Money Problems and Addictive Behavior

Woman lying on couch with credit card and tablet
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Money problems affect most of us from time to time. Being at an early stage of your career; going through life changes such as marriage or starting a family; facing unemployment; and unexpected life events that bring unexpected costs, such as illness or the death of a family member are all issues that cause temporary money problems. But sometimes money problems are long-term, the causes are deeper, and the solutions are more dramatic because they require lifestyle changes.

Addiction and Money Problems

Most addictions have a serious impact on finances. In fact, financial problems are even cited as a possible symptom of addiction for gambling disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5) used by mental health workers to diagnose mental health problems. Although alcohol and drug related substance use disorders tend to carry significant financial costs, both in terms of paying for the addictive substance or behavior, and in terms of the time taken away from other activities, including work, behavioral addiction such as gambling and shopping addiction almost always lead to money problems, simply because they strike at the core of the addict’s finances. Without money, there can be no gambling, and without money, there can be no shopping.

How Denial Keeps Overspenders Addicted

Denial is common among people with addictions of all kinds. Basically, denial is a way that you hide the truth of your addiction from yourself, for example, by making excuses, by blaming others, by blaming circumstances outside of your control, or by kidding yourself that you are in transition and that circumstances are about to change. Denial is used to cover up addiction from other people but is also used to avoid facing the fact that you are addicted, and that you will continue to have money problems until you overcome your addiction.

Overspenders can blame others for money problems in a variety of ways. The overspent addict might blame their partner for poor money management, they might blame their children for having material needs, they might blame their boss for needing them to look good for work without acknowledging that designer fashions every season are not actually a workplace requirement, or they might blame enemies for frustrating them to the point where they need "retail therapy."

Money problems can also be blamed on circumstances outside of your control in a variety of ways. Let’s say winter is coming and you need a new coat. Do you really need five or 10 coats? No, you only need one, or at most two. But a shopping addict may rationalize buying more and more coats, using the excuse of the cold weather every time.

You might equally blame the cost of whatever it is you are buying, despite the fact that you buy it again and again, the need for a non-essential item for "good luck," or the remote possibility that you might need that item one day. Some shopping addicts even blame the shop, advertising, the fashion industry or peer pressure for their overspending. Ultimately, this is simply an avoidance of responsibility for your own actions.

Take Control of Your Money Problems

Like all addictions, the solution to money problems for shopping addicts and overspenders is both simple and difficult. You need to take complete responsibility for your actions and for the consequences of your actions, and to take control of those actions by monitoring and making careful decisions about what you spend your money on.

Unlike addictions to alcohol and drugs, there is no way to avoid money or to avoid the need to shop. You may need a complete break from spending before getting to this point, by asking someone else to take responsibility for purchasing the basic necessities of life until you have had a reasonable break from spending. But sooner or later, you will need to formulate a spending plan which will give you complete control over how much you spend, and what you spend it on. If you continue to struggle with this, don't be ashamed to seek professional help.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.