Long Island Press

The Holiday Shopping Drug
When More Isn't Better -- It Just Racks Up The Bills

Nora Cronin, December 14, 2006

Crowded mall parking lots and frenzied shopping centers on Long Island are a sign of the times during the holiday season. But for some, the out-of-control holiday spending, especially when it's on credit, is a symptom of a psychological disorder or a compulsion to buy, that in itself is an addiction -- and the beginnings of a problem that may last long after the holiday decorations come down.
After the holidays, the debt hangover can result in a credit catastrophe when the bills arrive in January.

"There are people that have compulsions, and for some people these compulsions are addictions, like shopping, food, gambling and sex," says David Hymowitz, a social worker and associate director of the Mental Health Association of Nassau County. Holiday revelry can quickly become a problem for those addicted to spending "when it impacts on the person's ability to function," he adds.

The Price Tag-High

Gretchen A., a 26-year member of Debtors Anonymous (DA), learned firsthand how her shopping addiction affected her ability to manage finances. "I would run out of money for the first six months of the year, which is a horrible way to live," says Gretchen. A former New York City resident, she is also the editor of The Bottom Line, DA's newsletter. The anonymous nature of the program prevents the Press from disclosing more information about Gretchen. 

"Shopping was very exciting," says "Maria," another member of DA. "I would get 'adrenalized' out of the experience," she says. DA refers to people like Maria who cannot resist snatching up almost anything with a price tag -- which leaves them with virtually no money -- as "compulsive debtors."

Maria believes that the social pressure to buy gifts over the holidays extends into the post-holiday season. She remembers that at one point, her credit card debt was three times her income -- but she still continued to take her friends out to dinner and buy expensive gifts.

"It was like I was trying to purchase those people's love," Maria explains.
David Gleicher, Ph.D., associate professor of economics at Adelphi University in Garden City, agrees that there are "great pressures on people to buy Christmas presents." He believes that for some the pressure "outweighs the current income they have."

Gretchen and Maria both applaud DA for helping them get control over their spending. For Gretchen, the organization identified a problem even her therapist failed to diagnose. During the time she was in therapy, her therapist never broached the subject of Gretchen's spending addiction.

"I wish she [had mentioned the debt because] it affected every aspect of my life," as well as contributing to her feelings of depression, says Gretchen.
After Gretchen joined DA, she says, "My therapist became one of my creditors. I had to work out a repayment plan." Like Alcoholics Anonymous, DA encourages a 12-step plan to recovery, and one of the steps is making restitution on debts owed.

The Mall Is The Message

Gretchen feels today that while she takes personal responsibility for her debts, in the past she succumbed to messages from advertisers to overspend. This message is so strong that consumers sometimes feel it is their duty as an American to buy beyond their means.

"We are a business-oriented society,"says Gretchen, adding that the "constant bombarding" of "more is better" -- in terms of shopping -- is too pervasive.
"I think I saw some ads [for holiday shopping] even before Halloween this year," she says.

Do these messages contribute to the problem of overspending?
"Absolutely," says Hymowitz. "The marketing aspect tells people, 'Go ahead and do this,'" he explains. "The message is 'spend.' That's what [the advertiser's] job is, to get you to spend."

The directive to consume may be even stronger during the 2006 holiday season. There is "a lot of anxiety among retailers" that this could be "the last really good holiday season" for revenue, argues Robert Manning, Ph.D., research professor and director of the Center for Consumer Financial Services at Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York.

When Manning speaks about the 2007 post-holiday debt hangover, he says, "This is the year it's going to be really significant."
Adelphi's Gleicher agrees, but adds, "I'm not sure [2006] is going to be a great season in the first place."

The Credit Crunch

To prevent a less-than-stellar selling season, retailers may pour on more pressure to spend, because according to Gleicher, about 30 to 40 percent of all revenue for retail is generated during the holidays. And it is not only the spending-addicted who have found themselves inching closer to bankruptcy as they become caught up in the cycle of credit. Manning says he speaks with homeowners who are "astounded" when they are turned down for increased home equity lines of credit because they are too close to what he calls "the credit wall."

Eventually, Manning says, as individuals use one credit card to pay off another, there comes a point when individuals are paying just the interest on their loans. As the housing market has declined, people are no longer able to count on their real estate investment, and loan officers begin to turn them down for future borrowing. They hit the credit wall.

But there is hope. Both Gretchen and Maria say that DA works because the organization gives debtors the tools to manage debt. Maria says, "They teach you that you can have everything you want, but you can't have it all at once."
Gretchen believes that only after she kicked the credit habit could she truly appreciate the spirit of the season. Looking back on her first credit-free holiday, she says, "It was actually the best Christmas I ever had."

Kicking The Spending Habit

The Mental Health Association of Nassau County has a free anonymous hotline: 516-504-HELP. The hotline is staffed with mental health professionals who all have master's degrees or better in their field.


This story ran on Long Island Press on December 14, 2006.