"I'm a compulsive shopper"
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"I'm a compulsive shopper"

Buying things made Kelly feel better until she got the bills and had to hide them from Rich.

She says

Kelly, 32, is a media buyer whose out-of-control buying sprees have put her on the brink of financial disaster and left her eight-year marriage to Rich in ruins. Here's how Jane Greer, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in New York City, and co-author, with LHJ.com contributor Margery D. Rosen of Gridlock: Finding the Courage to Move on in Love, Work and Life (Doubleday, 2000) helped them figure out what went wrong and how they could resurrect their relationship.


Kelly: Last night, Rich told me he wants a divorce. I had just confessed that I'd gotten us in debt for more than $20,000. Over the last few years, I've been buying furniture and accessories for our home, clothing and shoes for myself--and lying to Rich about it all. I'm mortified and scared. I don't think he'll forgive me.

Greer: Kelly is deeply depressed and afraid. She has a great deal of shame over her pattern of overspending but as you'll see, there's also a touch of defensiveness in her attitude: She thinks her husband isn't there for her in many ways, and because of this, she feels her actions are somewhat justified. Of course, she never imagined they would lead to such disastrous consequences.

Kelly: Since we each handle all of our personal bills, and I'm in charge of joint things like the mortgage and phone bill, I was making the minimum payment and Rich never knew how serious the situation really was. Meanwhile, I just blocked everything out, rationalizing and justifying my purchases. I fell into the habit of charging everything. When I maxed out on one credit card, I used another. I can't explain the rush, the feeling of euphoria almost, that I'd get when I was buying something. I wouldn't think about the fact that I didn't have the money to pay for it; I just thought about how much I needed it. I'd buy clothes, some of which still have the labels on; shoes--the same style in different colors; compact discs I never listened to; jewelry, handbags; pillows for the couch; a Cuisinart--two in fact, one is a mini-version. Later, I felt anxious and ashamed--but not enough to keep me from buying something else the next time I wandered into a store on my lunch hour or had a little time to kill. I honestly don't know if Rich ever noticed. He certainly never said anything. I never wanted to hurt him; all I could think about was how I wanted the world to know that Kelly and Rich have done well.

Greer: For most couples, money is the last taboo. However, before Kelly and Rich can solve their marital problems, they need to look at the underlying meaning that money has for each of them, and the childhood messages they received that dominate their feelings about the subject. That's the only way they will understand why they did the things they did--and the only way they'll be able to change these patterns in the future.

Kelly: I'm the youngest of seven kids--I was a mistake, actually, or so my mother always told me. My father was a retired Navy pilot whose whole life had been the military. When that ended, drinking became his whole life. My mother has a history of mental illness--after each child was born, she would spend months in the hospital. My father tried to get her the help she needed--the doctors diagnosed her as schizophrenic--but she's always refused to take any medication. Now that all of us have moved out, she actually seems a little better, though she still behaves strangely and is in a fog most of the day.

I remember coming home from school and Mother would be smoking a cigarette, sitting in the same chair she'd been in when I left that morning. She did bizarre things--one day when I was 11 she gave away my beloved dog. No reason, no explanation--she just took him to the pound, and by the time I found out, he'd been put sleep.

The house was always a mess and Mother rarely cooked. We'd usually have frozen waffles or cereal for dinner. If Dad were home, he'd make hamburgers or hot dogs. My older sister pretty much took me under her wing--I used to tag along with her and her friends. I never felt I could bring any friends home because I was worried that my dad would be drunk or my mother would be staring at the wall.

Money was always an issue--we just never had enough. I couldn't go to the movies or bowling, because I couldn't pay. We did get Christmas presents, but never birthday presents, and only rarely new clothes. If my father ever found out that Mother took one of us shopping, he'd fly into a rage. Hand-me-downs were the rule, though, once in a while, Mother would sneak things into the house so Dad wouldn't know.

Greer: Kelly grew up in a home that was not only erratic, it was essentially barren of love and dominated by a mother who most likely suffered from a mental illness. Kelly and her siblings never knew what to expect from one day to the next. Their alcoholic father, when he was around, was controlling and often verbally abusive. A child who grows up in such an environment will seek to have her emotional needs met in other ways. Kelly finds comfort in material things, and she uses them to fill the need for love and support she never had as a child.

Kelly: I met Rich in tenth grade--and hated him! But by our senior year, he'd grown up and we started dating. We have so much in common--in some ways, his family life was very similar to mine so not only could he relate to what I was dealing with, he could help me through it.

We became inseparable and it was hard leaving for college in the fall. Rich went to the local college and I won a scholarship to a school near Chicago. I missed him terribly, and the following year, transferred back home. We were married one month after we graduated. Rich found a job as a civil engineer with a construction company and I found one at an ad agency downtown. We bought a charming, ramshackle house that needed tons of work. We did all of it ourselves; in fact, that's basically all we did for five years. The renovation drained us financially, but I loved every minute of it. As I said, I was determined to have a beautiful home. It was the beginning of my slide into debt.

When we got married, I told Rich I didn't want a joint checking account because I didn't want to answer to him for things I wanted to buy, like my mother always had to do. As far as I was concerned, my money was mine and his money was his. We agreed to split everything--mortgage, utilities, and so on. Though Rich has always made more than me, we never argued about money. But it did make me insane when he'd tell me from time to time that he didn't want to pay his share of the cost and I had to wait to buy something. For a long time, we had no furniture upstairs except our bed and an old dresser. Rich refused to use a penny of our savings to buy one a nice one. "We have to hold onto savings for our retirement," he kept insisting.

Look, I do understand that--I've never missed a payment for my 401(k)--but there's a difference between being smart and being cheap. I didn't think we have to scrimp. We've never gone on vacation in twelve years because he hates to spend money. When my college roommate got married in California, Rich refused to go because he didn't want to spend the money for two plane fares.

Greer: Kelly and Rich clearly have very different money personalities. He's too cautious and she's too extravagant. A person's spending style reveals more than you realize about who you are and what you stand for--and if it clashes with that of your spouse, it's time to sit down and do some talking and changing. You can work out cash conflicts with your mate by having regular meetings about money--at least once a month, more frequently if you're facing a job loss, salary cut or a big payment for say, a car, home improvement or college tuition. Each of you must be fully informed of the details of your family's finances. Don't try to talk money when you're exhausted, stressed out or just received a notice from your bank that you've overdrawn your checking account. You both need to be calm and not overly emotional. If tempers run high, take a breather and adjourn your discussion for another time. It's always a good idea to put your financial goals and priorities in writing--being as specific as you can. Here's where you'll see that your spouse was planning on saving that tax refund for next summer's vacation, while you're expecting to put it toward your kid's college fund. If priorities don't mesh, find room for compromise. If you can't, consider consulting a financial planner who can help you stretch your budget or inform you about changes in the tax laws you may not be aware of. However, if money arguments go in circles, they may be masking deeper conflicts. Seek the help of a marriage therapist instead.

Kelly: Four years ago, Rich was offered a position with a terrific company that was based up in the mountains. He'd always wanted to live there and was dying to take the job since it demanded a lot more of him professionally. I was very reluctant. I didn't want to sell our house, or leave our friends, and besides, I was so much in debt, if we made a move, I knew he'd find out. Finally, I realized I could just ask him to sign the mortgage application forms, fill in the rest myself, and he'd never know exactly what our financial situation was.

Well, our house sold about six hours after we put it on the market and we did move. I was miserable. I resented leaving a job I loved, and though I found a new one fairly easily, the hours were longer and the pay was less. I started to get very depressed--just as my husband was blossoming. He loved his work, loved being away from the city grind. When my old company offered me an even better job than I'd had before, I jumped at the chance. After much discussion, we moved back to Denver a year ago. Rich went grudgingly, but I was ecstatic. Of course, all my old clothes were outdated, and we bought another house. More spending.

Sometimes I justify my purchases as a way of getting back at Rich. Ever since we returned to Denver, he's changed. He's very bitter and distant--he's clearly upset with me for making him move. He never wants to go anywhere or do anything. When we first started dating I was struck by how funny he was and all the different things he liked to do--skiing, mountain biking, hiking. Now he claims he hates crowds, hates noise and doesn't enjoy going to movies or parties. All he wants to do is sit home, watching a video or working on the house. His idea of a fun weekend activity is digging a ditch for the gutter to drain into or raking pine needles. He even gets upset if I go to dinner with a friend since he thinks I should be spending the time with him. Well, I'd like to--but not if it means staying home every night! I can never make him understand how lonely and unhappy I am. His answer to any problem is to hop into bed. Does he really think I want to make love when so much of the time, he acts as if I don't exist?

Greer: The emotional high of such non-stop shopping, as well as the "I'll-show-him" revenge scenario that Kelly opted for, is fleeting. Call it a shopping hangover. As Kelly discovered, you're still the same person, with all the same problems, but now you've got a huge credit card bill to deal with as well.

Kelly: During this time, we'd also been trying to have a baby. At this point, the doctors don't think I'll ever be able to get pregnant: I had an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured when I was 26 and they removed one tube then. The other is so badly damaged that it's useless. We've talked about adopting, but we just can't make a decision.

So I also bought things to make myself feel better. But now I can't even make the minimum payments on a single card and I don't know what I'm going to do. I realize I need help--desperately. Why couldn't I be honest? Why did I ruin my life and, worse, Rich's life? He's the one person who means more to me than anyone else. Will he ever trust me again?

He says


Rick: I don't think I've ever been so angry in my life. We talked for hours and, at 3 a.m., I told Kelly I wanted a divorce. I don't want to go through this again. By morning, I realized I should at least give counseling a try. I do love her. I've always loved her. But I feel completely betrayed. I can't understand how she could do this. This is a nightmare for me; everything that happened to my Dad is happening to me.

Greer: Rich is understandably furious, but instead of seeing his wife's actions as a cry for help, he takes them as a deeply personal insult.

Rich: My mother, like Kelly's, struggled with psychological problems. She's manic-depressive and, for long periods of time when I was growing up, I had to live with my grandparents since she couldn't take care of my brothers or me. Mother was never physically violent, but when she was having one of her episodes, she'd scream, throw things, curse us out. It was very frightening. Dad did the best he could, but I know he was miserable. He owned his own dry-cleaning business and he tried to be both mother and father to us. My parents fought constantly, and when I was 15, they finally divorced. Mother moved to Oregon, and my brothers and I stayed here in Colorado with Dad. Though Mother and I talk from time to time, I rarely see her.

I think money was the main reason my parents split. My dad worked very hard to build up his business--and my mother worked very hard to spend every penny he earned. She wasted money on junk--ugly artwork, knickknacks for the house, funky furniture. Dad would freak out every time he opened the credit card bill. Once, when I was about seven, Mother took off on a three-week vacation to Hawaii without telling Dad she was going. She sent us a postcard. So you can see why Kelly's total disregard for my feelings and our future hurts so much.

Greer: In many ways, Rich's background is strikingly similar to Kelly's and it's not hard to see why financial security looms so large for him. Rich's mother destroyed his father and the family by overspending. Now, despite all his careful financial planning, Rich is afraid that he and Kelly are facing the same dismal future. What's more, having watched his mother, a manic depressive, swing from a loving mood to an abusive one, Rich learned to compensate by pulling inward when he feels emotionally threatened. That's exactly what he started to do when his marital problems began. Instead of addressing the issue of Kelly's spending directly, or his own anger and unhappiness about giving up his idyllic country life to return to the city, Rich sensed a problem but ignored it and hoped he was wrong. At the same time, he unwittingly shut Kelly out of his life, refusing to talk or engage in any of the activities that had brought them so much happiness early on. Feeling hurt, angry and unloved, Kelly sought comfort in her credit cards.

Rich: Frankly, Kelly's behavior is baffling. I'm so utterly disappointed, it's difficult to put my feelings into words. In the beginning, our relationship was so special. Kelly and I could talk about anything and everything and we had so much fun! She was interested in so many things--things that didn't involve money. But over the years, she's changed. She's become almost single-minded in her determination to buy whatever she wants when she wants it. It's almost as if she thinks that if she wants something bad enough, she can will the money to be there. She's stopped caring about what's important to me--our future financial security. I don't think I should have to apologize for that.

As Kelly said, I hate the city. I hate traffic jams and waiting in line for an hour to eat in even an ordinary restaurant on a Tuesday night. I loved everything about our lifestyle in the mountains. My job--I'm an environmental engineer and I was working on state projects--was challenging, stable and provided great benefits. I knew I'd have that position for life if I wanted it--how many people can say that these days? We'd discussed at great length what the move up there would mean for both us--but before we'd even been there a month, it was clear Kelly was unhappy. When she started talking about going back to Denver, the quarreling began. Luckily, I didn't have trouble finding another position, though I'm not particularly thrilled with my work or the benefits. I try to roll with the punches.

When we first married, I assumed Kelly and I were on the same wavelength about money. It's sort of ironic now: When Kelly first told me she didn't want a joint checking account, I was actually relieved. I thought that meant she'd be spending only her money and I didn't have to worry that she'd fritter away mine. I've certainly tried to discuss a budget and savings plan with her over the years, but whenever I brought it up, she'd get testy and we'd end up in a fight.

When I found out what she'd done that first time, I went into a near panic. Fortunately, we were able to get a loan and Kelly swore she'd never be so profligate again. Of course, I was worried and suspicious. Many times, I bit my tongue when she came home with a new dress, or ordered new pillows for the couch. I'm not an idiot. She asked me to trust her, and I did. That's why I didn't tell her to rip up her credit cards the first time. She'd promised she'd be careful, and I assumed that if she assured me she had the money, she was good to her word. Besides, when I questioned her, she always had a sound, reasonable answer. I knew she was making a decent salary, though to be honest, I don't know exactly how much a women's dress or couch pillows cost. I never checked because I assumed I could trust her.

Greer: Although Rich's M.O. of playing turtle may have worked to protect him when he was younger, it's not working now. In fact, it's exacerbating this couple's problems, and in this sense, he shares some responsibility for the marital rift. Placing all the blame on Kelly is obvious and easy. The better way: Rich should address the issue of Kelly's spending directly. He needs to vent his anger and unhappiness, and insist that his wife discuss what is important to him, even though speaking up about difficult topics is tough for him.

Rich: It's obvious I can't trust her at all. I'm pretty old-fashioned. In my family, you never asked anyone else to help you solve your problems; you did it yourself. So I'm not very keen on being here. But the truth is, I want to save my marriage. I'm sure some of the problems we're having are my fault as much as hers. Besides, what else do I have to lose?

And then


Greer: Although compulsive shoppers like Kelly often spend to fight off depression (hers was triggered by the fact that she's starved for love and affection) Kelly is also using it to gain a sense of security and control. There is a similarity between Kelly's father's alcoholism and her own addiction to shopping. Indeed, addictive behaviors often run in families. Whereas her father sought happiness and a sense of control in the bottle; she's trying to find it in a new dress or an accumulation of things around her. Ultimately, she discovered that trying to gain emotional sustenance that way is an empty quest.

Rich needs to make some connections to his past, as well. He's responding to his wife in much the same way he reacted to his mother. What's more, he's assuming that the past will be repeated in the present. He needs to acknowledge that to a certain extent he has been allowing his life to run on automatic pilot. Now, it's time to take the helm.

Understanding the connection to their pasts gave Kelly and Rich encouragement about the future. They began to make concrete changes in their lives to get this marriage back on track. First, they consulted a financial planner, who reviewed their finances, helped them consolidate their debts and establish a system for paying them off, as well as set unbreakable rules for spending and saving. Although keeping separate checking accounts was important to both of them, Kelly cut back to only one credit card, to be used only in emergencies and, even then, the bill must be paid by the end of the month. She pays cash for purchases, waiting to buy something until she has the money. The planner reassured Rich that since their 401(k) plans were intact, they were on solid ground for the future. Many times, people who are compulsively frugal are often in far better financial shape than they think.

Part of Kelly and Rich's financial strategy involved setting aside money for reasonable personal spending as well as for fun--something sorely missing in their relationship. When Kelly feels deprived, her internal regulator goes awry. If she feels she has some control over her purchases, and if she feels a connection with Rich, she has less need to overspend.

Several "homework assignments" helped significantly. First, they established a date night--every Thursday--and each took turns choosing the evening activity. This wasn't easy for Rich, since he was bothered by crowds, traffic and having to make plans in advance. Simply arriving at a day and time took much discussion, but Kelly was thrilled to know that they'd be doing something together. The first week, she suggested going to a new English pub that had just opened in their neighborhood and having fish and chips. The second week, Rich suggested an evening picnic in the park. This structured activity has forced Rich to get out of the house and he surprised himself that he had such a good time.

Once Rich saw that Kelly was following their new plan, his anger subsided. Slowly, as he became more responsive to the counseling and was able to admit the part he played in the cycle, the tension eased even more. In time, as they rebuilt their old camaraderie and trust, they were able to discuss what was missing from their relationship--and what they both hoped for in the future. This kind of deeper communication, on a regular basis, is easy for busy, two-career couples to dismiss. Over the course of several months, for example, they discussed the issue of children and decided that they don't want to have any after all. "As the doctor's said, it's doubtful that I will be able to conceive," Kelly explained. "Given our family problems and career choices, we both want to pour all are energies into our marriage. I'm not sure we'd have enough left over to raise a family, too." Rich still worries that the mail may bring some unexpected bill: "It's going to take time," he said. "But at least we're working together on this now." It's important that they are honest with themselves, and are listening and hearing each other in a whole different way. Those are the qualities that will help them overcome the legacy of family problems--and build a happier, healthier future.--Margery D. Rosen