My roommate is addicted to eBay

She's buying rugs, she's buying rings, and she never leaves the house!

Published April 30, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My roommate is addicted to eBay. I'm not joking or being hyperbolic here -- she really is. She spends at least 30 hours a week parked in front of her home computer, scrolling through hundreds of listings in her favorite categories. Logging on to eBay is the first thing she does when she gets up on her days off, it is the first thing she does when she gets home from work, and a quick check of the listings on eBay is the last thing she does before she finally heads off to bed every night.

While I would be concerned enough at this point if she were only browsing or looking, she bids, and bids heavily. In the last month, she has spent over $500 alone on jewelry (two pieces of which turned out to be fake when they arrived!), and in the past year she has spent quite a bit on antique rugs. While this would all be well and good if she could afford such extravagances, the fact of the matter is that she can't. There have been many instances over the past year where I have had to loan her money to get her through the week until payday, where I have had to spend substantial sums feeding both her and our cats because she had no money for food and where she has been unable to do things that she really wanted to do because she has "no money."

Just last week she was upset because she couldn't afford to go and see her elderly grandmother because she "didn't have the money" for a train ticket. Well, if she hadn't spent upwards of $200 that Friday on yet another antique semiprecious ring, she might have been able to do what she wanted to do, but I said nothing of the sort to her because I didn't want to provoke an argument ... Ultimately it is her money to do with as she pleases, but her spending habits are affecting me in ways she doesn't seem to see.

No matter what other bills are outstanding, paying for her eBay items seems to come first, and she seems obsessed with maintaining her "100% positive feedback" rating. Recently, the household was without telephone, Internet or TV service for a time because she forgot to pay the bill to the cable company as she was too busy paying off still another eBay debt (I pay for the rest of the household utilities myself). At least two or three times a week, she asks me what I think about something she's considering and I have -- more than once and in the most careful language -- discouraged her from buying or bidding on items I know she cannot afford. Even she knows she can't afford these things, but she will nevertheless work out payment plans with the vendors and take weeks or months to pay off the charges.

She says that she's depressed about the world and looking at nice things on eBay cheers her up, but it seems to me that her priorities have become warped. We are talking about a person who has slept on an uncomfortable air mattress for the two years we have been roommates and who complains that she can't sleep through the night, but who would rather spend hundreds on an antique rug or ring than get herself a bed!

Browsing eBay listings seems to constitute her entire life these days -- she never goes out, never sees friends, and spends most of her time on the computer. I've tried to talk about this subject with her in the past, but whenever I do, I am shouted down with a barrage of sarcastic remarks saying that I have no right to criticize her as I have spent plenty of money on eBay myself, which is true enough -- although a lot less these days!

Please don't get the wrong idea -- we are great friends and truly are lucky to have one another and have a good living situation -- but this eBay behavior seems to be going above and beyond anything necessary. Worse, things have started to expand -- she now spends many hours surfing other Web sites that offer antique jewels or items she likes, showing me things and talking about "working out a deal" if she sees something she just loves. I worry every day that her spending priorities are -- sooner or later -- going to affect her ability to pay the rent (even though that has only happened once). I've reached an impasse and I just don't know how to handle this situation anymore.


Enough eBay Already!

Dear Enough Already,

While your roommate may have a problem of some sort, let's first consider the possibility that what she is doing is not addictive behavior but immersion learning.

She is learning eBay. The problem is that she is learning how to buy instead of how to sell.

She should start learning how to sell. With her enthusiasm for the medium and the transactions, it should not be that hard for her. She obviously likes stuff and she likes doing transactions about stuff. It is just a matter of reversing her position on the flow: Instead of being a buyer, she becomes a seller. Whatever she has been buying, she can start selling. These jewel things, for instance. These rugs.

That way she can keep being obsessed with eBay but you won't have to worry about the rent. She obviously has a keen interest in the relative values of various objects, and would find it easy to price her items correctly. Plus, as an eBay enthusiast, she has that certain ineffable something -- she knows the market. She's one of them.

You two could go into business together. You obviously have more common sense than she does. You could handle some of the aspects of the business that require a level head. But she has the heart, the fire, the obsession. A perfect combination. Plus you're friends! What could go wrong?!

Well, of course I'm being a little sarcastic about the "what could go wrong" thing. Friends going into business together can be a nightmare.

But I would not be so quick to label what she is doing an addiction. Maybe it's an obsession. They're not the same thing. Obsession can be a good thing. It's how we learn stuff. Especially when you're a kid, it's how you learn. You keep at something until you know everything about it. You stay up late. You stop eating. It's like being in love. Now, obsession with physically addictive substances can lead to physical dependence. That's not learning. But is obsession with math an addiction? Or is it learning? Is obsession with computer programming an addiction, or obsession with basketball, or politics? Or are they simply passionate behaviors that involve learning and creativity but take up a hell of a lot of time?

I know that obsessive compulsive disorder is a real thing, and hoarding-cluttering is a real thing, and these disorders can manifest themselves in obsessive shopping and the collecting of objects. If she begins hoarding objects to the point that the room begins to fill up, and if she is buying things but not taking them out of the package, then she may need some professional help.

But I'm just saying, maybe she's just really, really into eBay. She might be leading a really unbalanced life, ignoring her friends, ignoring practical matters, but many scholars and artists also lead unbalanced lives, ignoring their friends and practical matters, so they can focus with singular intensity on one object of interest. Let's not be overly quick to call it an addiction. Maybe it can be turned to profit.

Interested in obsessions? Me, too!

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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