German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin first defined “shopping addiction” in the early 1900s, per a 2012 review (PDF). He dubbed this disorder as “oniomania,” from the Greek words onios, (meaning “for sale”) and mania (meaning “madness”). It was defined as a type of impulsive behavior similar to kleptomania. Since then, people have used “shopping addiction” interchangeably with related terms such as “compulsive shopping,” “compulsive buying,” and “uncontrolled buying” to describe this behavioral disorder.
Problematic shopping addiction or compulsive buying, for example, is when a person continues to buy new things, regardless of whether they can afford them, says Pareen Sehat, a registered clinical counselor and clinical director at Well Beings Counselling in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. “They may face financial difficulties, but these negative effects still don’t stop them from shopping.”
Experts point out that the emotions experienced during compulsive buying — the urge to buy, the loss of control, and subsequent short-term positive feelings — are similar to those of a drug addiction. “The individual with a shopping addiction experiences the same rush or ‘high’ from buying things as someone who abuses drugs,” explains Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist for Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Connecticut. “The brain then associates shopping with this pleasure and the person wants to try and recreate it again and again.”
Today, many mental health providers do recognize compulsive buying as a behavioral problem. But it’s important to point out that the latest update of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) — the guidelines published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) for diagnosing clinical mental health disorders — does not include it as a diagnosable disorder. A 2014 review has suggested that this is due to a lack of clear criteria to diagnose the behavior. In a 2021 statement, the APA noted that it’s still unclear how to classify a true shopping addiction — and that shopping addiction may be a sign of a psychiatric or behavioral disorder, rather than a disorder in its own right. (Other research has noted that shopping addiction often happens alongside psychiatric and behavioral conditions, including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, eating disorders, and substance use disorders.)
So while someone might experience addictive-like behaviors associated with shopping, mental health professionals are more likely to diagnose this as a behavioral problem associated with other mental health conditions, and not as a separate mental illness. It’s important to keep this in mind as we further explore shopping addiction throughout the rest of this article.
Finally, while the debate around how to classify shopping addiction is ongoing, it’s important to restate that a fondness for shopping is not the same as a shopping addiction. And if you notice that your shopping has become a frequent habit, that doesn’t mean that you’re addicted either. But if you have concerns about your shopping habits, there are certainly steps you can take to address them — more on that below.