TRUE CONFESSIONS: I'm A Recovering Shopaholic

Tiffany Cowley

Photo: LearnVest / Tiffany Cowley

Tiffany Cowley, as told to Alden Wicker.Hi, my name is Tiffany, and I’m a recovering shopaholic.

I got my first credit card when I was in college. It had a 26% interest rate; it was definitely a “my first credit card” for students.

At the time, my father was paying for my tuition, but I had a job to pay for my living expenses. In other words, I didn’t have a ton of money to throw around.

The credit card, on the other hand, felt like free money. Don’t get me wrong—I knew that I was going to get a bill at the end of the month. But I didn’t fully grasp that it would need to be paid back eventually.

Even so, initially, I was fairly responsible. I would only use my card if I needed art supplies for class, or if it was the end of the month and I needed food. I tried to keep it reined in. But I was going to college in New York City, which has pretty incredible shopping.

And I like shopping.

Getting in Deep
Shoes were my gateway drug. It started when I went into a fabulous SoHo boutique where everything in the store was hundreds of dollars, and I picked out something special and put it on the card.

Some shopaholics feel guilty and try to justify their decisions, telling themselves, “I deserve this today!” Not me. I saw it, I wanted it, I had a credit card and I bought it. I felt totally guilt-free. Why not? I had this fabulous thing in my wardrobe, and it was my favourite thing I had ever bought.

But then, I was on to the next kill, the next most amazing thing I had ever bought.

It proceeded this way, with each shopping trip being only a single purchase: a really expensive pair of shoes or a really expensive coat. But then it turned into whole shopping excursions, like when I needed a t-shirt and would leave the store with $350 worth of clothes. When I got home and found myself hanging up five shirts and a dress and a coat in my closet, that’s when I started feeling really guilty. I realised that this problem was taking up physical space in my life.

It wasn’t even a status thing. I just really loved consuming. It made me feel good to own new things. I mean, it’s not like I was shopping in designer stores. I shopped in the same places as all my friends. I would just buy a lot more. That was my way of being reasonable, I guess.

I would tell myself, “Oh, I can pay my credit card back at the end of the month.” It was this game where I always said, “Tomorrow! Later!” It’s a pretty classic addict’s way of never taking responsibility.

The Turning Point
This went on for a couple years, and I started to feel overwhelmed. I was getting statements in the mail and barely making minimums. And now, I was using my credit card to pay for my basic essentials too, like food and school supplies, because my money was going toward this shopping habit. I had accrued $5,000 on a single credit card, with that 26% interest rate. I was only making minimum payments, and it was growing fast.

There wasn’t just one exact moment I remember as a turning point, just a gradual realisation that this had gotten out of hand, and that I needed to grow up and stop doing this before I graduated college.

Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to know what was driving my shopping addiction. When I was in the store, I coveted all the beautiful things I saw, and just had to own them. To break my habit, I still needed to get that feeling somehow, just in a less expensive way.

The Three Dwindling Steps of My Recovery

I figured out a three-step process to save me from myself. The general idea is to get the joy of acquiring items, to feel and touch the beautiful things I want, but to avoid blowing all my cash. Bit by bit, I was able to cut down on each step to make it more manageable (and more sane).

In the beginning:

I would go into a store and pick up everything I wanted to buy.

I would go try it on, make my ‘yes’ and ‘no’ piles, and then I would take the ‘yes’ pile to the register and buy all of it. I would take it all home and hang everything up in my closet.

The next day (or two or three days—sometimes it would take that long to convince myself I truly didn’t need those things), I would return it all to the store and get my money back.

I did this enough times to realise it wasn’t even owning that gave me that rush … it was the possibility of owning these things. From there, the process got shortened a little:

I would go into a store, pick up everything I wanted to own, go into the dressing room, try everything on, decide what I wanted to keep, and—this is important—walk around the store with it in my arms.

Then I put it all back, shirt by shirt, dress by dress, right where I found it.

In the final stage of my recovery, there was only one step. I didn’t even need to try anything on, just to feel it in my arms:

I picked up everything in the store that I liked, carried it around and then put it all back. I was leaving the store empty-handed and under control.

I had managed to tame my shopping addiction.

Staying Vigilant
Like any recovering addict, I could still relapse if I’m not careful. I’m still capable of going into a boutique and buying everything I see.

You know how you don’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry? I don’t go into a store when I’ve just read a fashion magazine. I go when I really need a new shirt, or a pair of jeans. If I find myself obsessing over a dress in the process of perusing the jeans, I’ll let myself try it on, and then put it back.

It’s been more than seven years since I graduated with $5,000 in credit card debt, and I’m proud to say that I’ve paid it all down.

My self-made, three-step program worked. And I haven’t gone into debt for shopping ever again.


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