Materialism and Shopping Addictions

Two smiling female friends window shopping
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What is the definition of materialism? Understanding this concept is important when it comes to examining shopping addiction. In capitalist societies such as the United States, where consumerism not only runs rampant but is encouraged to boost the economy, materialism is a serious problem.

A 2021 survey conducted by Experian found that the average adult in the U.S. has around $92,000 in consumer debt.

Defining Materialism And Its Meaning

Simply put, materialism is the importance one places on material possessions. These possessions could be anything, such as clothes, shoes, handbags, cars, electronic equipment, and gadgets.

One's home also counts as a material possession, even though everyone needs a place to live. However, people who tend to be more materialistic might view their home as a way to reflect their social status rather than serving as a place to dwell for shelter.

Someone with a high level of materialism, described as "materialistic," considers material possessions to be central to their life and their identity. They focus a good deal of their energy on acquiring possessions.

Someone with a low level of materialism described as "non-materialistic," or "not materialistic," does not consider acquiring possessions to be particularly important, although they vary in the extent to which they acquire material possessions in order to meet other objectives, such as social acceptance.

Why Materialism Is Such a Problem 

In the United States, materialism is as American as apple pie and football. It is in many ways a national pastime. The Thanksgiving holiday has largely been overshadowed by Black Friday sales and many department stores even hold sales on Thanksgiving itself. In short, a day that was supposed to focus on gratitude, family, and, yes, football, to an extent, is now largely centered on department store sales. 

Materialism has spawned other terms such as "keeping up with the Joneses" and "conspicuous consumption." When the pursuit of material things impacts one's quality of life, it is sometimes called a shopping addiction (although "shopping addiction" is not an official psychiatric diagnosis like gambling addiction).

It's difficult not to be materialistic in a culture where shopping is virtually a competitive sport and where children are ostracized if they're not wearing the right gym shoes or brand name clothes.

The rise of online shopping, which has its own holiday shortly after Thanksgiving, "Cyber Monday," has in many ways made it more convenient to shop and easier to develop a shopping addiction. One needn't leave the house to consume, but simply click a button.

Consequences of Materialism 

Materialism has a number of consequences, especially financial ones. Research in many countries has linked compulsive shopping to significant levels of debt, often enabled by credit cards.

Materialism may also affect one's self-esteem. Rather than getting their self-worth from their accomplishments or unique traits, people with shopping addictions may feel valuable based on what they own—a fancy car, a luxurious home, or an expensive handbag.

Research has also shown that materialism may lead people to feel less self-sufficient and less mindful. They are also less likely to experience flow experiences, which are characterized by feeling fully immersed in an experience. 

Materialism can also lead to hoarding. Individuals with this condition may collect items that have little monetary worth—such as stacks of newspapers, buttons, or other items commonly viewed as "junk". Still, when people hoard, they place an emotional attachment to material items rather than turning inward to meet their needs.

Although hoarding and shopping addiction are separate conditions, they can co-occur.

Getting Help

Recognizing that you might be too materialistic is the first step toward adopting a healthier attitude toward the acquisition of objects. If you recognize these tendencies in yourself, self-help strategies such as mindfulness and gratitude journaling may help you develop a greater appreciation for what you have now.

If you have a problem related to materialism, you may need to consult a psychotherapist about how you can overcome your tendency to shop too much. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy, can be helpful for changing the thought patterns that contribute to materialism and compulsive shopping.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I be less materialistic?

    Practicing gratitude is one strategy that can help you become less materialistic. Be thankful for what you have and focus on the positive instead of always wanting more. Decluttering your life and living a more minimalistic lifestyle can also be helpful. Finally, try to focus on experiences instead of possessions. Instead of buying material objects, focus on engaging in activities that bring you happiness. 

  • How does materialism affect society?

    Materialism contributes to consumer culture, playing a part in increased levels of consumption. This can lead to a number of problems, such as environmental damage, resource depletion, and economic inequality.

  • Who can I talk to for help if I have a shopping addiction?

    You might start by talking to your doctor or another healthcare professional. They can help you assess your situation and come up with a plan for getting help. You can also reach out to a mental health counselor or therapist. They can help you work through the underlying issues that may be driving your shopping addiction.

    There are also a number of support groups available, both in-person and online. These can provide a great source of support and allow you to connect with others who are going through similar experiences. 

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Experian. Consumer debt continued to grow in 2021 amid economic uncertainty.

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  3. Niedermoser DW, Petitjean S, Schweinfurth N, et al. Shopping addiction: a brief review. Pract Innov. 2021. doi:10.1037/pri0000152

  4. Lo H-Y, Harvey N. Shopping without pain: compulsive buying and the effects of credit card availability in Europe and the Far East. J Econ Psychol. 2011;32:79-92. doi:10.1016/J.JOEP.2010.12.002

  5. Isham A, Verfuerth C, Armstrong A, Elf P, Gatersleben B, Jackson T. The problematic role of materialistic values in the pursuit of sustainable well-being. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022;19(6):3673. doi:10.3390/ijerph19063673

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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.