Everyday Cheapskate mug

Mary Hunt

You can own 85 pairs of shoes and 100 DVD's and not suffer from shopaholism. The test, experts say, is if you spend so much time and money shopping that it negatively affects your finances and your relationships.

How can you tell? Here are four signs you might need help, according to April Benson, a psychologist who specializes in treating shopaholics and author of "To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop":

You feel overwhelmed by your need to buy things. Compulsive buyers often buy things they don't need or can't afford. They buy things just because they're on sale or feel an overwhelming urge to buy something — anything — and don't care what they bring home. If you've ever gone shopping for a white blouse and came home with a purple blouse, shoes, pants and new throw pillows, too, you know what I'm talking about.

You shop to change your mood. Benson says that "overspenders" often hit the stores to give themselves a treat — because they've had a bad day, feel sad, depressed, disappointed or lonely. Or just need a little reward.

Your spending habits are impacting your personal life. Shopaholics and overspenders often suffer from worry, guilt, remorse or shame. Their out-of-control spending causes family conflicts — even divorce. Shopping addicts often hide their shopping purchases and lie to their spouses to avoid arguments or confrontations.

Your overshopping is destroying your finances. You may be a shopaholic if you don't have an emergency fund, keep looking for new credit cards, the accounts you have already are maxed out or you take cash advances on one card to cover the payment on another. If you're living on the financial edge because you can never seem to save any money, it's time to take a long, hard look at what's really going on.

If you think you might be a shopaholic, the question is, "How do I stop?" Benson says that shopaholics can try therapy, Debtors Anonymous, antidepressants or all three. Whatever path you choose, follow these steps:

1. No more debt. Lock up the credit cards and pay for everything you buy at the moment you make the purchase.

2. Avoid temptation. Don't go to garage sales or wander around discount clubs and shopping malls. Don't watch the shopping channels or surf the Internet. Throw away all mail-order catalogs as they arrive.

3. Keep a diary. Accountability must become your personal watchword. Record every expenditure and the way you are feeling at the moment you make it.

4. Create a spending plan. Rehearse every purchase. Plan your shopping. Use a written list, and then stick to it.

You can get support from other overspenders at Debtors Anonymous meetings, a 12-step program similar to Alcoholics Anonymous. For more information and links to meetings in your area, go to DebtorsAnonymous.org or call 781-453-2743.

Mary invites questions at mary@everydaycheapskate.com, or c/o Everyday Cheapskate, P.O. Box 2099, Cypress, CA 90630. This column will answer questions of general interest, but letters cannot be answered individually. Mary Hunt is the founder of www.DebtProofLiving.com, a personal finance member website and the author of "The Smart Woman's Guide to Planning for Retirement," released in 2013.