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The Internet has made it easier for compulsive consumers to rack up debt. Experts offer advice on how to be smart with your money in an age of convenience.

Andrey Popov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

There was the $350 Michael Kors watch so stunning that she bought it in both silver and gold.

Then there was the wide assortment of clothes and makeup, including a collection of MAC cosmetics – from lipstick to brushes – worth a whopping $1,500.

When Wendy finally totalled up her shopping debt after five years of splurging, the 30-year-old Vancouver resident realized her penchant for fashion had landed her $13,000 in the red.

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"I always thought that debt was normal," said Wendy, who doesn't want her last name used. "And then I met my current partner ... He helped me see that there are more important things than wearing whatever's in fashion at the moment."

While compulsive shopping can seem like a bit of innocent retail therapy, experts warn it can be a real addiction, just like gambling or substance abuse.

A shopping addiction can leave you saddled with debt and fending off calls from collection agents. It can also damage your credit rating, making it difficult to get a mortgage or take out a loan years down the road.

And the proliferation of online shopping sites, which allow you to buy without leaving the couch, has made it even tougher to curb this compulsive behaviour.

"There are many dangers with online shopping," said Laurie Campbell, chief executive of Credit Canada.

"It can be a very convenient and time-saving exercise but, obviously, it can be very obsessive as well. You always hear the stories about people that are hooked on The Shopping Channel. Online shopping can be similar."

But just eight months after her wake-up call, Wendy, an administrative assistant, has managed to trim her consumer debt to $1,800, although she still has more than $43,000 in student loans to repay.

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Wendy chronicles her transformation, which includes avoiding temptations like visiting the mall, skipping her daily Starbucks coffee and a self-imposed moratorium on buying new clothes, on her blog, girlmeetsdebt.com.

"I don't buy anything unless I absolutely need it," said Wendy.

Frugal living and diverting 60 per cent of her income to paying down debt was tough at first, said Wendy. But when she saw her debt rapidly dropping, she was hooked.

"When you're shopping, you feel this shopping high," said Wendy. "But saving and paying down debt, you get that same kind of feeling, too."

Setting specific financial goals – such as paying off bills or saving for a vacation, a wedding or a home – can help curb spending habits, said Campbell.

"Having those goals helps curb frivolous spending because you have something bigger in mind," said Campbell.

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April Benson, a New York City therapist who specializes in the treatment of compulsive buying disorders, suggests paying with cash.

Not only does that prevent you from spending money you don't have, but also you become more aware of how much you're spending.

"The pain of paying with cash is the greatest," said Benson. "The mouse on the computer is probably the least, because you don't even have to hand over a credit card."

Certified financial planner Mark Halpern suggests setting up a filter on your computer that blocks online shopping sites, destroying all credit cards and keeping only one for emergencies.

If you must shop, limit yourself to an allowance and go out with a list – and stick to it.

Lastly, Halpern suggests finding another hobby to keep yourself away from the mall.

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Shopping addictions usually develop from an underlying emotional issue such as feeling lonely, bored or having low self esteem, Benson said.

While retail therapy may mask those feelings for a while, it's never going to solve the root problem.

"You can never get enough of what you don't really need," Benson said.

"People have to figure out what it is they're really shopping for. It's not that eighth pair of black boots. And then figure out how to get that – whether it's love and affection, a sense of belonging, more self esteem or self actualization."

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