My spending addiction left me £40k in debt

Maddy Alexander-Grout says the high of her spending sprees was followed by 'crashing guilt'. (Supplied)
Maddy Alexander-Grout says the high of her spending sprees was followed by 'crashing guilt'. (Supplied)

Maddy Alexander-Grout, 39, from Southampton, ended up in £40,000 worth of debt after her emotional spending spiralled out of control. She is now a money expert/entrepreneur and has a TikTok channel with over 33K followers, helping others with money problems. She is married with two children, Ben, seven and Harriet, four. Here she shares her story…

Words: Julia Martin

“It all started when I went to university, back in 2002. I’d gone to the freshers fairs and all the banks were there with their credit card stands. Suddenly I was being offered all this ‘free money’ and I didn’t really understand what it meant – that it was credit I would eventually have to pay back.

So I took out the loans and started buying expensive shoes and bags – my obsession was skate shoes and alternative brands. I was also a people-pleaser, so whenever I went out with friends, I would say ‘It’s on me’ and no one questioned it.

Looking back now, I realise I had some deep-rooted issues going on, which were already playing out in my spending. My parents had just got divorced and were moving on with their lives, as was my ex-boyfriend who I’d split up with shortly before, and I just wasn’t. I was looking for something to make me feel better, because I felt abandoned.

Maddy Alexander-Grout took out loans at university to buy expensive bags and shoes she couldn't afford. (Supplied)
Maddy Alexander-Grout took out loans at university to buy expensive bags and shoes she couldn't afford. (Supplied)

Chasing the dopamine hit

I didn’t really notice the rising debt for the first year, because I was living in a hall of residence and all the bills were taken care of. But when I moved into a shared flat, I suddenly had to start budgeting, and I just hadn’t got a clue.

It didn’t take long for my spending to affect my relationship with my flatmates. I lived on takeaways, partly because I hated cooking and partly because I didn’t want to go into the kitchen, because I was convinced they all hated me for not being able to pay my bills.

I can see now I was depressed and all my spending was driven by this emotional need. The only time I went out was to drink or dance, because that gave me a dopamine hit, as did eating, so I spent money seeking that high. A big part of that, I now know, is because I have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But that’s a recent discovery, so at the time I had no idea.

Mounting debt

After university, it spiralled. Whenever I felt low, I’d have what I call an ‘add to cart’ moment. I’d buy clothes and bags to boost my low self-esteem and feel ecstatic… until I’d worn them. Then I didn't want them anymore because they weren’t shiny or new, and I’d have crashing guilt.

It started to affect my whole life. At one point I almost lost my job in recruitment, because one of our clients was a bank and they wanted me to do a credit check. I knew mine would be very low, with county court judgments and debt relief orders, so I had to come clean to my boss. He was furious. I managed to persuade him to keep me on but it could have been the end.

Read more: Dealing with debt: 8 steps to taking control of finances

It also really affected my mental health. I’d used so many credit cards and store cards by this point that I had to use a finance company with sky high interest rates, and I had overdrafts with about six different banks.

Every time the post came, I hid the bills under the doormat – I was burying my head in the sand. I had debt collectors chasing me constantly, which put a strain on my relationship with my partner at the time. It was horrible. And it tested my relationship with my mum, because she was so cross with me. She bailed me out a couple of times but she knew I’d never learn my lesson if I didn't do it myself. She wanted me to learn from my mistakes. And eventually I did.

Maddy Alexander-Grout realised there were some deep-rooted abandonment issues behind her spending addiction. (Supplied)
Maddy Alexander-Grout realised there were some deep-rooted abandonment issues behind her spending addiction. (Supplied)

A fresh start

But first, I had to hit rock bottom. I’d moved to Warrington, aged 24, with my boyfriend but our relationship wasn’t in great shape by then. I was a long way from my family in Southampton, trying to hide from it all. But the debt collectors found me anyway.

One day one came round and actually wedged his foot in the door trying to get in. I had to borrow the money from a friend to stop him coming back the next day. I called my mum in pieces and she told me to pack my bags and come home.

I moved back to Southampton on my own and found myself the dingiest flat for £400 a month, which was all I could afford. It was a scummy hellhole, to be honest.

I knew I needed help, so I went to the Citizens Advice Bureau and told them I was £40,000 in debt. They put together a spending plan for me but I realised I’d still be in debt in 60 years' time, so I took matters into my own hands and set my own budget.

Read more: I was a multi-millionaire by 25 after growing up in poverty

For six years I scraped by, not going out and living on tomatoes on toast and smuggled gin, which I’d buy cheap from Lidl and take into pubs with me so I could occasionally go out and see friends without spending. It was tough – but by 2011, I had paid off all my debt.

It was also when the new 'thrifty Maddy' was born. I started going to charity shops and found I loved the buzz of finding a bargain. Because of my ADHD, I still craved dopamine, but I found I could get my hit from saving money.

Now, I’ve put things in place to make sure I never get myself into that awful position again. For example, I've got a coin pot and I get a buzz from hearing the clink the coin makes when I drop it in. I also have a cash wallet where I save money I’ve earned from selling my old things, so if I want to go and get my nails or my hair done, I know I've got it covered. My biggest high is finding something in a charity shop that I know is worth way more than what I paid for it.

Watch: Maddy Alexander-Grout now has her own TikTok channel, helping others with money issues

Developing healthy habits

Maddy Alexander-Grout is now a happily married mum-of-two and has used her experience to help others manage their money. (Supplied)
Maddy Alexander-Grout is now a happily married mum-of-two and has used her experience to help others manage their money. (Supplied)

Meeting my partner James in 2012 and then having children also hugely affected my spending and made me even more determined to keep a grip on it. Now I protect myself from situations where I might emotionally overspend. I don't have Apple Pay, or a card wallet on my phone or any credit cards linked to websites. If I want to buy something, I have to physically go out and use my bank card or get cash out.

I find if I sit at home, I will scroll and look for things to buy, so rather than doing that, I’ll go out to the charity shops and have a wander. And if I find something I like I'll buy it, because I know that spending £3 on a cardigan is way better than buying something for £50, because the bigger the spend, the bigger the crash and the guilt afterwards.

The compulsion is still there and I don’t think it’s something that will ever go, but I’d rather have a spending addiction than something else more detrimental to my health. I still have slip-ups but the first step is admitting you have a problem, and that’s what I did. Now I want to help other people do the same via my TikTok channel @MadAboutMoneyOfficial."

Woman clothes shopping (Getty Images)
Many people don't realise they're an 'emotional spender' at first, says our expert. (Getty Images)

Are you an emotional spender? Where to find support

What is emotional spending?

“Emotional spending is any kind of spending that isn’t purely practical,” says financial coach Kim Uzzell. “For example, buying something because you’ve had a bad day at work, trying to soothe your parental guilt, or just celebrating ‘that Friday feeling’.

“We all do it occasionally and that’s fine, but when chasing that dopamine hit becomes habitual, that’s when it can be dangerous," she adds."You feel better as you tap your credit card, but by time you get home, the thing you’ve just bought has no meaning, because the high has already dissipated. And as with anything that gives you a dopamine hit, you’ve got to do more of it as time goes by to get the same hit.”

How can you tell if you have an emotional spending issue?

“A lot of people don’t realise they’ve got a problem at first because often they can afford it,” says Uzzell. “But it’s a case of recognising why you’re spending. Ask yourself, ‘What am I trying to achieve from this? Am I trying to feel better?'”

Read more: Bills: What to do if you can't pay them

What’s the first step in tackling your overspending?

As with any addiction, it’s a case of identifying what’s at the root of your spending, explains Uzzell.

“Start by keeping a spending diary, and see what your patterns are,” she advises. “Do it for a month, and then identify when you're spending and why. Is it on a Friday night? Is it when you’re hormonal? Then you can start to work out why you’re spending, and whatever that is, that's what you need to address.”

Sometimes it can be simple – for example, if you find you spend when you’re hormonal, you can find an alternative treat to make yourself feel better. "It may be that you need counselling, but the best thing to do is talk about it, whether it’s with your partner, a friend or an independent outsider. There's no shame, just focus on how you can make changes.”

If you need help with spending, you can contact or