Last year at Christmas, my neighbor Amanda’s mother arrived at her house with a car full of presents—“60,” Amanda recalled, “for four people.” Amanda nearly made her turn around and go home. “I was so angry,” she said. “She buys things for us obsessively, even though I’ve repeatedly asked her not to. Twice a week, she watches my son and every time she shows up with a bag of things she’s ‘picked up here and there.’ Last Tuesday—two weeks before Christmas—it was three pairs of socks for me, a Lego set, a holiday dish towel, and a collar for the cat.”
For Amanda, her mother’s over-giving was an annoyance—just more stuff to have to squeeze into their already-tight home—as well as a conflict with her chosen style of parenting, through which she tried to emphasize the value of earning what you’re given. But it was also a financial concern: Her mother was retired and lived on social security. “If she blows through her savings on stuff for other people, who do you think will be called on to pay for her when she really needs it?” she said. “Which means it’s really my money that’s being squandered on socks and needless toys.”
According to a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, about 6 percent of women and 5.5 percent of men buy compulsively. The reasons vary: For some, the act of buying an item—picking it out, taking it home—can create a rush of pleasure like that brought on by alcohol. The act of shopping—and then shopping some more—can also be a way to deal with chaos and regain a feeling of control. For still others, it is simply a learned habit brought on by a culture steeped in materialism.
Although those who suffer from shopping addictions tend to feel the impulse to buy throughout the year, the holidays present an added challenge. For one thing, a season full of sanctioned shopping provides an “excuse” for many to indulge their addiction. Endless sales offer ample temptation. Of course, addictive giving generally has less to do with the needs of others and more to do with using gifts as a tool. Grandparents in particular may often fall prey to overbuying out of a desire to be a part of their grandchildren’s lives, to compete with the other grandparents, or because it’s how they feel they can most clearly express their love.
Good intentions, of course, don’t make it okay. For those affected by compulsive giving, like Amanda, the best method—despite the potential for conflict—is to address the issue head on. Tell the over-giver that while you truly appreciate the thought and generosity, you’d like their help limiting the number of gifts brought into the house. Try to channel their energies—and their wallets—towards, as Amanda put it, “Less stuff, more experiences,” suggesting that this year her mother spend money towards a family vacation or swim lessons for the kids instead of presents. Or try letting the gift giver know that space is tight and you’re in “purging” mode; any thing she wants to buy should be kept at her own house, or it will be donated to charity.
If initiating a conversation doesn’t work, suggest he or she turn their compulsive buying focus toward helping out a woman’s shelter or children’s hospital, many of which run donation campaigns around the holidays, and throughout the year. The “addict” gets the satisfaction the purchase provides, while someone truly in need reaps the benefits. It’s not a fix, but then you can’t change others. You can only change how you react to them.