Spending addiction real deal; Parallels alcoholism

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A family crisis has left you dazed, so you hit the clothing stores for some serious power shopping. Or a dressing down by the boss emboldens you to go out and buy a computer gadget you've been wanting.

In both cases, if you can't afford it but you do it all the same, you could be suffering from a money disorder, a financial addiction every bit as real as alcoholism or drug addiction.

A new field of money management postulates that many people in North American society suffer from "chronic money dysfunction" -- an emotional problem that often mirrors more traditional dysfunctions such as alcoholism.

The field has emerged to the point where recently the National Council on Money Disorders -- a collection of mental-health professionals who focus on money problems -- was formed in the eastern U.S.

"Financial problems are like other dysfunctions in that they have similar characteristics and need similar treatments," said Karen McCall, a psychologist from San Anselmo, Calif., who was in the Vancouver area recently training students in her treatment system, called Financial Recovery.

"As with alcohol, you have a disorder if you continue to do something even if it has negative results."

Money dysfunction usually manifests itself in overspending, excessive credit use and an inability to get off the shop-til-you drop treadmill.

It also is common in "under-earners," business people who seem to turn away revenue-generating business, or people who are constantly under-employed.

"One feature of a money disorder is denial, a recognition that something's wrong, but a refusal to do anything about it," said McCall, who conquered her own money disorder more than a decade ago.

"There is also often a mental obsession, where your life is all about debt and money. Usually this requires some kind of intervention, not just a loan consolidation.

"And there is often a craving or addiction involved - the idea that if you just get some more, money in this case, everything will be better. So you worry and scheme about money all the time. You don't have any control over it."

Treatment of a money disorder mirrors treatment of other disorders, McCall said.

Intensive counselling unearths the (often childhood-ingrained) emotional triggers for the disorder and helps to methodically eradicate or mute them.

"When you go into financial recovery, you and a counsellor do a thorough spending plan, in great detail.

"But you do it ahead of time, so you can see the consequences of wrongful spending behaviour and whether there is some other way of meeting your wants without spending."

The need for such a treatment is growing immensely in the U.S., said McCall.

"In the U.S., consumers are saving zero per cent of their discretionary income -- it's just spend, spend, spend," she said.

"I suspect it's similar in Canada.

"People have to start looking at the emotional and spiritual components of money and how it affects their behaviour. They have to start looking at inner resources and stop relying on the crutch of spending."

Southam Publications Inc.