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Retail Therapy: Are Emotions Draining Your Wallet?

14 Minute Read

"When I shop, the world gets better, and the world is better. But then it’s not, and I need to do it again."
Confessions of a Shopaholic

Girl loves boy. Boy breaks up with girl. Girl spends way too much on overpriced shoes hoping to mend her broken heart. It’s called retail therapy, and it affects approximately 96% of women and men.(1)

For many of us, it’s hard not to buy something to cheer ourselves up when we’re dealing with stress, sadness or even fear. But, ironically, most of the time we don’t even realize why we made that purchase. Then the pleasure fades and the blown budget remains.

Despite how excited we may feel as we stroll the aisles with shopping bags swinging from our hands, retail therapy can easily cost us more than we bargained for. Or with just a few simple tips in mind, we can learn how to take advantage of shopping without an ounce of remorse.

Why Retail Therapy Feels Good

No, you didn’t just imagine that the "fix" from retail therapy made you feel better—there’s actually science behind it. Shopping really can make you feel like you left the day from you-know-where at the door. Take a look at the science behind the feeling.

Ready to start saving? Download our free budgeting tool today!

A sense of control.

Though life’s circumstances may seem to be spinning out of control, as we decide what to buy and where we’ll shop it’s easy to feel like we’re back in the driver’s seat. But are we really in control, or are our emotions calling the shots?

Biological bliss.

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.

"What we’re doing with retail therapy, is we’re trying desperately to regulate our emotions. We don’t like distressing or uncomfortable emotions. So we’ll do short-lived things that make us feel good in the moment."
— Joanne Corrigan, Psychologist(3)

A boost of self-esteem.

It’s Monday morning and as you’re getting dressed nothing seems to look good on you. Nothing. Your phone chimes and, lo and behold, your favorite store is having a SALE! It’s a Monday-miracle. That new dress is just what you need to feel better about your week.

But would you feel as excited about the sale if you knew that, thanks to a study out of London, marketers now know what days and times you’re likely to feel "most vulnerable" and are encouraged to push out marketing "during prime vulnerability moments" (aka when your defenses are down)?(4) Makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, doesn’t it?

An escape from reality.

Whether it’s the images splashed across the walls, that "signature smell"(5) we breathe in, or the upbeat music that has us humming along—the entire store experience was carefully crafted and tested to make us forget all about our budget.(6) Reality check: We can’t afford to forget that it’s their business to get us to buy.

A sense of scarcity.

Most stores, especially online stores, use a false sense of scarcity to push us over the edge of "interested" to "I have to buy this now!" When the shop tells us there’s just a limited number left, or the website displays a banner ticking down the two whole minutes we have left to use our coupon, it’s hard to not feel our beloved item slipping through our fingers—and easy to forget all about the budget.

A sap for a sale.

It doesn’t matter what time of year we shop, retailers are always working hard to appeal to our inner deal-lover so we spend money to "save" money. Whether it’s buy-one-get-one free when we never wanted one 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.

"The road to bankruptcy is paved with good deals."

Hope for the future.

When we’re shopping it’s easy to think about the future—the game we’ll be watching on that plasma TV, the date we’ll go on in that gorgeous designer dress, or the prize-winning buck we’ll nab in that new deer stand. 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."(8)

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

Now that we know why we pull out our wallets so willingly for retail therapy, is blowing the budget really 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.

Yes, that gas stove you splurged on may make your famous Belgian waffles taste better, but if you can’t afford the ingredients to cook them—was it really worth it? What about the "dream" truck that cost you and your wife your retirement? Is a temporary fix worth your financial security?

Wish you could turn back time? Try taking those purchases back! Some stores allow up to a year to return an item.

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.


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.


Let’s be painfully honest for a moment. Though retail therapy might work in the short term, 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, next time retail therapy calls your name, skip the heartburn and do your health a favor with smart choices that don’t throw caution—and your budget—to the wind.


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 one writer humorously said, "Shopping bags aren’t a great replacement for friendships."(9) Do we really want our legacy to be that we invested our time in things, rather than in those we love?

Our ability to help others.

We all want to make a difference. But is our money where our mouth is? Did you know that just $5 can give one child safe water for an entire year?(10) Or that taking muffins to the elderly widow down the street could seriously earn you a friend for life? Even the smallest of actions can make a big impact on someone’s future!

In her book Love Your Life, Not Theirs: 7 Money Habits for Living the Life You Want, Rachel Cruze talks about how important it is to use our money for more than just our needs: "Our lives are often centered on what makes us happy. But as you move from being focused on your needs to being focused on the needs of others, you change. Generous people are not only the happiest people on the planet, they also truly live more fulfilled lives."

"In 2016, Americans spent over $4.8 trillion on retail purchases. That’s enough to cover the entire surface of the earth in $100 bills."
Mental Health America(11)

All of the Therapy, None of the Remorse

"If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail." Ever heard that saying? Before the siren call of retail therapy sounds, you need a plan to keep those roller-coaster emotions far, far away from your shopping cart.

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). Then make 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.

Imagine waking up in the morning after a big purchase and breathing easy because—being the financial 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!

Here are some simple steps to help you enjoy shopping and avoid buyer’s remorse:

Stick with your budget.

Is there room in the budget? You’ve got a green light—buy away. No room left in the budget? Sorry, but that means no more cash to spend! Hooray for not going along with the status quo. You stuck to your budget, you financial genius!

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!

Put it on hold.

If you find yourself hesitating as you stand in line for the cashier, simply ask if they’ll let you put it on hold. If you’re still excited about that "must-have" purchase tomorrow, it’ll be there when you get back!

Narrow it down to necessities.

Instead of buying your fifteenth 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.

"54% of Americans are overwhelmed by their clutter and 78% find it too complicated to deal with."
— National Association of Professional Organizers(12)

Shop smart.

Stretch your pennies by shopping smart. With a little patience, research and planning you could get twice as much for your money!

Take a social sabbatical.

The always perfect, forever-polished, we-really-are-a-flawless-family, magazine-worthy 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.

Keep 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.

Live generously.

Still itching to shop? Try putting that budget to good use! 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 in your community.

"People felt significantly happier when they looked back and reflected on a time when they spent money on others, rather than themselves."
— Elizabeth Dunn, Researcher and Professor at the University of British Columbia(13)

Related: Need help with budgeting? Check out our free budget software, EveryDollar.

Feel Better for Free

So what if it’s the middle of the month and splurging on a shopping spree would mean blowing your budget? Here are some proven ways to put a smile on your face.

Escape into a good book.

According to the Open Education Database, when we read about an experience, the same parts of our brain are stimulated as if we’d experienced it ourselves because the same neurological regions are stimulated.(14)

Get moving.

Looking for a mood booster? Hit the gym or go for a walk with a friend to release endorphins, another of "the neurochemicals of happiness."(15) Not only does this boost of happiness come without a high price tag, but it could also help improve your health!

Take the time to laugh.

Whether it’s movie night with the family, playing with your kids or pets, reading the comics, or giggling as you bumble your way through your first yoga class, laughter really is the best medicine. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter can not only lift your mood thanks to its boost of endorphins, but it can also lower stress, relieve pain, and boost your immune system.(16) Now that’s something to smile about!

Talk with a friend.

Sometimes simply talking our problems out can help process, alleviate and validate our pain. A good heart-to-heart with a friend, a therapist or even our spouse can work wonders for our soul and, in this case, our pocketbook.

Nix the noise.

Tired of being told what you want and why you need to buy it now? Do yourself a favor and hit mute by unsubscribing from the emails that fill your inbox and drain your wallet.

Write it all down.

American Psychologist Dr. James Pennebaker says that when we journal, "we translate an experience into language . . . (and) make the experience graspable."(17) Putting words to our pain point not only allows us to process our experiences, but, according to the Huffington Post, "studies have also shown that the emotional release from journaling lowers anxiety, stress, and induces better sleep."(18) Less stress and more sleep—who wouldn’t want that?

How to Prevent Emotional Spending

Now it’s time for the hard part—sticking to the plan. When you’re too tired or stressed to think rationally about your spending, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Why do I want this item?

Have you ever found yourself standing in a store or scrolling through online shopping sites with no idea of what you’re looking for—only a determination that whatever it is will make your rotten day better? Impulse alert! Unless you have a plan and room in the budget, you’re setting yourself up for a ruthless case of retail remorse.

2. Will I really use it?

Is that cat hat you’re buying for Mr. Whiskers really going to serve you (or him) in the long run? How about those cast-iron bacon bowls? Would it kill you to eat your meat next to your eggs? Ask yourself how often you’re going to use that shiny new purchase. If you’re not likely to remember you own it three months from now, go ahead and do yourself a favor and forget it now.

3. Does it fit within my budget?

Let’s say you started saving for a grill this month, but thanks to a particularly exhausting week at work, you decide to buy it pronto. The only problem is there’s no more cash in the budget. Do you really need to grill out this month, or can you make some savory meals on all those kitchen appliances that are already paid for?

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

Do we really want to spend our lives hauling our retail therapy purchases to Goodwill with our budgets broken and our futures shaped by choices that came at a cost we never intended to pay?

No one wants that to be their story. And it doesn’t have to be! When we stick to our budget we don’t have to worry about regret kicking in when that package from our online order arrives.

We can enjoy shopping without the pain of remorse or a waning wallet by making choices that are not only right for today, but also for the days ahead.

Why wait to enjoy a regret-free shopping spree? Start your budget now with EveryDollar.

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Get a FREE Customized Plan for Your Money! 

Answer a few questions, and we'll create a plan tailored just for you. It only takes three minutes!
Take the Free Assessment