As shopping season \u2014 err, the holidays \u2014 approach, we look forward to super savings on the perfect gifts. In all the excitement, it can be far too easy to spend money you don\u2019t have. Anyone who has debt knows living beyond your means can be stressful. About one-third of Americans have unpaid debt \u2014 to the tune of about $5,000 \u2014 reports the Urban Institute, most often in the form of unpaid utilities, medical bills and credit cards. But it gets worse. Buying stuff you can\u2019t afford can be detrimental to your health \u2014 not just around the holidays, but well into the new year. If your accounts are perpetually empty and your credit card bills are piling up, underlying mental health issues may be to blame. Debt has been linked to a wide range of mental health problems: \tIf you struggle with mental health issues like depression or anxiety, you\u2019re three times more likely to be in debt than those who don\u2019t have a mental health disorder. \tIf you\u2019re in debt, studies show you\u2019re more likely to engage in drug and alcohol abuse. \tThose who commit suicide are eight times more likely to be in debt. Some of the most common mental health issues that lead to compulsive spending are impulse control disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders,\u00a0eating disorders and depression, says April Lane Benson, PhD, author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop. Terrence Daryl Shulman, LMSW, ACSW, CAADC, CPC, founder\/director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding, adds anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and attention-deficit\/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) to this list, and notes that many people suffer from several disorders, not just one. A Complicated Relationship When a person struggles with both mental health challenges and debt, it can be tough to figure out which came first. Some researchers believe the stress of having debt makes people more vulnerable to mental health disorders. Others theorize that mental health problems make it difficult for people to properly manage their spending, create a budget and maintain consistent employment. For many people, the reality is that debt and mental health disorders feed each other. Debt can cause anxiety and depression, and a number of mental health struggles lead to money problems. In Dr. Benson\u2019s experience, mental health issues typically come first. \u201cDebt can exacerbate an existing mental health issue,\u201d she says. Shulman agrees. \u201cIt's sometimes hard to say which came first but I believe mental health issues, stressors, losses, traumas and, often, other addictions lead to compulsive shopping\/spending and\/or poor money management and debt. Then these conditions lead to more mental health issues.\u201d The \u2018Smiled Upon\u2019 Addiction Lots of people love to shop. Lots spend more than they should. Does that mean they have an addiction that requires professional help? Not necessarily. But unless someone explicitly brings up their shopping\/spending as a reason for seeking therapy, \u201cfew therapists think to explore, let alone ask, about a client\u2019s financial situation,\u201d explains Shulman. \u201cAnd if they do, they often don't follow up or treat money problems as a separate issue.\u201d Topping Shulman\u2019s list of must-ask questions are: \tWhen did the shopping\/spending start to become a problem? \tWhy do you think it became a problem? \tDo you feel there's a connection between the shopping\/spending and your depression\/anxiety? \tWhat is your pattern and extent of shopping? \tWho knows about this problem (if anyone)? For those whose shopping is out of control and leads to negative consequences in their life, it\u2019s important to see the issue for what it really is \u2014 an addiction. \u201cCompulsive buying disorder is called the \u2018smiled upon addiction,\u2019 \u201d says Dr. Benson. \u201cIt\u2019s often hard for people to recognize this because it\u2019s so condoned by society.\u201d So people need to stay alert, be honest with themselves, and get help sooner rather than later. 6 Expert Tips on How to Stop Overspending There are many steps you can take to protect your financial and mental well-being: #1 Get educated. Keep an eye out for warning signs like insomnia, alcohol or drug abuse, difficulty staying focused, excessive anxiety, persistent sadness, or trouble functioning at home, school or work. If you\u2019re concerned about yourself or a loved one, an easy first step is to take a free self-assessment. \u201cGet educated about the risk factors for mental health disorders which include physical, relational, vocational, spiritual and other problems,\u201d advises Shulman. \u201cKnow that not keeping on top of your money, spending and budgets will exacerbate your problems and stress.\u201d #2 Pay down those cards. Create an action plan to pay down your debts. First priority: \u201cPay off all credit card bills right away,\u201d says Dr. Benson. It\u2019s a better investment than just about anything else you\u2019ll do. It\u2019s tax-free, and your interest rates are likely much higher than the return you can get on real estate or the stock market. The sooner you start tackling credit card debt, the quicker you\u2019ll have extra cash to make other investments and start saving. If you run into problems creating or following a get-out-of-debt plan, speak with a financial advisor and\/or a therapist who specializes in overspending. #3 Keep thorough spending records. Self-monitoring is a critical step, says Dr. Benson. You have to track your spending, including food, clothing, gasoline, entertainment, housing, utilities, insurance and other expenses, so you can figure out where you can cut back. This is the first step toward creating a budget. There are loads of tools and professionals who can help you do this, but a notebook and pen are all you need to get started. In addition to keeping track of what you\u2019re spending, be a smart shopper. \u201cDue to the Internet and easy and ubiquitous advertising and access to shopping, we need to be very deliberate instead of impulsive in our shopping,\u201d says Shulman. Do your research, plan your purchases in advance, and take some time before clicking \u201cbuy now\u201d to make sure you\u2019re making purchases you truly need. #4 Ask for help. At the earliest signs of a problem with overspending, reach out for help from loved ones, friends, and financial and mental health professionals. Avail yourself of support groups like Debtors Anonymous, self-help books, financial coaching and other resources. #5 Balance spending and saving. Spending isn\u2019t bad if you have adequate funds and can save for the future. But many of us spend indiscriminately, preferring the short-term escape to long-term security and satisfaction. \u201cJust as there is an obesity epidemic, there is a debt epidemic and a stuff epidemic,\u201d says Shulman. \u201cThink about what we are modeling for our kids and what was modeled for us as kids,\u201d he adds. \u201cHealthy financial habits are all too rare in our society and we need to focus on this both individually and collectively.\u201d #6 Identify the deeper need. It\u2019s been said that \u201cyou can never get enough of what you don't really need.\u201d Most people rack up debt for things they don\u2019t want, need or even use, warns Dr. Benson. Instead of buying for the thrill, \u201cit\u2019s important to tease out the authentic underlying needs that the shopping and spending is a misguided attempt to fill and find ways to meet those needs that enhance your life rather than erode it,\u201d she says. \u201cThese are the need for love and affection, the need to belong, the need for self-esteem, the need for this team of other people, and the need for autonomy.\u201d Talk to a mental health professional to uncover your unfulfilled needs and to develop healthier ways to meet them. This way, \u201cretail therapy\u201d becomes less rewarding and escape and distraction less necessary. Tackling debt on your own can be a challenge, especially if you\u2019re also struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues. These problems can make smart financial decisions tougher than simply making the choice to spend less. If you\u2019re so deep in debt you don\u2019t think you can afford treatment, know that seeing a therapist is more affordable than ever thanks to the Affordable Care Act. \u201cWith the holidays upon us, this can be the best and\/or worst of times for many people,\u201d says Shulman. \u201cWe need to watch our shopping as it\u2019s often excessive and destructive, and that\u2019s no way to bring in a new year.\u201d By Meghan Vivo SOURCES Ratcliffe C., McKerman S., Theodos B. \u201cDelinquent Debt in America.\u201d The Urban Institute. 2014. Taylor MP, Pevalin DJ, Todd J. \u201cThe psychological costs of unsustainable housing commitments.\u201d Psychological Medicine. 2007 Jul;37(7):1027-36. Richardson T., Elliot P., Roberts R. \u201cThe relationship between personal unsecured debt and mental and physical health: a systematic review and meta-analysis.\u201d Clinical Psychology Review. 2013 Dec;33(8):1148-62. Berger L., Collins J., Cuesta L. \u201cHousehold Debt and Adult Depressive Symptoms in the United States.\u201d Journal of Family and Economic Issues. 2015.