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Help for shopaholics

"I call them nightmares," says Mike Powley of his wife's shopping escapades. But Leeann Powley, 30, of London, Ont., doesn't mean to spend excessively. Walking into the store, she usually has one item in mind but ends up leaving with a bundle.

"I get sensory overload: I stop and look at everything," she says. "I try and take everything in, and it really stresses me out."

In 2002, Canadians spent $656 billion while shopping for everything from books to airplane tickets and another $2.4 billion on goods bought online, according to the 2002 Household Internet Use Survey.

"It's our national pastime," says Diane Rennie, community liaison manager for Credit Counselling Services of Alberta in Calgary.

But shopping has serious repercussions if you can't afford it. We've all heard of cutting up your credit cards to curb spending, but what else can you do to hold back? Read on for tips from debt counsellors and self-confessed shopaholics on how to take control of the shopping monster within.

Set goals
Rennie advises creating a list of all spending -- from rent and utilities, right down to toothpaste. "Sit down and do an inventory of the last few months -- longer is better -- to get a more accurate picture of how you are spending."

Maybe you can't recall where that last $50 or $100 went? That's when you need a list more than ever. Once you have a detailed account of your money, you're in a position to make some decisions.

"You start to get a sense where you're spending and can now say, 'What are my goals, what do I want my money to do for me? Are these purchases helping me do what I want to do,'" explains Rennie.

Most shoppers spend impulsively, which doesn't allow time to reflect on what they're doing. Having a goal keeps you on track. And if you find that your shopping habits preclude taking a holiday or buying a house, you might think twice before heading to the mall.

Carry a picture of the house or vacation spot you have in mind with you as a reminder of your goal.

Gift certificates -- the envelope method
Since the issue is a lack of control, buying a prepaid gift certificate -- found at most grocery stores, clothing and coffee shops -- is one way to curb spending. "Say you've allotted yourself $20 -- when that's gone, that's it for the rest of the month," says Rennie.

"It does mean you are committing to a certain expenditure, but it gives you a mechanism of control." It's a take-off of one of the oldest budgeting tricks in the book: the envelope method, in which you determine how much to spend on different categories (such as food, entertainment, etc.) and create an envelope of cash for each. "We're not saying don't spend, but clearly determine what you spend," say Rennie.

A word on credit cards
This piece of advice is as old as sliced bread: spend only cash. And you may recall this one too: fill a Ziploc bag with water, stick your credit card inside and throw it in the freezer. "You're literally putting your credit on ice," says Sylvia Lim, a Vancouver-based accountant and financial planner and author of the "Simply Essential Personal Budgeting Kit."

"While the card thaws, you can think about if you really have to have that item, and by the time the next day rolls around, you don't want to buy it anymore." And don't even think of zapping it in the microwave -- the card will melt and then you definitely can't use it.

Powley suggests getting rid of all store-issued charge cards. They may offer enticing incentives to sign up but, as Powley says, you don't need the incentive to return. And it's an even smarter move when you consider that most shoppers don't factor in the high interest rate on the cards when they buy something. "You'd actually be able to buy more if you spent cash," says Rennie.

Kristen Softley, 30, of London, Ont., never buys on credit, but recently had a weak moment: "I went to buy a (portable) CD player, which usually costs about $100, but I ended up buying an MP3 player for $300 -- it's bad, so very bad. Now I have a debt because of my MP3 player!"

Softley's advice when you have an urge to splurge at the mall: "Just don't go!" Instead, she suggests watching a movie or hanging out with your friends or pets.

Take a buddy
Just like swimming, you should never shop alone. "If I take someone who usually doesn't shop, they end up spending more than me," says Powley, who says this helps tame her own desire to buy -- watching someone else shop is almost as good as buying something herself.

Shop à la cheapo
Natalie Borden, 32, of Moncton, New Brunswick, gives new meaning to the phrase "shop 'til you drop." Luckily, used clothing stores keep her closet stocked with her favourite name brands.

Liz Claiborne pants, a vintage Polo Ralph Lauren t-shirt, a red wool Ann Taylor blazer and plaid Jones New York capri pants are some of Borden's finds.

"Usually when I go to the secondhand stores, I spend less than $15," she says. "I always thought secondhand stores were for people who had to shop there for financial reasons, but when you pull into the parking lot, you see the fancy cars parked next to the economy cars. Everyone likes a good bargain."

And good bargains aren't restricted to clothes: factory outlets for electronics and home décor are hot. For great buys on household goods, try early Saturday morning garage sales.

Kathyrn Byfield, 44, of London, Ont., is a confessed shopaholic. She owns more than 1,500 bracelets and has an entire spare room devoted to her clothes.

"At a dinner party, my friends and I counted my sweaters -- I had 52. That night after supper, every woman left with a sweater."

A self-described DINK (double income no kids), Byfield says shopping is her entertainment.

But she does offer a little trick to save. Shopping exclusively at used or clearance stores, she adds up her brand name purchases, then adds up what they would have cost in a regular department store. The difference is astounding, she says, and continues to be great incentive to shop at discount stores such as Value Village.

Seek help
For those who can't control themselves and face serious debt because of their shopping habits, Lim advises seeking professional help. "It's like overeating or any other addiction," she says. There is an underlying problem you have to deal with."

Based in London, Ont., Melanie Chambers writes primarily about women's health and travel.

-- Posted: Sept. 10, 2004
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