Jeffrey Cohen, a fundraiser for a local nonprofit, has 15 suits hanging in his closet. But when his tailor recently called to sell him a...
NEW YORK — Jeffrey Cohen, a fundraiser for a local nonprofit, has 15 suits hanging in his closet. But when his tailor recently called to sell him a $350 custom-made beauty, he bit.
And that’s just the beginning of Cohen’s splurges on items he doesn’t need — and can’t really afford.
There are the two extra shirts and second bottle of cologne Cohen picked up on a recent pop-in at Macy’s, not to mention the $12,000 Harley Davidson he bought — even though he already had a chopper in his driveway. For two years, the bike sat unused in his garage.
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“When I bought the Harley, I thought it was a great deal,” Cohen said. “I rationalized that I needed it.”
The root of trouble
Some call it therapy, others call it an irresistible urge. Either way, uncontrolled shopping is a serious problem that can hurt relationships, ruin your credit and severely damage your bank account.
Between 2 and 8 percent of the U.S. population are considered compulsive shoppers — outnumbering the country’s gambling addicts. Nine of 10 mega-shoppers are women.
While the problem has existed for years, easy shopping on the Internet, stores that dazzle with enticing displays and a culture that glorifies shopping has fueled a new generation of extreme buyers.
“It’s the ‘Sex and the City’ seductiveness [of shopping],” said financial planner Stacy Frances, who runs Savvy Ladies, a nonprofit group that teaches women to take control of their finances.
“It’s a problem we’re seeing more and more, especially here in New York,” Frances said. “I see women with dozens and dozens of shoes, 20 pairs of black pants. They’re using shopping as a solution to depression. They hide their purchases and deny they have a problem.”
Super-shopping has become such a phenomenon, there’s even a new reality show on cable network A&E called “Big Spender.”
A recent episode featured a debt-laden schoolteacher with a bad shoe-buying habit who’s ambushed by a financial planner while she’s pampering herself with a $100 massage.
How do you know if your shopping is out of control?
Aside from hitting stores frequently, compulsive shoppers fantasize about their future purchases, find the process intensely exciting and feel guilty after they’ve finished buying, said Dr. Donald Black, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine.
Financial planner Valerie Adelman said, “If you’re spending more than 5 percent to 10 percent of your income on clothes, it’s certainly something to pay attention to.”
Not paying attention can have severe consequences. “I had a patient who spent so much, they went bankrupt,” Black said.
Cohen and his wife, also a fundraiser, knew they were in trouble when the central air conditioning in their Long Island home broke down. The couple, who together earn over six figures and do not have kids, didn’t have enough money to replace it.
They called in Long Island financial planner J.J. Burns, who forced them to get a handle on their spending. Burns sent them a worksheet and insisted that they record every penny that was spent over the past six months. They continue to track their spending.
“They were spending beyond their means,” Burns said. “Between 35 and 40 percent of their income was going to discretionary items like clothes, the Harleys, suits, restaurants. “The goal now is to get it to 25 percent and ultimately to 18 percent to 20 percent.”
He’s letting go
Cohen has started by parting with some of his prized possessions.
The extra Macy’s purchases have gone back to the store.
Cohen has sold one of his prized Harleys and is in the process of selling the other with the goal of raising about $15,000.
Now, instead of being forced to finance the $20,000 cost of repairing the air conditioner, he will be able to pay it off within three months.
The experience has left Cohen determined to resist urges to buy. One habit going out the window: a regular purchase of 10 custom-made shirts for $600.
“Buying things made me enjoy life,” he said. “But what you don’t realize is you could already be enjoying the things that you have.”