SCMP Thursday, May 17, 2001

Buying misery


Every time Sue Chan, 35, returns home, she is weighed down with bags of new clothes, cosmetics or shoes. To the average passer-by, she probably seems like any other female who loves to shop, but her case is different.
Each time she hits the streets, she feels the urge to splurge. ''I just can't control myself,'' she says, looking embarrassed. ''I just buy and buy.''
Her frenzied bouts of shopping have landed her in serious debt. To support her spending, Chan (not her real name) uses one credit card to pay off the bills on another, and borrows from banks and finance companies.
So far her reckless spending has resulted in accumulated debts of up to six figures, which have cost her her marriage and pushed her to the brink of suicide. When too many angry creditors called to demand payment, Chan decided to end her life. ''I just thought that only death could end my debt problems,'' she says.
For the past 10 years, Chan has endured an ordeal largely unknown to Hong Kongers. She suffers from compulsive shopping, which means her spending is out of control. Over-spending is an impulsive behaviour and sufferers feel compelled to shop. Like food for the binge eaters or betting for the gambling addicts, shopping can be just as dangerous for compulsive spenders, says family therapist Laurene Man Lo Lai-ping, who is also service supervisor of the Hong Kong Christian Service.
The problem is alarming. Psychiatrists and counsellors worry that compulsive spending - regarded as a by-product of modern city living - is growing in the city. Hong Kong people, it seems, feel alienated and stressed, and this, added to the SAR's culture of spending, can trigger a shopping problem.
''We are surrounded by a culture of spending, if one has money, one has status,'' Man says.
The easy availability of credit cards and the lure of shopping complexes are also to blame. ''Hong Kong people have little space, the roads are congested and polluted, while, by contrast, shopping malls offer a much more attractive environment with pristine decoration and air-conditioning,'' says Dr Sing Lee, associate professor of psychiatry at the Chinese University.
To most people, shopping is no more than a little harmless ''retail therapy'', something which makes them feel good. It can be a relaxing and absorbing experience. Women often spend hours happily browsing in major malls such as Festival Walk, Lee says. ''But there are some people who are vulnerable to shopping.''
Compulsive spenders usually suffer from low self-esteem with little control over their lives and often feel empty inside, psychologists say. ''They feel emotionally deprived and use material things to satisfy their emptiness,'' Man says.
By going shopping they feel they are taking charge of events in their lives.
Insecure and lacking self-confidence, Chan is a typical victim of over-spending. ''I feel very happy owning things,'' she says. She spends to cheer herself up. For her, spending is a ''drug to gain dignity''.
Chan is a typical shopaholic, as compulsive shoppers are often called. The mere act of entering a shop is enough to lift her mood and give her a high. She goes into a kind of trance in which she is not really aware of her actions. She grabs clothes and cosmetics often without realising what she has bought. She also spends on fashion magazines and buys much more than she needs when stocking up on daily necessities in supermarkets.
Many of the goods she buys remain unopened and she has even had to throw away purchases to make room for new ones. This highlights another common aspect of the compulsion - often the ''buzz'' is not owning or enjoying the goods, but the thrill of being in the shopping environment, choosing the purchases and the act of buying them. For the duration of the spree, the shopper blanks out the consequences of their actions. This is made easier by using credit cards and facilitates the feeling of somehow not being responsible, as though it is unreal money they are spending.
Chan's shopaholic addiction is, she believes, rooted in her unhappy past. She comes from a broken family. Her father left her mother for another woman when she was a child. ''My mum always cried,'' she recalls. ''The other woman was very pretty and I grew up thinking it was important to be beautiful.''
Her father used to tease her about the shape of her nose and her classmates ridiculed her when she was in secondary school. ''Everyone laughed at me for wearing thick glasses, so much so that I was often in tears,'' she says. This resulted in a growing lack of self-confidence. Her out-of-control spending began when she started work as a part-time tutor. ''I spent all the money I earned on clothes and cosmetics,'' she says. The problem deteriorated after she married a domineering man. His behaviour became a daily trigger for her compulsive spending. ''My husband was overpowering and always wanted me to dress beautifully,'' she says. ''I had to be who he wanted, and this made me feel very depressed'' - and so she shopped even more. For years, Chan concealed her secret from her husband and lived in daily fear that he might discover her debts. ''I was fearful and always cried when I was alone,'' she says.
Chan carefully hid the true extent of her debts from her family. She had her credit card statements sent to her company and would make sure she always got to the letter box first.
She shopped, refusing to acknowledge the inevitable result would be despair. ''I always regretted what I'd done when I returned home,'' she recalls. The lives of people who over-spend are often a vicious cycle, Man says. They feel depressed and spend impulsively, incur debt and then feel guilty. They promise never to do it again but repeat the same pattern the next time the feeling of deprivation arises.
Compulsive spenders share some common characteristics: they are often depressed, may have bad relationships with their families, or are emotionally abused by their partners. Often they have just divorced or broken up with their partners. Stress at work or a financial jolt, such as a stock market loss, can also trigger a shopping frenzy, psychiatrists agree.
Over-spenders, psychiatrists say, typically shower themselves with things they neither need nor want. Some are obsessed with one kind of goods, others with all kinds. In one case, a man might buy stocks; in another, a woman would splurge on clothes.
Compulsive over-spenders come from all walks of life, and can include everyone from students and teachers, to accounts clerks, office workers and housewives. Some of them are highly paid, some are unemployed - but they are all in debt, from several thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
''Most sufferers use one credit card to cover the payment of another,'' Man says. Unable to pay the debts, they borrow from families, gamble, or even commit crimes. Many feel helpless and depressed, she says, and some may even be suicidal.
In March, a Housing Department member of staff jumped to his death on the MTR track at Choi Hung because he couldn't pay his $500,000 debts on 22 credit cards. He had bought more than 5,000 VCDs and CDs, almost 1,000 pairs of sport shoes, jeans and other clothes, 10 mobile phones and more than 20 hi-fi sets. Many of the goods were never opened and the man often sold newly purchased items cheaply to his colleagues.
His goods, worth more than a million dollars, filled his 300-square-foot Choi Hung Estate flat. They were piled up in the living room, kitchen, toilet, and even covered the family's three bunk beds. ''We could only sleep on half the mattress, and we couldn't even open the door but had to squeeze in and out through a gap,'' his brother says.
The uncontrollable illness is not new. As early as 1976, American sufferers set up a self-help group. Debtors Anonymous now offers support to sufferers in 12 countries.
Little research has been carried out in the SAR and the problem remains a dark secret. The Social Welfare Department says there is no reliable indication of how many people are affected locally. Limited awareness of the problem means few seek help. ''Many sufferers don't realise their shopping is a problem,'' says Lee, of the Chinese University.
Many over-spenders only seek help when their problem impinges on their family and can no longer be hidden.
Not all compulsive spenders seek relief in shops. Parker, 51, would go on taxi riding sprees. When calm, he was fine, but when he experienced a ''high'', he tended to buy a lot of useless items.
When he received his monthly cheque, he would buy his colleagues meals and jump into cabs, running up fares of anywhere between $400 and $1,000. Some-times he would ride for hours. ''I guessed they thought I was a silly boy, but I only wanted someone to talk to,'' he says. Parker was using money to buy friendship but the companionship was expensive. He would also go to hair salons several times a week and buy expensive suits, cameras and hi-fi sets.
To facilitate his spending, Parker would borrow from his company and use credit cards, with his parents often having to bail him out. He tried to curb his addiction but it was not easy.
Quitting is tough for over-spenders and recurrences are common.
''It depends on the person's coping skills. When stressful conditions arise, they tend to relapse, we have to help them relieve stress,'' clinical psychologist Lina Sun Nee-ngor says.
The risk of compulsive shopping can be reduced by adopting a cash-only lifestyle - no credit cards - and to learn to plan spending, but counsellors say the answer lies in healing the root problems. ''The key to curing them is to find out why they're unhappy,'' Man says. ''When the real problem is addressed they will no longer need to resort to buying to deal with it.''
It usually takes sufferers about six months to kick their addiction, but in some serious cases it can even take a year or more, Man says. The support of friends and family is crucial to their recovery, but the victim's own courage and determination is equally important, Man says.
With encouragement from his father and siblings, Parker finally quit spending.
For Chan, the remedy was achieved with the help of supportive colleagues. They visited her in Kwai Chung Hospital, a psychiatric institution, where she was admitted after her suicide attempt. ''They came to see me and bought me cakes, I was very moved,'' she recalls, tears welling. With the help of the Hong Kong Christian Service, Chan is on the road to recovery.
''I still go shopping,'' she says, ''but I only use 20 per cent of my salary for expenditure, and I plan every shopping trip. I have control now.''
The warning signs
1. Regularly shopping to relieve stress, depression or cheer yourself up.
2. Hiding your purchases once you get home.
3. A feeling of being in a ''club'' when buying on credit rather than
with cash.
4. Using one credit card to pay the bills of another.
5. Fearing to open bills. Hiding credit card statements from partners and family and being ignorant of your real financial situation and debt level.
6. A feeling that you are not responsible for the consequences of your spending.
7. An irresistible ''buzz'' or ''high'' when shopping.
8. Buying items you don't need and never use.
For help with over-spending, call the Hong Kong Christian Service hotline: 2731 6251.