Coaching a Client to Curb Overshopping & Cluttering

In 2009, I reviewed a book called, I Shop Therefore I Am, compiled by April Lane Benson, PhD for the Chronical newsletter published by the National Study Group for Chronic Disorganization.  Because I greatly appreciated that book, I was anxious to read and review Benson’s latest book, To Buy Or Not To Buy, an “interactive guidebook for that transformation” from over-shopper to shopper.

I have been working with an over-shopper, “Amy”, since June 2009. Amy is in her mid 40s and is a very creative high school art teacher who’s struggled with overspending since college.  She was widowed in 2008 and has two teenage children.  She was diagnosed with ADHD in late 2009.  Her home was a Level III on the Clutter Hoarding Scale when we began working together.

Though Amy has done an amazing job of clearing the clutter from her home, she realized that without controlling her spending and the flow of goods into her home, she’d never achieve her goals of a presentable home, financial security for her family and being comfortable with her “new normal” of being a single mom supporting two kids on a single income.

When I introduced her to the book To Buy Or Not To Buy in January 2010 she was intrigued, but overwhelmed by the thought of working through it on her own.  As her Organizer Coach, I offered to coach her through it and she accepted.  In the book, Benson encourages the shopper to enlist the support of a “Shopping Support Buddy”, the requirements for which are outlined in great detail, but who is essentially an advocate for the individual working their way through the program.   Amy has graciously allowed me to document our journey through this book, so that I could share it with you.

Amy started reading To Buy Or Not To Buy in February 2010.  Our plan: read a chapter and coach on the chapter, before moving on to the next chapter.   Her initial goal was to get through one chapter each week.

In Chapter One, the reader explores what they are shopping for and documents their explorations in a companion journal.  Though not addressed in Chapter One, Amy and I took time that first week to create a budget, a tool Amy had never used before.  Because she was spending beyond her means, I requested she begin tracking her expenses daily.

In Chapter Four Dr. Benson introduces a very powerful tool called the “Daily Weigh-in”, which builds upon daily tracking of expenses through the introduction of a “Necessity Score.”   My feeling was that Amy could integrate the Necessity Score in coming weeks, but right now she desperately had to get an idea of where her money was going.

At our second session I was amazed by how much awareness Amy was already building around her finances.  After her husband died, Amy took a huge step towards financial security, by paying off debts and credit cards and beginning to pay for everything with cash.  Unfortunately, she was finding herself short of cash on a regular basis.   As we entered her weekly expenditures into her newly created budget, Amy shared her surprise about the strong impact having accountability around her spending was having on her.  Knowing that she would have to write an expense down was keeping her from making the expenditures that didn’t absolutely have to be made.

In our third session, at Amy’s request, we shared the newly created family budget with her teenagers.  When the teens were asked to estimate how much the household spent annually, they both guessed under $10,000. They were astounded to learn that expenditures were actually ten times that.  Awareness was being raised for everyone.  Amy subsequently shared with me that as a direct result of the budget discussion her sixteen-year-old daughter took a job and is now paying for many of her own expenses. Amy was thrilled with this unanticipated benefit of the budget conversation.

We completed our third session with Amy sharing with me her responses to the first of the journaling exercises in the book, titled “Why Do You Overshop?” and “Your Shopping Autobiography.”  Amy related to me a number of ah-ha moments that had occurred to her as she completed this journaling, her biggest take away being her realization of just how many years shopping has been an issue for her.

A number of months elapsed between our third and fourth sessions.  As we all know, life gets in the way for everyone, but seems to especially get in the way for our chronically disorganized clients. When I met with Amy in May 2010 she was looking forward to beginning our work again and we scheduled weekly sessions for the remainder of the summer.

Amy shared with me that even though we had not actively coached around To Buy Or Not To Buy for a few months, she was still maintaining awareness around her spending and as a result was definitely making fewer purchases.  She was also noticing that when there was no accountability (in the form of documenting all of her expenditures), it was much too easy for her to lose track of her discretionary spending.

At our fifth session we explored Chapter Two and the ideas of “triggers and aftershocks, values and vision.” I was especially impressed with two sections in this chapter.  In the first, Values and Vision, Dr. Benson provides a wonderful acknowledgement to the reader for getting this far and then encourages the reader to explore whether or not this journey is really worth the effort.  So many self help books assume you’re “all in” right from the beginning.  Dr. Benson wants to keep checking in with you.  This is demonstrated again in the section “To Stop or Not to Stop”, which explores ambivalence around stopping shopping.

Though we are not yet to Chapter Five, I appreciated Dr. Benson’s list of “Acts of Self Kindness” that can replace shopping and her focus in this chapter on Self-Kindness, Self-Care and Self Respect.  On her own, Amy is already identifying healthier activities that she would like to try instead of shopping and those choices will be further reinforced when we get to this chapter.  I also appreciated this statement to readers from Chapter Seven, titled Mindful Shopping, “Your challenge is to stay emotionally centered and mindful – of what you plan to buy; of what you can comfortably afford to spend; of what you’re responding to [when you shop]; and, above all, of who you are and what really matters to you.”  I thought this nicely summed up what the book helps the reader to accomplish.

Amy and I are far from completing the ten chapter book, but Amy has committed to work through this book with me and I am confident that over the course of the coming months her awareness will continue to be raised through her reading, our coaching sessions and the numerous journaling and shopping related exercises she’ll complete.  Amy is determined to work through at least one chapter every couple of weeks.  She shared with me that she now realizes that it “takes a lot of vision and determination to stay with [a program such as this].”  Amy also shared with me that if she had realized initially how long it might take to get control of her over shopping she might never have started the process.  At this point though, she appears to be invested in the process and I expect that she will succeed in achieving her goals.

Though I believe that therapy is probably the most direct method for dealing with over-shopping, utilizing To Buy Or Not To Buy and the companion journal has the potential of helping a lot of people who may not initially be comfortable with the idea of therapy.  If the over shopper is able to make significant progress on their own, fantastic.  If not, then hopefully they’ll at least build enough awareness on their own that they will be willing to try the therapy route.

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