Confessions of a Real-Life Shopaholic

For nearly two decades, Avis Cardella didn't go a day without shopping. The Manhattan-based model turned fashion writer bought everything from $2,000 Prada suits to Cosabella thongs in every color — until the guilt, stress, bills, and debt collectors got the best of her. Now Cardella unloads it all in her new memoir, Spent. We asked her about the roots of her spending frenzy.

woman holding many shopping bags
(Image credit: Karin Catt)

Q: You'd always loved fashion as a girl growing up in Brooklyn, but when did shopping become an obsession?

A: I was in my mid-20s, just feeling like I was going out into the world as a woman, when my mom died. Her death just put me into a tailspin. Shopping seemed to come to the rescue. It was something I could do that felt normal and safe, and it reminded me of my mother in a lot of ways. We'd always loved to shop together in the city. 

Q: What did you buy to try to fill the void?

A: Silly things, impulse buys — lots of hosiery from Macy's, accessories, gloves, sunglasses, skirts, sweaters, a wacky denim dress from Lord & Taylor that I never wore. I was really shopping in a trancelike state.

Q: Eventually, nothing made you feel as good — or as bad — as shopping ...

A: Yes. Shopping for me became like a drug. Very often it wasn't even about what I was buying — it was the act of purchasing it. It was like getting high, but then I'd hate myself afterward. I'd get sweaty palms and feel anxious; I knew something was wrong.

Q: How did you fund your habit?

A: I was working as a writer, and also living with a man who took good care of me.

Q: Do you think you would've shopped so obsessively if you hadn't lost your mom?

A: It's a fascinating question. Some therapists say the desire to buy things goes back to your infancy; others disagree. I do know that compulsive shopping has deep roots. It's not about frivolous people who run around with their shopping bags because they're selfish. It has to do with your soul — with something missing inside you.

Q: After 15 years, you began to get a grip.

A: Everything came to a head around the time I was 40. I was single, trying to figure out my life. I could see that I shopped to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Debt collectors were calling. I finally went to a credit counselor and formed a payment plan.

Q: That was in 2004. Are you debt-free?

A: I am. I'm married and living in Paris; I feel healthier about my shopping and about myself. I gave away lots of clothes. Sometimes I worry that I'm going to go into a store and want everything. I worry that it's still a part of me, but it doesn't seem to be.

Q: Any advice for shopping addicts?

A: Deal with the psychological roots, the emotions that drive you.

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.