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.
"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
"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.
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.
The Mall Is The Message
"We are a business-oriented society,"says Gretchen, adding that the "constant bombarding" of "more is better" -- in terms of
shopping -- is too pervasive.
Do these messages contribute to the problem of overspending?
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."
The Credit Crunch
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."
Kicking The Spending Habit
This story ran on Long Island Press on December 14, 2006.