 and R200,000 worth of credit, over and above their homes and their vehicles. Credit and the rise thereof are severely impacted by oniomania (being a shopaholic), because as consumers get more and more into debt, emotional drivers are further triggered and the need to shop arises, and so the cycle continues. Store cards or store credit is notorious, in that, the interest charged is astronomically higher than other credit providers, such as the bank. Further, it is relatively easy to obtain store credit and fuel the shopaholic addiction,’’ says Robey.  

“After I received my credit card, I ended up being R100 000 in debt. It started off with me not honouring debit order arrangements, here and there. I would convince myself I’d pay next month and then at some point, I didn’t pay anyone. I was comfortable with the fact that no one would physically come for me, and I would make some sort of arrangement. I started being immune to caring about phone calls from debt collectors, receiving letters of demand, and threats to be taken to lawyers,” she recalls. 

“Where your heart goes your money follows,” says Robey. “I am a huge advocate of self-development and because oniomania is an emotionally driven process, I would advise consumers to be honest with themselves and find a method, tool, person, or group of people to further that self-development. Once the emotional driver is addressed, the need to shop, for whatever reason, is reduced and money can be spent, saved, and invested to further your life and what you love doing,” she adds.

From a money management perspective, Robey always advises clients to:

  • Seek the assistance of a trusted financial advisor. The value they can add to your life is immeasurable!
  • Create and maintain your budget. Without knowledge of what comes in and what comes out, you have no awareness of the problem.
  • Save or pay yourself first. This is not a new trick but so few people have any form of savings or retirement vehicles.
  • Budget and track your spending. When you track spending, you become far more conscious of your decisions, and are more likely to make healthy financial decisions.
  • Be savvy. There are so many tips and tricks in terms of being savvy with your money. My favourite tip is drawing your grocery budget as cash or using a separate account. This allows you to stick to your budget and not overspend on groceries, as this is one of the expenses that is most controllable.

With all that said, I guess after admitting you have a problem, initiating a break-up with your spending habits may just be the solution to helping you on a path to recovery. Develop your own personal mantra that you will fall back to when that urge to shop creeps up. Ask yourself ‘do I really need this,” and if the answer is no, keep it moving.

Look out for the blog post on the psychological effects of being a shopaholic on next week’s Womenomics.