Going on a spender

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 July, 2006, 12:00am

LAST MONTH, ALICE treated herself to a little trinket. Getting dressed for a night out with the girls, she put on a new Matthew Williamson dress, Jimmy Choo shoes and her favourite peridot ring.

But a last-minute appraisal left her feeling that something was still missing - and she knew what it was. On her way into Central she popped into Prince's Building and bought herself the finishing touch: a $38,000 lime peridot necklace.

Alice loves to shop. She adores Dolce & Gabbana, Collette Dinnigan and Prada, but her shopping isn't limited to designer labels. Buying a $900 cake for her daughter's birthday last week, she spotted a large cake stand she simply had to have - you never know when you might need to display 38 cup cakes at once. She left the store having spent more than $5,000.

And a holiday just isn't a holiday for Alice without some retail therapy. Frustrated at the lack of boutiques on a luxurious Australian resort island, Alice found herself compulsively buying magazines and treats from the small hotel gift shop. 'I got to Cairns International Airport and spent thousands of dollars before flying home,' says Alice. 'I miss shopping if I don't go for a week.'

Alice's behaviour may not be unusual in a town of excess such as Hong Kong. Psychologist Susan Mistler says that what's socially accepted in a big city may be seen as over the top elsewhere. If you shop simply to have fun and you have the means, she says, then why not? Problems arise when spending money becomes a habit you have no control over.

'I would say addiction is any behaviour that's self-destructive and done repetitively, where the elements are an unhealthy response to discomfort that the person is experiencing. They seek pleasure pathologically and compulsively. It becomes a habit that people aren't in control of, instead it starts to control them.'

Can shopping be considered as an addiction? Certainly, says Mistler. 'I've seen people who suffer from other problems, perhaps depression, and the way they try to alleviate that is to go shopping and spend lots of money. There's an immediate release.'

Mistler says the test is to ask if the behaviour is causing a long-term problem. 'The more important question is, 'Does this behaviour prevent you from dealing with the real issues?'

'A mood disturbance? Problems in your marriage? Shopping is a response to something, an emptiness, a sadness. Is it gratifying something? Is it an unhealthy response that prevents more healthy coping mechanisms?'

Lucy also loves to shop. It's an integral part of her weekly routine. But unlike Alice, she can't afford extravagant excesses - although that doesn't stop her buying. 'If I'm feeling fat or down, I'd rather spend money on clothes or jewellery than go to a spa or have a massage. It makes me feel good.' Lucy says she now owes more than $800,000 on credit cards and loans. 'I have to find money for school fees, rent, car payments and so on. I know I should be more careful at this time in my life. I should be saving, not spending - but I find it really hard to stop.

'Sometimes I'll lie to my husband or friends that I'm working late when really I'm going shopping. And I'll hide the bags when I get home. I do feel guilty, and the amount we owe stresses me out. But I still don't stop. Instead, I spread the purchases over credit cards. I've even split a payment over two cards.'

Mistler says that shopping can even be more gratifying if you don't have they money. 'You have to work out what the behaviour means, what's the gratifying element,' she says. 'For some alcoholics, it's getting the buzz; for others, it's disinhibition - being someone you can't otherwise be. It's a grandiose high.'

Lucy admits that her shopping is partly driven by the need to keep up with her peers. 'A friend just turned 40 and her husband bought her a four-carat diamond ring. It's my 10th wedding anniversary next month, and I want the same. Why wouldn't I? There's a lot of money in this town, and when you're surrounded by fantastic shops, seductive advertising, and people with so much, it's hard not to want it as well.'

For people like Lucy and Alice, there is help. For one thing, a new drug called Nalmefene promises to help control addictive behaviour by making the experience - such as shopping, gambling or drinking - less thrilling and compelling.

Mistler says treatments differ for each person. 'I look at their level of motivation - are they able to help themselves, and what's their level of self-reflection. Generally, by the time I see people, their behaviour has started to ruin aspects of their lives, and is controlling them. Some people can use therapy alone, some need medication, or both. Cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, can be extremely effective.'

For those who see themselves in Lucy or Alice's stories, Mistler has these final words of advice: Think about the consequences of your actions.

'If you have a lot of money and you're gambling, for instance, and it doesn't have a financial impact - that may be fine. But if you're gambling, even if you have a lot of money, and it starts to feel like a compulsion, then you're entering the addictive range.'