Is My Spending an Addiction?

This Wellcast features Nashville psychotherapist, Michael Murphy, talking about emotional spending, ways to recognize it, and how to address unhealthy behaviors.

Begin Transcript

Rosemary Cope:  Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt Health and Wellness Wellcast.  I'm Rosemary Cope with Work/Life Connections. 

We are speaking today with Michael Murphy, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and a CPG, which is a Certified Group Psychotherapist.  She is a native of Washington, D.C., and along with being a psychotherapist, she has had a career in theatre, producing and directing plays in the D.C. area. 

Say you've had a stressful work week, a period of conflict in a relationship, or even some financial strain.  Many of us find that retail therapy is a way to cope because it boosts our mood, but if it turns into spending beyond our means, then we might have a problem.  Michael, can you tell our listeners exactly what constitutes emotional spending and how can we recognize it in our own lives?

Michael Murphy:  There are internal and external factors here.  Sometimes people will recognize that, gosh, I seem to be spending a lot of money, but usually people are first confronted with external factors - a second or third notice on a bill or maxed out credit cards or a family member or partner who says, "Where did this bill come from," or, "Do you really need another pair of shoes; you haven't worn the last three you've bought."  Those kinds of things can bring this to a person's awareness, that maybe there is something going on that's a problem.

Rosemary Cope:  There are lots of jokes made about people who we call "shopaholics."

Michael Murphy:  Yes.

Rosemary Cope:  If I spend too much, does that make me an addict?

Michael Murphy:  That's a really good question, and the answer is, "Maybe."  Of course, spending too much is not subjective.  Like some could say, "Oh, you spent too much for that scarf; you could have gotten a dollar off over here."  But if I take your question to mean "a large amount," more than our household budget or a personal budget can bear, it could be an addiction, especially if it meets these criteria.  There are three criteria that are guidelines for addiction, whether it is a substance or a process addiction like this.  The first criterion is - it has become too important.  I've got to do this, got to have it, got to have it now.  I don't care who gets mad.  I must have this now.

Rosemary Cope:  So, there's a sense of urgency about it?

Michael Murphy:  Yes.  It's just too important, yes.  The other one is - loss of control.  "I'm only going to spend 50 dollars today - that's my limit," but then it's 800.  The third criterion is continued behavior despite losses or negative consequences, like big conflict or more stress or going into bankruptcy.  It's like - I have a new credit card!  That's addictive.  Plus, the other thing I would add to those criteria are - a desire to hide or minimize.  "If I put these in the garage, I won't bring the bag in," or, "I'm going to hide this bill."  Anything you have to hide is probably a problem.

Rosemary Cope:  Listening to you tell me that, it can also cause real problems in our personal relationships.

Michael Murphy:  Major.  Major.  There's even something I call "fiscal or financial infidelity."  When I work with couples, for example, if they have finances as a conflict or stress point, I suggest that they agree on, okay, anything over $100, you consult your partner.

Rosemary Cope:  If I've got that, "I need to have it" feeling about it, or I want to hide it, or I can't seem to delay getting it for any reason whatsoever, these are some warning signs that I might have a problem behavior on my hands.

Michael Murphy:  It's true.  The thing that I would say is a lot of times people get into this emotional spending or compulsive spending because they have a low tolerance for unpleasant or difficult feelings like anxiety, boredom, depression, wanting to avoid conflict, and so they can have a sense of mastery over something.  They can buy this.  They can have this.  They can have this plan and execute it.  But just like any other kind of addiction, it's a temporary response. 

Rosemary Cope:  So, now that we can recognize it, what can somebody do to control those kinds of behaviors?

Michael Murphy:  Well, I always kind of wrestle with that word "control."

Rosemary Cope:  "Address."

Michael Murphy:  Well, address, certainly, and that's what we are starting to do now.  I like "manage" better, but even better than that, I like "resolve."  But to manage the behaviors, there are things you can do.   I mean, the compulsion to spend takes so much time as well as money.  It's a waste.  It's a use, poorly, of time and money.  But if you could think of things that would, could take some time, but that would be good for yourself.

Rosemary Cope:  So, healthy distractors.

Michael Murphy:  Healthy, yes, or anything that is life-enhancing, yeah, definitely.

Rosemary Cope:  So, if I, or someone I love, needs support, what are some available resources for me?

Michael Murphy:  You know what?  When I was anticipating this question, I went online, and there are tons of books written with cute titles like Spent or To Buy or Not To Buy for those Shakespearean folks out there.  There are some 12-step groups like AA.  The one that I liked the sound of the most was called "Spenders Anonymous."  Their website is and on their site, they have a little thing of 12 steps, just like a typical 12-step program, and this could help with managing symptoms.  You could have little, you could get a friend, have a spending buddy.  An accountability partner is another possible resource and that helps with the strategy and the externals, but for the internal, what I was calling to "resolve" the problem, is individual therapy or group therapy, where you really get to the source of it, where you are not just addressing the symptom.  You could explore and heal the wound of earlier life, early childhood, family of origin stuff.  That would really help to heal a person where they don't feel that compulsion to reach out.  The biggest thing that is needed is healthy attachments, authentic relationships, and it takes a while to build those and to deal with various things that arise in those relationships. The books, 12 steps, and also individual or group therapy would be very helpful for this.

Rosemary Cope:  Great ideas, and thank you for helping us to at least briefly explore what's going on when somebody is confronting these issues in their own life.

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