Credit cards are convenient and easy to use, but for people facing certain mental health challenges, credit card spending can spiral out of control. As simple as credit cards are to use, they’re just as simple to misuse. If you have a history of buying things compulsively, gambling or chronically spending beyond your means, credit cards could exacerbate these issues.

Although credit card addiction isn’t a recognized disorder, people may use credit cards as part of wider behavioral patterns that can hurt their mental health, relationships and finances. These include compulsive buying, also known as compulsive shopping or “shopping addiction,” and gambling disorder.

If you’re concerned about your own credit card habits or the habits of a loved one, help is available. Learn how to recognize the signs of compulsive buying and gambling disorder, how to get support and treatment, and how to get debt under control.

Compulsive buying and credit cards

People who are affected by compulsive buying feel irresistible urges to buy things. Acting on those urges may provide short-term feelings of pleasure, satisfaction or relief. But those feelings may soon be followed by shame, guilt or regret.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) doesn’t formally recognize compulsive buying disorder as a mental health condition. But according to a 2017 research review, compulsive buying shares many traits in common with other forms of behavioral addiction.

It’s not unusual for people to use credit cards to finance compulsive buying. If you’re experiencing patterns of compulsive buying, it may cause you to lose control of your spending. This can lead to significant credit card debt.

Compulsive buying may also interfere with your work, social life and personal relationships.

Signs of compulsive buying

Compulsive buying doesn’t mean an occasional urge to splurge on a nice dinner or a new pair of shoes. The behavior signals a mental health concern when it’s uncontrolled and carries consequences that seriously interfere with your life. Potential signs of compulsive buying include:

  • buying things that you don’t need or can’t afford
  • feelings of tension or excitement before shopping or buying things
  • spending a lot of time shopping, buying things or planning to buy things
  • irresistible, intrusive or senseless thoughts about buying things or urges to buy things
  • uncontrolled shopping or buying episodes, which may lead to financial or social problems

If you’re experiencing compulsive buying patterns, you may find that the urge to buy gets worse when you’re bored or stressed.

Some people who are affected by compulsive buying also experience other compulsive behaviors or addictions, such as internet addiction, gambling disorder or substance use disorder. They may also have increased risk of other mental health challenges, such as anxiety and personality disorders.

Getting help for compulsive buying

If urges to buy things are negatively affecting your financial, social or emotional wellbeing, then it’s time to take steps to get help. Consider telling a trusted loved one about what you’re going through, and ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health specialist.

You can also find a mental health specialist by connecting with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

A mental health specialist may provide cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other counseling to help you understand and manage your urges to buy things.

Along with other strategies, a mental health specialist may encourage you to:

  • Limit access to easy credit by cutting up your credit cards and closing lines of credit.
  • Avoid spaces where shopping takes place, such as online stores and brick-and-mortar malls.
  • Only shop with a friend or family member, who can act as a witness to help hold you accountable.
  • Find meaningful ways to spend your time other than shopping or buying things.

Joining an in-person or online support group may also help you cope with the effects of compulsive buying. For example, Debtors Anonymous operates support groups for people who are facing debt-related challenges

In some cases, another underlying mental health condition may contribute to compulsive buying. If you have an underlying mental health condition, your doctor may recommend counseling, medication, or both to treat it.

Gambling disorder and credit cards

Some people use credit cards to finance a gambling disorder or gambling addiction.

The APA formally recognizes gambling disorder as a mental health condition that can cause distress and negatively affect many areas of a person’s life.

You might have a gambling disorder if:

  • you have frequent urges to gamble
  • you spend a lot of time gambling or thinking about gambling
  • you often gamble when you feel anxious, depressed or upset
  • you find it challenging to cut back on gambling or stop gambling altogether
  • your gambling has negatively affected your work, education or relationships
  • after you lose money gambling, you often gamble more to try to win it back
  • you need to bet more and more money to feel excited by gambling
  • you need to borrow money to cover gambling losses
  • you lie to others about how much you gamble

Some regions, such as the U.K., have banned the use of credit cards for gambling, but other countries, such as the United States, allow people to place bets with credit cards. Using a credit card to place bets may lead to high debt quickly.

If you think you may have a gambling disorder, consider asking your doctor for a referral to a mental health specialist or visit SAMHSA to find behavioral health treatment services near you.

You can also get help by contacting the National Problem Gambling Helpline at 1-800-522-4700.

Recovering financially

If you’ve used credit cards to finance compulsive buying or a gambling disorder, you may need help to recover financially. You may also need help if you’ve overspent on a regular basis, even if your spending isn’t connected to a specific mental health condition. Here are some key resources that can help you learn to manage credit card debt and get your finances under control.

Credit counseling

If you’re facing high credit card debt, a credit counselor may be able to help.

A credit counselor will review your finances with you and recommend strategies to improve your financial situation. They may help you design a budget and suggest a plan to manage your debt. In some cases, they may recommend filing for bankruptcy and provide guidance about the process.

To find a counselor, contact a nonprofit credit counseling organization. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) maintains a network of nonprofit credit counseling agencies that meet its standards. You can also consult Bankrate’s list of the best credit counseling services, all of which operate as nonprofit organizations.

Another good option is to check if there’s a Financial Empowerment Center (FEC) in your area. FECs offer one-on-one financial counseling as a free public service.

Take care when choosing a credit counselor. The Federal Trade Commission notes that nonprofit status doesn’t guarantee a credit counseling agency is legitimate. A reputable credit counselor should:

  • be licensed to offer services in your state
  • be accredited by an outside organization, such as the NFCC
  • offer free educational materials
  • offer a variety of services, rather than pushing a specific product

Before you meet with a credit counselor, it’s also a good idea to check that no consumer complaints have been made against them.

Debt management plan

If you’re finding it hard to make monthly payments to multiple creditors, setting up a debt management plan (DMP) may help. A DMP is a payment schedule that allows you to combine multiple debts into a single monthly payment plan that you can pay down gradually, often over the course of multiple years.

If you’re interested in setting up a DMP, get in touch with a credit counselor through a nonprofit credit counseling organization. If your counselor agrees that a DMP is a good choice, they will contact your credit card issuers and other creditors to negotiate your loan terms. For example, they may be able to negotiate lower interest rates or lower monthly payments.

After the DMP is set up, you’ll need to make monthly payments to the credit counseling organization. It will distribute money to your creditors.

Other tips for financial recovery

Making regular payments and adjusting your spending is important for paying down credit card debt and repairing your credit. The sooner you start making payments, the sooner you can recover from credit card delinquency.

It’s often helpful to focus on paying off higher interest debts before lower interest debts. Try to make the minimum monthly payment on each debt that you have, and then direct any extra cash towards your highest interest debt.

If your credit score is still strong, you might qualify for a zero-interest introductory offer on a new credit card. In this case, you may be able to transfer a higher-interest balance from an older credit card to the new card. Before you do this, consider if adding a new credit card to your life will help you or add to your challenges. If you decide to move forward, make a plan that accounts for how long it will take you to pay off the debt and how high the interest rate will be on the new card after the promotional period has passed.

Creating and following a budget is also important for curbing your spending and limiting new debt.

You might find it helpful to stop using credit cards all together, and use only cash or debit cards to buy things and pay off bills. Remember, paying off credit card debt and repairing your credit may take time — but every step helps.

The bottom line

Compulsive credit card use can lead to high debt, especially if you’re using credit cards to fund compulsive buying or a gambling disorder.

If you think you are experiencing compulsive buying or a gambling disorder, take steps to get help. Ask your doctor for a referral to a mental health therapist or contact one on your own. A mental health specialist may provide cognitive behavioral therapy or other techniques to help you understand and manage the urges to buy or gamble.

If you’re concerned about your credit card debt, a credit counselor can help you establish a budget and a plan to pay down your debt, or provide other options.

Remember, you’re not alone. Many people face challenges when it comes to credit card use. The sooner you seek help, the sooner you can take steps towards recovery.