Compulsive Buying Sends Shopaholic to Rehab

money disorderABC News

Nikki Ebben, a 32-year-old mother from Appleton, Wis., has been addicted to shopping for more than a decade. She owns approximately 160 pairs of shoes -- some of which have only been worn once.

And it's not just shoes. Ebben has a compulsive buying disorder -- she's bought 100 tubes of lip gloss, stacks of cosmetics and fragrance candles, and closetfuls of jeans, which can cost as much as $320 a pair.

VIDEO: Nikki Ebbens shopping addiction lands her in severe debt and financial rehab.Play
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"It's like you spiral out of control. You just keep doing these things and doing these things, and then you feel a little bit of remorse so then maybe you stop for a little bit. And then you do it again and do it again and do it again, and it's a vicious cycle," she said. "But when I was looking at all of these, it's really a sickening feeling. All the money I've wasted? I mean ... the money we could've saved, invested, it's all here in the shoe collection."

When asked about her credit card debt, Ebben says she owes "probably about $38,000 right now."

For years she says she committed "financial infidelity," lying to her husband about her spending. Finally, when he discovered her secret, he took away all her credit cards.

The marriage, once solid, was on the verge of collapse, as money that could have been saved for her children's education was gone.

"I can deal with the fact that ... maybe I'm hurting myself. But, the fact that I'm hurting my husband and my kids for something that they didn't even do, that they have no control over, that ... makes me pretty sick," Ebben said.

But when Ebben approached a local mental health clinic for what she calls her "shopping addiction," she was met with skepticism.

"I have a shopping problem. I'm spending too much money on clothes. I'm a shopaholic," she said. "Is there anybody here that can help me?"

As she recalls, the mental health professional she contacted "pretty much laughed at me."

With nowhere else to turn, Ebben agreed to let "20/20" send her to Cumberland Furnace, Tenn., the home of Onsite -- the only live-in week-long money treatment center in the country -- for their "Healing Money Issues" workshop.

In April 2009, Ebben joined eight others from all over the country, who were each at their wit's end financially. Made even worse by the sour economy, these strangers arrived looking for answers at this intensive, residential, money detox center.

Workshop Seeks to Tame Out-of-Control Money Habits

Without the help of their cell phones, BlackBerries, televisions or cars, the group hunkered down with psychologist Ted Klontz to try to tame their out-of-control money habits.

Klontz, along with his son Brad, 38, a clinical psychologist, and financial planner Rick Kahler, are a threesome, helping participants who mainly face compulsive buying disorder, workaholism, financial enabling, financial incest and compulsive hoarding.

"A money disorder is a self-defeating ... self-destructive ... relatively ... persistent ... resistant to change behavior involving money," explained Ted Klontz.

But what makes this workshop unique is the belief that serious money issues are not about money. Money is basically the symptom, but it's actually not the disease, they say.

The real disease is a complicated mix of psychological baggage, which the week is designed to unpack. Using therapeutic exercises, role-playing, meditation, and behind-closed-doors group therapy, the goal is to find the root of the problem, and then change the behavior.

For Ebben, it brings a difficult realization.

"I've lived with the Nikki I am since I was 16 or 17 and coming here and finding the Nikki I should have been, is gonna be tough," she said, holding back tears.

But it's not just emotional coaching. Onsite also provides basic financial information about stocks and bonds and investments.

Rick Kahler, a financial advisor and president of Kahler Financial, based in Rapid City, S.D., is at Onsite to teach, but is forbidden ethically from offering any personal financial advice during the workshop. He says that in his outside practice, half his clients need much more than financial help.

"I can show them all day that they're going to be broke in 10 years, and it's not going to affect the behavior," he said.

"If going to your financial planner doesn't fix it, then we're looking at some kind of history. And until that history is uncovered and discovered ... then there won't be any changes," said Ted Klontz.

Childhood Insecurity Fuels Designer Jean Addiction

At the workshop, Ebben begins to make connections between her designer jean collection and her childhood insecurity.

"When I was in grade school my best friend in school got all the name-brand things. I remember her wearing them and just wanting them. I remember trying to convince my parents to buy me those Guess jeans, those T-shirts," she said. "When I get older and get a credit card, I'm gonna buy nice things."

Ebben also remembered how money became a key ingredient in a teenage romance.

"About two years into the relationship, he cheated on me. I wanted the relationship to be over, but he wanted to buy my affection back. So he took out a credit card and bought me. That become the norm," she said. "I couldn't forgive him and constantly would bring it up so he would buy me something. Now what people don't buy me I buy myself."

But Ebben's biggest breakthrough was still to come later in the workshop, as she realized why she shopped and that she was in control.

"Every time I feel lonely or I feel a sense of rejection -- every time I feel abandoned -- I shop. There's always that void and I -- it's been there my whole life," she said. "My old money script was I don't own money, money owns me. That was the first day I got here. My new money script is I have a brand new relationship with money and, damn, it feels good."