How to Overcome Your Reliance on Retail Therapy

retail therapy

Whenever I get writer’s block, I want to buy things.

Here’s how it plays out. On days when I feel stuck, I’ll do more research to help generate ideas. And advertisements that speak to my browsing history inevitably pop up and show me something I’ll love.

On a good day, I don’t even notice them. But on a bad day, I click away to my heart’s content.

And since the site selling the cool thing I didn’t know I wanted until now naturally accepts Paypal, I don’t even have to pull out my wallet. It only takes a few seconds to click on the ad and complete a purchase.

Plus, clicking “buy” gives me a thrill and makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something. But then, immediately after, regret hits.

Why did I do that? I know better!

And that, my friends, is how retail therapy gets you (and your wallet). Here’s what you can do to keep your guard up and not give in to it.

What is retail therapy?

To most of us, retail therapy is not a new concept.

Having a bad day? Go shopping on your lunch break! Getting over a breakup? Time to buy a new outfit! Stressing out at work? Time to buy those tech tools you’ve been drooling over. After all, they’ll make you more productive, right? Right?

The idea of shopping for a mood boost is so prevalent that you could practically understand someone’s personality by what they indulge in when they’re feeling low. But for those who do it too much, it can be disastrous for their finances, and potentially their mental well-being overall.

That’s because the thrill of the purchase always disappears when the reality of the cost hits. What’s worse, those who give into retail therapy might feel like they’re hopeless over-spenders who are “bad with money.”

But that would be an unfair generalization to place on anyone. The truth is, retail therapy is something we can all succumb to at some point. Here’s why.

Why does retail therapy feel so good?

Pop culture might lead you to believe that retail therapy disproportionately affects females. Movies like “Confessions of a Shopaholic” don’t help dispel that notion, either.

However, if you’re a man or woman, a spender or a saver, it doesn’t matter; anyone is susceptible. Some of us just might be better than others at resisting the urge.

Think you can rise above it? Here are a few reasons it’s harder than you might realize.

1. Shopping releases dopamine

Why are we susceptible to retail therapy and impulse purchases? Because of one very important brain chemical: dopamine. This effect is explained in an article in The Wall Street Journal:

“Dopamine is associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, and it’s released when we experience something new, exciting or challenging. And for many people, shopping is all those things.”

Therefore, seeing something unexpected can lead to a surge of dopamine that your logical side might find difficult to override. And that surge can be addicting. That’s why we head out to stores or shop online because we know we can get that easy dopamine fix.

2. Choosing what to buy makes us feel in control

A release of dopamine isn’t where it ends, either. Some scientists are finding that the act of making choices is what really feels good. Psychology Today discusses why:

“A team from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor presents data from three experiments showing that in both hypothetical and real situations, making shopping choices helps people restore a lost sense of personal control, and by doing so alleviates sadness.”

What’s more, “According to the researchers, it’s not compulsive buying that helps. It’s the repetitive exercise of choice inherent in the typical shopping scenario.”

This is a feeling I can totally relate to. And I know that a quick buy, even online (especially online) gives me a feeling of having accomplished something.

3. Making purchases helps us pursue a better version of ourselves

So what about the new argument of buying experiences instead of things? Unfortunately, they’re not always separate.

We still need things to plan some experiences. You can’t travel the world without a plane ticket after all. And if you want to try a new workout, you might have to buy some new gear first.

Whenever we buy something, we’re often doing it in the service of some better version of ourselves. We buy clothes because looking good can help us feel good. Or we buy books because they might make us smarter.

Retailers understand this, and they will utilize it to get you to buy. In fact, in a recent article Buffer explains how successful brands don’t sell you a product: they sell you a dream of what the product can help you do or become.

Funny how my moments of succumbing to retail therapy during writer’s block tend to be things I think will improve my productivity.

Combat retail therapy in 3 steps

While too many unplanned purchases can wreck your bank account, the high of the buy quickly turns into a low as well.

When we go through this quick rise and dip in dopamine, the only solution is to keep working at making it rise back up. Or to buy and buy again.

After battling this impulse over the years, I’ve realized that tightening the reins on my budget simply isn’t good enough. If rational thinking goes out the window when an impulse buy is about to happen, it can’t jump in and save you.

But knowing why you’re about to make an impulse buy can. Here’s how to combat retail therapy highs.

1. Figure out why you’re buying stuff

There are a lot of tips and tricks that can help you stop an impulse buy. But if you really want to win the fight against retail therapy, then you should look into why you’re doing it.

Is indulging in retail therapy something that happens to you frequently? If so, what’s the pattern?

Or, is it infrequent? If so, write down a list of the few times it’s happened so you can see if there’s a less obvious pattern beneath the surface.

Chances are, even if you don’t do this often, you can discover a pattern during the times that you do – or the emotion you feel when you do it. And that can be really helpful for the next step.

2. Customize your solution to your impulse

Boiling your impulse buys down to a pattern, even if the reasons these purchases are happening are temporal, will help you in two ways.

First, you can stop surprise attack impulse buys. Second, you can start to solve the underlying issue.

Let’s say you’re indulging in retail therapy because you hate your job. Instead of hitting the stores to get out of the office and cool down, why not sit at a coffee shop and send some networking emails instead?

Or what if retail therapy is your go-to after you have a fight with a loved one or endure a breakup? Finding an activity to do that makes you feel awesome about yourself (say joining an art class or volunteering opportunity) would have a much better end result.

Whatever it is that’s causing you dissatisfaction, finding a way to solve the root issue will help you fix it and stay on budget.

3. Keep tabs on your retail therapy needs

As you work to solve the one or many ways you indulge in retail therapy, you’ll probably hit some bumps in the road. I know I have.

I’ve gone from keeping a tighter budget (didn’t work) to blocking certain sites from my computer (worked until ads retargeted me on other pages).

In the end, the only thing that’s worked for me is to understand the why – and that the why will change over time as my life does.

I used to shop out of boredom. So I started writing books on the weekends instead – a dream I always had but never followed. Three years of this led to almost no shopping and two very awful (but very real!) novels. And I no longer shop out of boredom.

I once shopped a lot because I hated my job. During walks I’d take to clear my head, I inevitably stumbled into a shop that sells cute notebooks or delicious (and expensive) pastries. Eventually, I left that job. I’ve never been back to any of those shops since.

And now writer’s block makes me want to shop because it briefly alleviates the frustration of not accomplishing something. So, when I see an ad I want to click, I quickly shut it down and find a book instead.

Why? Because I made the unexpected discovery that reading fiction helps me out of a block. And by the time I get that creative momentum, I can open my computer again without buying a thing.

Whatever is causing you to fall into the warm (but costly) embrace of retail therapy, examine it closely. You might not be able to prevent every future impulse buy, but you can more quickly spot the patterns as they come up. And then you can get them under control before they become a problem.

No matter what, don’t beat yourself up

The low we experience after the thrill of a purchase is bad enough. But when multiplied by a realization that you didn’t have the money to spend on that purchase hits, it can be hard to come back from.

The worst thing you can do is beat yourself up for an impulse buy. If the buy happened because you were feeling low, and then you feel worse for making the purchase, then you’re setting yourself up for a limitless downward spiral. Don’t do that to yourself.

Things happen. Everyone makes mistakes with their money (and if someone tells you they don’t, they’re lying). I mean, I’m a personal finance writer, and I still have to battle my own money blunders.

If you partook in retail therapy that you wish you hadn’t, pick yourself back up. Return the item if you can. And if you can’t, then learn from your mistake and move on. That’s a lot more productive than feeling bad about yourself – and it’ll be more effective too.

And if you’ve racked up some credit card debt thanks to retail therapy, check out our ultimate guide to paying off credit card debt faster.

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