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Retail Therapy: Are Emotions Draining Your Wallet?

I want to talk about the kind of shopping you don’t talk with your friends about. It’s a type of spending that’s especially dangerous because it makes you feel better in the moment, but causes shame and regret later on.

It’s called retail therapy, and it costs the average American over $1,600 per year!1

Now, let me just say that I’m a natural spender. Spending money comes easily to me, and I love shopping. I’m not ashamed of that. But when shopping is a vice for dealing with stress, sadness or even fear, then it’s a big problem.

You may use retail therapy and not even realize why you made that purchase. But once the fun of shopping fades and your blown budget remains, you experience even more heartache.

What Is Retail Therapy?

Retail therapy is spending money to make yourself feel better.

We all have different money mindsets, so some people are more prone to this than others. Whether you only deal with this occasionally, or it’s a bigger pattern in your life, it always winds up costing more than you bargained for.

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Of course, the global pandemic we’re facing right now makes spending even more tempting. We’re bored at home, stuck on our phones and computers, right where marketers like to reach us. I’ve had more Instagram ads and promotional emails this week than I think I’ve ever had in my life!

Soon many of you are going to receive a stimulus check from the government. And it will probably be tempting to go blow it to make yourself feel better.

But you guys, I know buying a new outfit can temporarily relieve anxiety and make the loud voice of fear inside our head quiet down, but that hit of happiness never lasts. Retail therapy hangovers feel like a lot of guilt, shame and anxiety. I don’t want that for you! I want to help you feel secure in your finances without an ounce of remorse.

The Psychology of Retail Therapy

You don’t just imagine the "fix" from retail therapy—there’s actually science behind it. Shopping really does make you feel better in the moment. Take a look at why retail therapy makes us feel so good:

It gives you a sense of control. 

When life’s circumstances seem to be spinning out of control—like, I don’t know, a crazy virus that is causing life as we know it to stand still—deciding what to buy and where we’ll shop makes it feel like we’re back in the driver’s seat. But are you really in control, or are your emotions calling the shots?

It’s like a drug.

When we shop, the body releases dopamine, one component of what Psychology Today calls "the neurochemicals of happiness."2 Ironically, most of the blissful release is during the anticipation of that shiny new toy, not the actual purchase. And before we know it, the bliss is gone.

It boosts your self-esteem.

Advertisers totally take advantage of this. They know which days and at what times you’re most likely to feel vulnerable, and they send out their emails, targeted ads and text notifications during those times.

So, if that dress you’ve been eyeing on Instagram just happens to go on sale when you’re feeling insecure, don’t assume it’s meant to be. In the moment, you feel like buying that dress will solve all your problems. You’ll look so great in it. But just like we talked about, that high will wear off by the time it arrives on your doorstep.

It’ll get you if you’re a sap for a sale.

Okay, I admit it. I’m totally guilty of this. Retailers are always working hard to appeal to our inner deal-lover so that we spend money to "save" money. Whether it’s buy-one-get-one free for something we never wanted to begin with, or 70% off something we’ll never use again, retailers aren’t giving us what seems like a great deal out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re trying to make a profit on us.

It makes you hope for the future.

When we’re shopping, it’s easy to think about the future—the game we’ll be watching on that big-screen TV, the date we’ll go on in that gorgeous designer dress, or all those ducks you’ll bag in that new duck blind (love ya, Winston). In an article by Psychology Today, Kit Yarrow, a psychology and marketing professor at Golden Gate University, explains, "As people shop, they’re naturally visualizing how they’ll use the products they’re considering, and in doing so, they’re also visualizing their new life.”3

The Dangers of Retail Therapy: What Can It Cost Us?

Is retail therapy really such a bad thing if it seems to be saving our sanity?

Here are some areas of our lives that both researchers and shopaholics agree can suffer at the hands of retail therapy if we don’t shop responsibly.

Financial Security

Maybe you can see yourself driving the truck of your dreams all over town, but if you can’t afford to fill the tank, is it really worth it? Saying “I deserve it” and splurging on big-ticket items isn’t worth putting your financial security at risk.

Long-Term Goals

Hoping to get out of debt, buy a house, save up for your kid’s college tuition, or even pay for in-home care for your elderly parents? Satisfying short-term desires without factoring in the future can come at a cost, not only to us, but also to those around us.

Self-Control

Thanks to the rush of dopamine released when we shop, retail therapy can easily become addictive and taxing on our self-control. For those who are already prone to addictive-type behaviors, not practicing self-control on what may seem like small things could lead us to chase that dopamine release through other addictions.

Health

Let’s have some real talk: Retail therapy might work in the short term, but it can never cure what’s driving us to shop in the first place—it just numbs the pain for a moment. Pile a load of guilt, shame and anxiety from all that money we just spent on top of the pain that drove us to shop, and we’ve got a royal mess of stress on our hands when the dopamine fades. So, the next time retail therapy calls your name, do your health a favor and make the wise choice. 

Relationships

If we’re using retail therapy as a coping mechanism to deal with life’s ups and downs, the relationships that are most important to us can easily feel the sting of neglect while we chase the next thing that’s sure to make us happy. But as Derek Thompson humorously wrote, "Shopping bags aren’t a great replacement for friendships." Do we really want our legacy to be that we invested our time in things, rather than in those we love?

8 Ways to Avoid Retail Therapy

"If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail." Ever heard that saying? You need a plan to keep those roller-coaster emotions far, far away from your shopping cart.

Here are some simple steps to help you shop responsibly and avoid buyer’s remorse:

1. Make a budget—and stick to it!

Imagine waking up in the morning after a big purchase and breathing easy because—being the financially savvy person you are—you already made room in your budget to splurge. Now that would be a good way to start a new day!

Your budget is the path to freedom and fun. As you’re planning the budget for the upcoming month, decide how much of your income will go toward your essentials (like rent and utilities), how much will go toward giving, and how much will go toward your money goals (like paying off debt or building your emergency fund).

If you’re out of debt and have an emergency fund in place, be sure to include things you enjoy in the budget, like adding new pieces to this season’s wardrobe, splurging on a new set of tools, or taking a date night out with your spouse. But if you want to make a purchase and there’s no room in the budget—sorry! Not today, retail therapy. Not today.

Ready to stop overspending and regrets? Create your budget with EveryDollar, our free budget app!

2. Window shop.

Believe it or not, even window shopping can release a surge of dopamine, giving your brain that fix it craves. But this time, it doesn’t cost you a thing!

I have a friend who actually does this with online shopping. She browses her favorite websites, reads the reviews, and saves items to her cart. And then . . . she just leaves them there. Sometimes she’ll check back on her shopping cart to see if any of those items went on sale, then place the order after she’s given it some time. That way she knows it’s not an emotional purchase. 

3. Put it on hold.

As you’re waiting in line at Target with a product in your arms that’s going to make you feel better, ask yourself:

  • Why do I want this item?
  • Will I really use it?
  • Does it fit within my budget?

If it checks all the boxes, simply ask an employee if they’ll let you put it on hold. My rule of thumb is, when you find yourself wanting to impulse buy, think about it at least overnight. If you’re still excited about that "must-have" purchase tomorrow, it’ll be there when you get back!

4. Narrow it down to necessities.

Instead of buying your 15th pair of running shoes because they’re just the right shade of navy blue, funnel your need to shop into buying necessities like food, toiletries or household cleaners.

5. Shop smart.

Stretch your pennies by shopping smart. Use coupons, wait for sales and always compare prices. With a little patience, research and planning, you could get twice as much for your money!

6. Put boundaries around your social media.

The always-perfect, forever-polished, we-really-are-a-flawless-family lives presented on social media are enough to make even the most accomplished person feel like they’re not measuring up. Follow the people who inspire you to be a better you—not the ones who make you feel like you need more to make you happy.

I can tell you this from experience: It’s almost impossible to be satisfied with your own life if you’re constantly looking at what someone else has. So, if this is a real struggle for you right now, shut off your social networks entirely. And while you’re at it, unsubscribe from all those email newsletters that show you how much you’re “missing.”

7. Steer clear of your triggers.

If you know you can’t be trusted in certain stores when emotions are high, do your best to avoid them. Come back when your financial feet are safely on the ground and you’ve got room in the budget to buy.

8. Live generously.

Still itching to shop? Try putting that budget to good use! Giving is a key character trait of people who win with money. So, purchase a pair of slacks for a veteran so he can nail that job interview, or deliver diapers to your sleep-deprived neighbors who have a newborn and are struggling to make ends meet. Don’t know of anyone in need? Check with your local church or rescue mission to find out how you can make an impact by giving back in your community.

Okay, guys. I’m glad we had this talk.

Now, I want you to ask yourself, do you really want to spend your life hauling your retail therapy purchases to Goodwill, with a broken budget and a future shaped by choices that came at a cost you never intended to pay?

No one wants that to be their story. And it doesn’t have to be! Half the battle is knowing yourself and knowing how to help yourself.  

You can enjoy shopping without the pain of regret by making choices that are not only right for today, but also for the days ahead.

Your Past Does Not Define You

There’s a big difference between “I’ve failed” and “I’m a failure.” One is a decision—the other is who we are. If you’re struggling with this, you’ve got to remember that mistakes do not define you. We all make mistakes. It’s part of being human! But when you internalize those mistakes as your identity rather than giving yourself grace, you’ll never be able to create a life you love.

It’s normal to feel guilt or shame after giving in to retail therapy. And guilt can be helpful—it can move us to make a better decision next time. But shaming yourself will only bring unnecessary pain.

If you think your past mistakes with money—retail therapy or any other financial decisions you’re not proud of—are too big to overcome, remember who you are, and whose you are.

John 1:12 (NIV) says, “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

You’re not a failure. You’re not meant to just get by. You were not born to just sleepwalk through life.

So, who are you?

You are loved.

You are strong.

You can do hard things.

You are here for a reason.

You are a child of God.

Read that again.

If retail therapy is something you tend to fall victim to, you have a choice today to learn from your mistakes, clean up the mess, and move forward. My new book, Know Yourself, Know Your Money, will help you overcome shame and embarrassment around money so you can feel confident in your money decisions. Check it out here!

Rachel Cruze

About the author

Rachel Cruze

Rachel Cruze is a two-time #1 national bestselling author, financial expert and host of The Rachel Cruze Show. She has appeared on Good Morning America, Today and Live With Kelly & Ryan, among others. Since 2010, Rachel has served at Ramsey Solutions, where she teaches people how to avoid debt, save money, budget and win with money at any stage in life. Learn More.

Discover Your 7 Money Tendencies

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Discover Your 7 Money Tendencies

Go beyond the Baby Steps with Rachel Cruze’s brand-new book, and change your money mindset!
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Discover Your 7 Money Tendencies

Go beyond the Baby Steps with Rachel Cruze’s brand-new book, and change your money mindset!
Preorder Now