As Black Friday approaches, American consumers are ready to shop again— even if it means spending severance checks. Before you max out the credit card, see where you fall on the Compulsive Buying Scale.
The holiday buying season is around the corner, and happily there are alleged “green shoots” sprouting along Madison Avenue and Rodeo Drive, even up through cracked parking lots that surround what suburban malls have weathered the storm. People, it would appear, are feeling the good old Buy Itch again. It is thus an opportune moment to make sure we all understand the difference between going way, way overboard and merely throwing off the yoke of “frugal fatigue” such that we can return to our everyday, profligate, more or less normal ways. Question is: Where’s the line between frisky buying and ruinous buying? What exactly is the difference between a certifiable shopaholic and, well, you or me (or, more likely, our spouse or partner), that is, someone who buys things because it feels good, and to hell if they aren’t needed or affordable?
Researchers were struck by the similarities they perceived between those who can’t walk away from a gambling table and those who can’t walk out of store without a shopping bag (not infrequently, they’re the same people).
Well, there’s an accepted, seven-step test that’s now regarded as the gold standard when it comes to distinguishing the truly out-of-control buyer from the kind of man or woman we might be living with. It’s called the Compulsive Buying Scale, and it was developed back in 1992 (eight years after Princess Di was first adjudged to be a “shopaholic” in the pages of The Washington Post, nine years before Sophie Kinsella published the first of her bottomless oeuvre).
A couple of years ago, in connection with book research I was doing, I visited one of the co-authors of the screener, Thomas O’Guinn, a scholar who plumbs “the sociology of consumer behavior” from a perch at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. I asked O’Guinn how the CBS came to be. He said that he and a colleague, Ronald J. Faber, another prominent consumer-behavior don, more or less just thought of it one day while attending an academic conference in Las Vegas. They were struck by the similarities they perceived between those who can’t walk away from a gambling table and those who can’t walk out of store without a shopping bag (not infrequently, they’re the same people). O’Guinn told me that they’d been thinking about compulsive buying for a few years prior, notably the premise that it’s the buying experience itself, not that which is bought, that drives the compulsive to the mall. Like many of their peers, he said, they’d already bought into the idea that those afflicted with compulsive shopping turn to it as a way to alleviate tension and anxiety, and that a definite connection existed between compulsive buying and low self-esteem (though which is the cause, which the result, remains a matter of debate).
In any case, after a few years of testing hundreds of those whose lives were verily consumed by overconsumption, O’Guinn and Faber published a paper in the Journal for Consumer Research. It remains, year after year, one of social science’s most frequently cited studies. The heart of the paper is the CBS screener, which O’Guinn and Faber devised after circulating a What’s-Your-State-Of-Mind-When-You-Buy? questionnaire to a randomly selected sample of the general population, and to self-selected compulsives who’d sought counseling in a Bay Area support group. Respondents were asked to assess where they fell based on a five-point scale that ranged from “very often” to “never”. After running the usual (and, to me, incomprehensible) statistical analyses of the responses, O’Guinn and Faber concluded that there were seven conditions which, when they occur “very often,” point to the true compulsive buyer—no matter whether you hoard shoes, baubles, bangles, beads, digital cameras, or fountain pens.
So—if you’re sitting out there and worrying about overextending yourself this holiday (or have a loved one who very likely will), grab one of your compulsively acquired 4,000 fountain pens and rank yourself on the salient seven below, keeping in mind most of us are guilty of some of these transgressions now and then. A bona fide compulsive, though, is one who falls toward the extreme end on pretty much all of seven conditions that follow:
1. You buy things even though you can’t afford them. 2. You believe others would be horrified if they found out about your spending habits. 3. You write checks even though you know there’s not enough in the bank to cover them. 4. If you have any money left at the end of a pay period, you feel compelled to spend it. 5. You make only the minimum payments on your credit-card statements (if you make any at all). 6. You feel anxious or nervous on days you don’t go shopping. 7. You buy things to make yourself feel better.
If some of these don’t really apply, or if all of them apply but only now and then, you can chill: It’s likely that you’re just suffering from a mild case of frugal fatigue, from which most people eventually recover and live to shop another day.
Lee Eisenberg’s new book is Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What. Excerpts and the author’s blog can be found at LeeEisenberg.com.