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Dig Deeper Into Yourself, Not Your Wallet

April Lane BensonMore than 17 million Americans, according to a recent study, are overshoppers. April Lane Benson, PhD, wrote her “interactive guidebook” to help compulsive shoppers break the habit of overspending. A nationally known psychologist who specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying, Dr. Benson is the creator of the Stopping Overshopping program and the editor of I Shop Therefore I Am (2000). Although there are programs for people with financial problems, Benson realized, through her research, that there are limited resources for those with buying problems. To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop challenges compulsive shoppers to probe the depths of their emotional and psychological experiences to understand their behavior and to help them cultivate new habits for a better life.

Overshopping is often described as an attempt to fulfill emotional needs with material things. “The underlying premise about my work and my thinking about this problem is you never get enough of what you don’t really need,” she tells Barnard. “You need to meet authentic, real, legit needs and this will improve your life.” Benson’s skillfully written book guides readers on a soul-searching journey before inviting them to make the decision to change. She directs overshoppers in identifying the triggers, actions, and consequences of overshopping, while engaging readers in self-reflection, teaching “mindful shopping” and “skillful living,” and providing additional sources of psychological support. Her program is not only about shopping; it’s about getting to know who you are. Benson fills her book with skills, tools, and advice that anyone in a problematic relationship with anything from shopping to food (or any addiction) will find in it an invaluable resource.

Clear, caring, and direct, To Buy or Not to Buy immediately puts the reader to work. Benson lays out the goals at the beginning of each section. In Chapter 1 she introduces the Shopping Journal that readers will keep throughout the program. Scattered throughout the book are writing assignments and exercises such as creating a shopping “portrait,” recording shopping urges, and identifying signature strengths and how to put them to work. Benson’s diverse approach draws on theories and tools from a number of therapies, ideas from Buddhism, even motivational interviewing. She includes steps for challenging distorted thinking, conducting a “body scan ... to overcome escapist mechanisms,” as well as performing visualization exercises. Benson believes that “the eclectic approach is so useful because it is more interesting to engage with the material; it enhances the work.”

What does she propose we acquire in lieu of material things? “Experiences,” says Benson, who describes them as “heartsongs.” These can be acts of self-kindness and self-care, or participation in much loved activities and hobbies. They are “special investments in your joy of living,” and give you more satisfaction. We tend to revisit our memories of experiences while we discard objects. Benson says that “most of the experiences that we go through are social. They bring us into the community more. Memories and feelings improve over time and we cherish them.”

To Buy or Not to Buy will likely appeal to a spectrum of consumers, from the compulsive shopper to the individual hoping to gain awareness about her (or his) shopping habits. The book is geared for all people; as Benson notes, overshopping is everyone’s problem, not just a female thing. Men may be less recreational in how they shop, but they are equal in their pursuit of goods, usually big tickets items, and are more apt to call themselves “collectors.”

By journey’s end, Benson’s plan to stop overshopping instructs us in knowing the “languages of our bodies, hearts, minds, and souls.” What is at stake with overconsumption is not only environmental harm; it is the extinction of the best of who we are—our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the earth. Benson understands the immediacy of the problem: “The time is right for the ideas in this book. We need to be changing our mindset.”

-Stephanie Shestakow, photograph by Debra Greenfield