1. Art Therapy and Compulsive Spending
  2. About the Client
  3. Art Therapy Exercise
  4. Client Insight and Outcomes
  5. Disclaimer
  6. FREE DOWNLOAD Art Therapy Exercise


Spending money itself is not abnormal behaviour. We try to stick to a budget and may fail sometimes, or maybe a holiday season results in us spending more than we could afford. In most cases, however, we can course correct and get our finances back on track.

On the other hand, compulsive spending has very little to do with extraordinary spending during a season. Compulsive spending doesn’t always correlate with a lack of budgeting or disorganised finances. Compulsive spending can be done within budgetary means without creating financial problems.

Compulsive spending has little to do with budgets or even needing material items. Compulsive spending is an emotional event that seeks to provide a function of release for the person that is spending. Once the compulsion has been met, the release occurs and the individual feels emotional comfort. Unfortunately, that emotional safety is short-lived and the compulsion rises again.

As with most compulsive behaviours, the highs and lows seem to escalate and therefore the spending will change either with an increased dollar amount of spending or an increased frequency of spending. Even worse will be an increase in both dollar amount and frequency of spending.

Compulsive spending is often a cyclical problem. As a person spends to alleviate difficult emotions, the spending can also create negative feelings of shame and regret. This places the individual in a predicament where another spending event will most likely alleviate these negative feelings. The cycle then continues and is reinforced with every spending event.


Below are some of the common characteristics of compulsive spending that may indicate a problem to address:

  • Large amounts of your income are spent on non-essential purchases
  • Your debt due to non-essential purchases is increasing over time and not being paid off
  • Resolving to stop spending and breaking that resolve
  • Hiding spending from loved ones
  • High level of excitement when purchasing but less interest in the actual item
  • A stockpile of unused items begins to form
  • Buying a large number of things you do not need.
  • Presence of negative feelings such as shame and regret after spending
  • Relationships under stress due to spending
  • Feelings of lack of control when spending.
  • Hoping that some purchases


As with any maladaptive behaviour, it exists primarily as a coping mechanism for negative feelings that are overwhelming to the individual. Common feelings experienced by those who engage in compulsive spending include low self-worth, anger, loneliness, depression, and anxiety.

The act of spending attempts to avoid, distract or replace the negative feelings that are being experienced. When an individual experiences an increase in these negative feelings, impulsive spending activities may also increase. To many people this seems illogical to engage in an activity that may in effect be creating some of these negative emotions, however, for many who engage in compulsive spending, the impulsivity outweighs any cognitive thoughts of logic and reason.

Research indicates that impulsive behaviours develop in early stages of the lifespan when the ability to delay behaviour is at a low. Research also indicates that people who spend compulsively fall in the young female demographic. The age range is typically in the late adolescent and early adulthood range when individuals have more discretionary spending available.


  • Name: Imogen
  • Age: 48


Imogen recently had breast cancer and a mastectomy as part of her treatment. It has been 12 months since her operation and she feels low about the experience. Imogen is currently single but doesn’t feel it is worth finding a partner since her mastectomy. Imogen enjoys watching the Lifestyle shopping channels. She enjoys the banter between the hosts and often sees items that she wants to buy in every show.

When Imogen turns the TV off and resumes her activities, she feels down again and starts to worry about how many packages are coming to her. She is also becoming stressed about her credit card balance but feels she has plenty of time to pay it off. When the packages arrive, she often feels excited again but sometimes what’s inside isn’t what she expected after seeing it on TV.


This art therapy exercise is focused on identifying the course of emotions that occur before, during, and after an event where the client is exhibiting maladaptive behaviours. The concepts of time ‘before, during, and after don’t have to refer to a limited time period of 5 minutes, or hour etc. Instead, the concept of time refers to the period of time that the client is impacted by their maladaptive behaviours. This might occur in a short period of time or over 24 hours.


  • Ask the client to recall an experience where they purchased a non-essential item. The purchase should represent something that is not related to daily living such as groceries, utility bills etc.
  • Ask the client to reflect on how they felt in the time before the purchase.
  • Ask the client to reflect on how they felt in the time during the purchase.
  • Ask the client to reflect on how they felt in the time after the purchase.
  • Can the client identify a change in emotion during those times?
  • Ask your client to express any change in emotion in an artwork.
  • Discuss with your client how these changes may have been triggered.
  • What can your client learn about the way in which their emotions change?


Imogen noticed that before spending she would feel anxious and like the world was closing in on her with pressure. Imogen noticed the more she watched the shopping channels she felt her anxiety decreasing and her mood increasing. Imogen thought treating herself with a purchase was deserved.

Imogen felt confident that her purchase would make her feel better about herself when it arrived. After a few hours, she often noticed regret and guilt at spending more money.

Imogen felt she was using the thrill of the purchase to boost her mood. Imogen had also felt she had been using shopping as a way to give self-love when she felt the likelihood of rejection from a potential relationship would be high.

Case Study: Art Therapy for a Client Experiencing Compulsive Spending


This case study represents a snapshot of the client’s progress in treatment. The exercise in this article could be used as written or as a guide for new and original tasks developed by the Art Therapist. Responsibility for treatment resides with the individual therapist who understands their clients specific needs. The art therapy exercise should not be viewed as a pre-defined directive on how to treat a client that presents with a specific range of problems.This art therapy exercise will help build a database of knowledge to draw upon when helping your client. Art Therapy is associated with psychotherapy techniques, however each therapist often approaches therapy with their own foundation of psychological interventions, whether it be psychotherapy, CBT, DBT or other methods. 

FREE DOWNLOAD: Art Therapy Exercise

Download the FREE Art Therapy Exercise based on the above Case Study. The free download includes instructions for the art therapy exercise, along with an example of the art therapy exercise.
Case Study: Art Therapy for a Client Experiencing Compulsive Spending

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Case Study: Art Therapy for a Client Experiencing Compulsive Spending

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