It's the rare person who doesn't overspend during the holidays.
Come January though, when the bills start coming in, most of us cut back and tighten our financial belts until our budgets are back in balance.
That's not the case with individuals with oniomania, (the word derives from the Greek "onios," meaning "for sale," and "mania" meaning madness). Better known as shopping addicts or compulsive buyers, these people tend to spend like it's Christmas throughout the year and their obsessive drive to acquire can lead to financial and personal disaster.
For them, the winter shopping season is one of the most difficult times of the year — the equivalent of St. Patrick's Day or New Year's Eve for individuals with alcohol problems," says psychologist Dr. David Tolin, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center and director of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, who treats shopping addicts at his clinics.
"At this time of year, retailers are bombarding us with advertisements and enticements to shop and spend," says Tolin. "Everyone's on a shopping high. For someone who can't control their spending, it's irresistible."
Estimates are that two to eight percent of Americans suffer from the disorder and most are women. Compulsive spenders come from all socio-economic levels, have an inability to defer gratification and are hooked on the thrill of purchasing — often expensive, status brands.
Easy access to online shopping can add to the addiction.
"Being able to log on to your computer and purchase things with a few clicks is like a crack delivery system for the shopaholic," notes Tolin, who is featured on "My Shopping Addiction," a reality show on the Oxygen Network.
While society tends to make light of the condition with romantic comedies like the hit movie, "Confessions of a Shopaholic," Tolin says there's nothing amusing about running up credit card debt, borrowing from friends and family to feed your buying habit and not being able to pay rent or buy food.
"When this behavior causes serious financial problems and takes over someone's life, it's an issue as serious as a gambling addiction, and it's very difficult to treat." says Tolin. "Often people are in denial that they even have a problem. And you can't just tell someone not to go into a store again. You have to help them learn to cope with the feelings and compulsions that drive them to over acquire, as well as retail environments that encourage them to keep buying."
Avis Cardella, author of "Spent" Memoirs of a Shopping Addict," says shopping was her drug of choice. She spent hours in stores each day, went without food to buy Prada and other designer clothes that she never wore and ran up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
After years of overspending and with debt collectors hounding her, she finally admitted she had a problem, went to a credit counselor and formed a payment plan. She also developed a coping method she calls "mindful consumption."
"Compulsive shoppers, and recovering compulsive shoppers, may be particularly susceptible to emotional triggers, and stores go out of their way to push our emotional triggers during the holidays: nostalgic music, evocative scents, pumpkin, cinnamon, flashing lights, and elaborate displays," said Cardella, in an emailed interview.