How can I talk to my dad about his spending addiction?
January 25, 2011 12:09 AM   Subscribe

How can I talk to my dad about his spending addiction?

Ever since I can remember my father has been addicted to buying stuff. In the little free time he has he spends scoring the internet for "deals" (electronics usually) and cheap air fare for trips he never ever takes. On more than one occasion he has bought the same thing twice (ipod dock, printer) and completely forgot about them. I find unopened electronics/gadgets constantly. A few years ago when my laptop broke, he gave me a brand new one he had bought almost 5 months ago.

He also does this at the grocery store. My parents pantry and even the garage is packed with food they'll never eat. I'm talking like 15 boxes of unopened cereal and probably over a hundred cans of various food. Their two refrigerators and their freezers are constantly packed with stuff. Their garage is filled to the brim with junk (I found a box of papers from 1983, before I was born!). Still my dad is constantly coming home with bags upon bags of stuff from Safeway.

Even after buying all this food I still find an appalling number of fast food receipts in his car. He's very overweight and has survived colon cancer. This really really upsets me but that's a whole other post.

I really want to help him stop this behavior because, aside from filling the house with loads of junk to the point where they can't even fit a car in their 3 car garage, he can't even AFFORD to being doing this. He often complains he only has only $100 in his account yet he's constantly buying more and more stuff. He works for a union and he sometimes uses the excuse that it's stuff "for the union" but his car is littered with receipts and I doubt he gets reimbursed for very much of it. Also a lot of the stuff stays in the house collecting dust so it obviously isn't for the union.

Every time I try to bring this up he always gets extremely defensive and brushes it off. He works nights as a bus mechanic, spends most of the day doing union stuff and gets very little sleep so most of the time he's very slow to respond when I'm trying to talk to him or he simply tries make it into a joke and brush me off. I don't live with my parents anymore but I do visit them several times a month because they only live about 40 minutes away.

This puts a lot of stress on my mom but when I talk to her she just agrees, complains a little and has seemingly resigned herself to the fact that there's little she can do. I know that it puts a lot of stress on her financially (she runs her own business) because she constantly has to make up for his financial shortcomings.

I really can't take it anymore but I don't know how to approach my dad about it. I try being nice, being firm, explaining the logistics, none of it seems to matter. I obviously can't send him to a psychologist. I'm at a loss but it's unnerving.

Any advice/anecdotes are much appreciated.
posted by ad4pt to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, I've been through this with my mum and there really isn't much you can do to change the behaviour.

She's retired, receiving nothing but a state pension, and still lives in the small town where I was reared. She never saved as much as a pence while she was working as all the money went to purchase stuff "she needed". Your stories are familiar as they describe my mums compulsive purchasing and willful ignorance to a tee.

I supplement her income, and in spite of me giving her literally tens thousands a year she still won't stop the spending.

When she "retired" in 2006 (she's volatile and lost her job due to one too many explosions) I knew it would be a tough slog for her, so I committed to providing a specific level of income but contingent upon her sticking to a budget.

I made a very detailed, very comprehensive budget that provided her insight into exactly how much it cost her a day to live. This is a tool I constructed decades ago for myself, one that helpe me achieve financial independence so I wasn't asking her to do anything more than I did myself. She ignored the budget, and spent absolutely ALL of the cash she got her hands on, a practice that continues to this day.

Even worse, she's degraded her standard of living - dropped the cable TV and mobile phones - to free up income so it can be spent, mostly on rubbish. On top of this she's even taken two odd jobs (lollipop lady and delivers newspapers) simply because she needs additional money to purchase stuff she "needs". Which inevitably piles up in the house, in the garden, in the garage, whereever.

She owns her home free and clear, the only real costs she's got are local taxes, utilities and medical insurance (she's in the United States), but is pretty much constantly looking for ways to "borrow" some money from me. I just ignore the requests, but give her the monthly income I've committed to. If I take the opportunity to reminder her of the budget and income levels she becomes very defensive, sometimes to the point of nastiness.

So there you go. As I mentioned, I suspect you're not going to change his behaviour. I suggest constructing a budget showing the guy his cost structure and income, and let him figure out why he's constantly out of pocket.

But, like my Mum, this is more than likely a deeply ingrained behaviour, and unless he wants to change you're foxed.
posted by Mutant at 12:29 AM on January 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

Reading your "question", it seems like you have a lot of different complaints about your dad. None of which really reduce to one concrete problem - or at least not a problem that is hurting anyone.

None of the things you say that your dad does are things that are all that strange. Lots of people have too much stuff, buy too much stuff, don't use what they have, aren't thrifty, eat too much fast food, plead poverty ten minutes after blowing their whole paycheck on stupid crap. Costco and McDonald's wouldn't be in business if everyone spent money only to fulfill their immediate needs and never ate out when they had perfectly good food at home.

The way you dad spends money isn't your business. He's an adult, and he works for his money. If he wants to spend it on extra iPod docks instead of whatever you think he ought to be doing with it, that's his business. And your mother is an adult too - her feelings about you dad's behavior are her deal, not yours.

Look, everybody's parents do things that drive them nuts. You basically have two choices on the matter: you can either come to terms with the fact that your dad has habits you don't approve of, or you can stop visiting so much. Or both, actually. (That's pretty much what I did.)
posted by Sara C. at 12:43 AM on January 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

Ever seen an episode of Hoarders? Because this sounds like that. What do other people think of this (siblings, aunts/uncles, friends)? If you haven't seen the show, I get the feeling the general effect on the viewer is "holy shit, I need to dump everything in my life immediately because I never want to end up like that." A lot of times it seems like the situation can escalate so gradually that the hoarder (and his/her family) are not aware of its severity. Watch some clips.
posted by therewolf at 12:48 AM on January 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

Would it be better if he were collecting something in particular--restoring old cars, collecting Star Wars memorabilia, etc.? I mean, obviously, it wouldn't be any different from an economic point of view, but would it be quite so frustrating to you?

What I'm wondering is whether this behavior still falls in the same realm as an eccentric and expensive hobby, opaque to someone who doesn't share the hobby but somehow addressing an emotional need for your father. A lot of people buy random stuff thinking it will be gifted to someone, someday, so it's a kind of connection to other people who happen not to know it yet. The buyer enjoys spending time bargain-hunting and feels magnanimous and thoughtful for having gotten something no one knows they need yet. I can well imagine that moment when he pulled out a laptop and gave it to you being very proud for him--his generosity 5 months before in fact paid off.

If he's really headed down the path of economic self-destruction, I know you'll want to do more than understand, but understanding the internal logic of this might be the best thing you can do for him. Maybe the behavior can be redirected toward buying cheap things only ("I can always use X, Y, or Z--can you hunt for those things for me at low prices?") or toward helping your mom to collect things for her hobby or whatever.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 2:40 AM on January 25, 2011

I think what it comes down to is supporting your mum. She is the one who lives with the stress on a day-to-day level. Ask her what she needs. If she wants you to help her convince your dad he has a problem, that's one thing. But it sounds like she has maybe decided to just put up with it, in which case your energies might be better expended doing nice things for her/with her. Take them out sometimes, if you can afford it. Arrange a family holiday somewhere with a nice clean big hotel room for your mother to enjoy without all your father's crap around. Offer to help clean up the bits of the house you are allowed to clean up, when you visit.

Also, maybe you can channel some of your father's spending into buying storage solutions? A whole heap of plastic crates for the garage? Some boxes to go under the bed? Bigger bookshelves? Magazine racks? Furniture with cleverly hidden storage space inside? Even if he feels he needs to have his stuff around him, maybe he doesn't mind if it's not on display. But again, ask your mother if this would be helpful to her before making these suggestions to your dad.
posted by lollusc at 2:46 AM on January 25, 2011

He's a hoarder. What therewolf said. It's hard to diagnose someone over the interweb, but there always is some deep seated psychological reason why people do this. It's usually the case that there was some loss (e.g. one woman gave up a child for adoption) and then decided to never give anything up again.

It comes up over and over again, even in other seemingly non-related shows. American Pickers had an episode where they picked stuff from the farm property of a man who had just died. He had been a POW in WWII, and everything was taken away from him. After that he sort of vowed that it would never happen again. This led to 13 building, barns and trailers on his property, all filled with stuff.

Think about your childhood, talk to your siblings if you have any, talk to your aunts and uncles and try to get some help for your dad.
posted by fixedgear at 3:16 AM on January 25, 2011

It does sound like he has an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Spending money makes him feel good, perhaps, or having so many things around him gives him comfort. All the love and logic in the world isn't going to make him change and buying more shelves and storage is going to feed and enable his compulsion. It's possible that therapy and anxiety meds can help him, but that's no use unless he actually wants to go that route.

Therewolf is completely correct about it sounding like something from Hoarders. If he really is as bad as that there's not a great deal that you can personally do.

That said, there are resources available for the families of hoarders and sufferers of OCD illnesses beyond random opinions from strangers. I encourage you to look these up and see what options are out there. There are many professionals who offer advice - why not run a quick check via Google and see what there is in your area? Your father may not accept help but there may be something like support groups and forums that can help both you and your mother. Good luck.
posted by ninazer0 at 3:17 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Like other people mentioned, this does sound like hoarding. I just disagree with the people that say "there's nothing you can do."

You may not be able to send him to a therapist, but you might be able to get a therapist to come to him. He probably won't like that, so you'll have to get help from your mom and other family members to back you up.

Yes, I'm talking about an intervention. It may or may not be successful, but this is a serious psychological ailment that as you said is causing your family great stress. You are right to want to do something to help.

You should watch several episodes of Hoarders to get an idea of both the severity that this can attain and how the therapists approach the problem... and then find your own specialist and go from there.

Good luck to you and your family.
posted by j03 at 4:23 AM on January 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

If I were you, I would focus on shielding yourself and your mother from the effects of this. Get advice on how to ringfence your mother's assets and finances from your father's so that, if it turns out that he's in more debt than you know about, he won't take you or her down with him. You might also be able to mark out some living space for your mother - even just one room - that isn't buried under a ton of crap.

Make sure if you go to the Citizen's Advice Bureau that they have the most up-to-date info (mine didn't, as I found out by chance) and if you go to a lawyer (including one recommended by CAB), that they aren't intentionally giving you bad advice (as also happened to me). Get a lot of opinions from QUALIFIED people about your own specific situation (rather than something Joe at the office says happened to his brother's wife except that he left out a crucial detail which means it doesn't apply to you, etc.) and verify them.
posted by tel3path at 4:45 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is it possible for your parents to have separate bank accounts/credit cards so that most of the income (his and hers) gets funneled into her account and he has access to much less money to waste? This is assuming that your mother would manage her business and the household bills prudently. Addressing any hoarding issues would be much more difficult, I would think, than the more practical matter of having a more responsible person in charge of finances and giving him an "allowance" to piss away.
posted by headnsouth at 4:50 AM on January 25, 2011

I'd also find a way of locking down the house in your mother's name, so that he can't take a(nother) mortgage out on it to pay for something trivial. If debts escalate high enough they might reach the point of having to sell it to cover them.
posted by tel3path at 4:57 AM on January 25, 2011

My friend's parents got like this when they were quite old and becoming senile, and it was gradual. It got out of hand when her dad started to be a target for phone and mail scammers, and lost a lot of money that way. Their house was full of old Entenmans pastry boxes among other things. Her dad also wrecked a couple of cars, luckily with nobody hurt, before the daughter and son in law got the car keys away, and eventually got them into assisted living.

I would keep a close eye on this situation, it sounds like the underlying problem might be more serious than shopping addiction.
posted by mermayd at 5:10 AM on January 25, 2011

Try reading Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. It doesn't have the freakshow aspect that some of those TV shows does, would give you some insight into what your dad is thinking, and has contact information at the end for people in precisely your situation.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:01 AM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Two things you've written echo what happened with my father (and my in-laws, to an extent) , and I'll tell you what's been working for us:

"Even after buying all this food I still find an appalling number of fast food receipts in his car. He's very overweight and has survived colon cancer. This really really upsets me but that's a whole other post. "

This is actually a huge part of this post.

My father is 72 now, and started having heart attacks when I was sixteen (just over twenty-five years ago). Despite whatever remedies and relapses and being on a defibrillator now (after a recent accident where he passed out at the wheel, hit a car, a fence then a tree and sustained spinal cord damage) he still manages his health poorly and his attempts to live more healthily vary from fads to restrictions to asking me to "look into the computer for this thing" that he heard about on a talk radio show. It's upsetting to anyone that a grown-up, their parent, the person who supposedly taught them common sensical stuff, doesn't get simple things like eating healthily, not too much, and getting some exercise. Nutrition has grown so complex over the years that he's still operating on the "Cholesterol = BAD!" model from years ago, and telling him that there are good fats and bad fats and good oils and bad oils sends him right back to his day, when things were black and white. He shuts down.

At any rate, I figured out that my father is operating on fear, and dulling that with comfort food - and is wrestling with his place in the world as he realizes he's winding down. It's a control over his life issue - he's lost control of his health, and indulges his responses to that with everything from "Fuck it - I'll eat that Entenman's coffee cake (I think they put a chemical in the crumble topping that makes seniors crave it fortnightly) because I'm going to die anyway!" to "If I never eat a nicely marbled steak again, I'll live." So, I can't treat his actions as rational - to me, he's just become a pinball, and all I can do is my part to bump him in a better direction: I clip articles, prepare healthy food when I'm there, make grocery runs for "good" foods, and try to gently correct misinformation. Over time, that's worked. He's switched to a healthier cereal and now always adds berries on it. My mom keeps a bowl of pomegranate seeds around for him to snack on. He knows to keep a banana on him and to eat it if he gets crabby. Dinners are meat and two veg, instead of meat and potatoes. Stuff like that. I try to give him real information, and a sense of control. It is all futile, he is going to die anyway, and all I can do is attempt to minimize his damage until then.

He too, buys too many groceries. I've gathered it's because in their household, he's the only driver. He feels that if he ever can't drive any more, they won't have to depend on anyone. They'll be stocked up for a good long time, and they'll live. It's a control thing, and he feels useful, and he gets a little "high" from making "smart" purchases - like finding Jiffy mixes at three for a dollar (though he forgets my mom hasn't used them in years, and neither do I). So, when I visit, I help them by inventorying their stuff, and re-directing him. He likes the hunt for my favourite brand of chick peas just as well - it's the feeling useful, the high from buying and the feeling that he's providing for us. When I find expired items, and point out (gently) that "Wouldn't you just rather have given your granddaughter the twenty dollars from that?", he'll back off for a while, as that thought supplants the need to spend. (I gave him a keychain with her picture, and one for his wallet - I said any time he feels like he needs to buy something, to think whether he'd rather just give her the money . It works too, and he saves up and buys her weeks at fun summer camps this way.)

But this is starting to get into the buying that you mentioned...

"Every time I try to bring this up he always gets extremely defensive and brushes it off. He works nights as a bus mechanic, spends most of the day doing union stuff and gets very little sleep so most of the time he's very slow to respond when I'm trying to talk to him or he simply tries make it into a joke and brush me off. I don't live with my parents anymore but I do visit them several times a month because they only live about 40 minutes away."

If he's like my dad, he's defensive because you're his kid, and this never used to be any of your business. He's the boss, the grown-up, he's forgotten more than you know right now. But also, because he just plain doesn't want to deal with thinking painful thoughts. Hence the behaviour, and the dulling it with the shopping addiction - and it is hoarding.

My dad gets little sleep due to apnea (he's over weight, and the position he has to sleep in due to his spine also contributes). But he won't treat it due to the fact he just plain can't deal with the idea that there's another thing wrong with him. He's also very likely depressed, as a side effect of his medications but also because, well, his life sucks.

I went with him to the doctor one day, and explained this - and the doctor said he can't treat my dad unless my dad for depression unless my dad brings it up. I'm still fuming about that, but that's the healthcare system there. People who have poor health ought to be able to see everyone from therapists for the mental fortitude to deal with it to pain management specialists (my dad is in constant low-level pain, but while acupuncture helped, his HMO only covered six visits, and though he spends money on coin banks that look like railroad crossings - heaven forbit he should spend money on his health!). This may be the case somewhat with your dad, and the spending gives him a little high, a little pain relief.

I get around it by having always been the smart, resourceful kid who just plain knows stuff (and of course that's why I'm always here, I guess) - so I bring things up by making them my issues, not his. I'm an only child, and if I'm going to be ultimately responsible for him as well as for my family, I demand to know what I need to know - and leave the rest to them. For example, I know all of their bank papers are in the locked box on the top shelf in his closet. But if he has a valuable Tweety Bird glass in his pile of stuff that's "worth something" in the basement, unless he identifies it clearly, it's just going back to the Goodwill when he passes and so be it. So, he agreed to let me help him sort his collection of character glasses into wine boxes and label them so that he can call a dealer, or that I can, when it's time. That was six years ago, and they're still sitting there, but it's done at least.

You see, part of his preparation for his future was imagining what he'd do when he couldn't work anymore, and he thought he'd become an antique dealer (never mind that's what I do for a living). It was perfect for his recovery. In Buffalo, the winters suck, and he needed to walk and needed aid - so pushing a shopping cart around a thrift store provided exercise, entertainment, company and most of all, what I suspect your father's problem is too: potential.

All the things he's buying (and you'll hear this on Hoarders, if you watch it) are going to be used someday.

He's going to take those trips, he's going to use those electronics, he's going to cash in those receipts... it's all in the ether, it's all potential, and there's no deadline to meet. It's his way of extending his life, by living in the potential instead of the actual.

And so this is what I'll do with my in-laws, who have this problem. The laundry mounts up, and my MIL will say "I was going to do that" so I say, "I'm here, I'll do it now" and I just do it. The lampshades have angora sweaters on them from the cats "I'm here, I'll vacuum them now." They know me as a person who likes to keep busy, and who is too nice to feel bad about. I do this with my parents too. I'll say "I'm bored - give me something to do. Let's dump this closet and sort it out - if you have any old towels, I'll take them to the SPCA." But when I say this stuff, I can't sound tired or frustrated or blaming. It's not accusing them of being lax - it's just me, and I like to be busy.

And now, as I'm finishing this novel, I'll point out one more thing about bringing home the bags of stuff from Safeway and such, though they have plenty.

I've also observed this in my in-laws, as well as my parents: they lack mobility in a way that means that, believe it or don't, that it's easier to get in a car today and drive to a store and buy five cans of soup, bring them home, open one and cook it, and stash the others in the back of a pantry, than it is to bend over and reach into a cupboard to find the other four cans two weeks from now. So they do it. My in-laws do this in the way that they only ever eat what's in the front row of the fridge - new items in, old items get pushed to the back (the oubliette, as we call it) - and so it goes. The world is set up to make it so easy, so fun and so great to shop. The music, the food at eye-level... the whole environment. Homes cease to have the same functionality as people age. My mom can no longer reach above her head or below here knees, due to her obesity and bad back and knees - so everything lives on the counter. Same for my in-laws, who can't see into their dark cupboards and closets. So clothes live in laundry baskets, and food lives on the counter and only the plates in the dish rack get used.

So, you may want to broach the subject of how it's not too much stuff (though it is) but of how the house itself isn't functioning with it, so how about sorting/purging/inventorying/organizing. Pick a few "hot spots" and spend half a day on them when you visit, and explain that it's not them or the behaviour, just that you'd like to see things working better. The rest may fall into place.

Lastly, just find a mantra that reminds yourself that the issues underlying are fear, control and potential and that it sucks to get old, and remember that you can only help, not change, them.

I apologize for the length, but I've been living this for years. I could go on, and you're welcome to memail me for support or just commiseration. I wish you compassion and fortitude, and I feel your pain.
posted by peagood at 7:22 AM on January 25, 2011 [42 favorites]

PS - sorry for the typos and mess - my 'puter was dropped and now the trackpad and keys are sticky.

But also, last thing (I swear): It's not logical - it's emotional and physical. It's about what your dad and mom can and will do, not what they should do. So, if your dad's "high" can be re-directed, great - try getting him to shop in his own stuff; or getting your mom to cope with feelings of helplessness by getting a thrill from donating to food banks or shelters. And I remind myself - it's not my money or my inheritance until it's mine - it really all is theirs to do with what they wish.
posted by peagood at 7:38 AM on January 25, 2011

This probably falls more in the line of harm reduction (or, as peagood says, redirection) than actually addressing the core issue-- but I'm slightly inclined your dad's way (at least, during high-stress periods I spend too much time browsing bargain websites and occasionally, if I don't keep firm hold of myself, can easily overbuy on "deals" that I have no real use for), and I find that I get exactly the same bargain/acquisition rush from snagging cheap or free stuff on Freecycle, garage sales, or Craigslist. FC/CL research has exactly the same addictive momentum, too, and in my experience increased involvement with one tends to dampen interest in the others. So as far as your dad's finances are concerned, introducing him to a way of acquiring new useless stuff not just cheap, but FOR FREE! might be one interim way of keeping the spending in check, if not necessarily of improving his mental health or the condition of his home.

(If this is indeed about acquiring and not about hoarding, then Freecycle/garage sale stuff has the additional virtue of being somewhat easier to get rid of by selling or giving away once the fit passes-- you haven't really invested anything in it, so it's pretty easy to let it go).
posted by Bardolph at 10:36 AM on January 25, 2011

I 2nd reading Stuff. Just finished it last night. It digs a little deeper into the mentality behind hoarders actions, or lack of.
posted by ducktape at 11:19 AM on January 25, 2011

I have to apologize for coming back here - but my FIL dropped by for a visit today, and it reminded me of one more thing: Interaction.

The reason your father could be addicted to shopping and spending is that he gets a pleasant interaction with people when he buys things. Depending on his home and work life, it may be the most pleasant part of his days.

I've worked in retail for years, and know for sure salespeople can be so nice, and people who want to buy can be so nice, so it's a match made in heaven. And the world encourages a consumer-based society, as I mentioned - so that's part of it.

Three years ago, my FIL had a flu that incapacitated him for three weeks, then he suffered a heart problem as a result and was in the hospital for three months. In the hospital, the nurses loved him. He flirted, had corny jokes for them, and we of course, always brought them treats like fruit trays and flowers upon his request, and they treated him very well. And I took over as the person who ran errands for my MIL, and took the pets to the vets and picked up prescriptions. Every where I went, I was told my FIL was the sweetest old guy and they all worried about him. He is so well-liked! It turns out he had his "rounds" - the pet shop on one day, pharmacy on another, the vet weekly for the cat's dialysis... even though he could have done this all once a month and saved himself a lot of trouble, it was his social life (and he's back to it). So, today, while my MIL got her hair cut (they live about 40 minutes from here, but she likes the salon I go to) he stopped by to play with the dog and have a cup of tea and visit while he waited. My in-laws are not awful to each other, but they do bicker and at eighty now, surely the romance is petering out. They've been cooped up on the cold and snow. At any rate, he's lonely for nice, fun people - and shopping is how he gets it. He has favourite cashiers, and receptionists and one-liners and jokes for them all; and needing another flat of cat food or a prescription refill (or just some Chapstick) is his key to seeing someone who's glad to see him. Even purchases or making an appointment on the phone are an opportunity to hear a friendly voice. The same kind of goes for my father, but his depression is such that he takes perverse pleasure in being private and isolated, though my mom tells me he loves talking to our kid.

So, I take care to phone regularly, or ask our daughter to. Maybe if your father gets part of his shopping high from that part of it, more frequent visits (with no demands) and phone calls just to check in (with no mention of ulterior motives) can boost his mood and replace what he gets from the interaction part of shopping, if that might be it.
posted by peagood at 11:41 AM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

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