How to Overcome Your Reliance on Retail Therapy

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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.

Interested in a personal loan?

Here are the top personal loan lenders of 2018!
LenderAPR RangeLoan Amount 
1 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Personal Loans: Fixed rates from 6.990% APR to 14.865% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 6.255% APR to 12.555% APR (with AutoPay). SoFi rate ranges are current as of September 1, 2018 and are subject to change without notice. Not all rates and amounts available in all states. See Personal Loan eligibility details. Not all applicants qualify for the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, to qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. Your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including evaluation of your credit worthiness, years of professional experience, income and other factors. See APR examples and terms. Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at 14.95%. Lowest variable rate of 6.255% APR assumes current index rate derived from the 1-month LIBOR of 2.08% plus 4.425% margin minus 0.25% AutoPay discount. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account.

    To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull.See Consumer Licenses.
  2. Minimum Credit Score: Not all applicants who meet SoFi’s minimum credit score requirements are approved for a personal loan. In addition to meeting SoFi’s minimum eligibility criteria, applicants must also meet other credit and underwriting requirements to qualify.
  3. SoFi Personal Loans are not available to residents of MS. Maximum interest rate on loans for residents of AK and WY is 9.99% APR, for residents of IL with loans over $40,000 is 8.99% APR, for residents of TX is 9.99% APR on terms greater than 5 years, for residents of CO, CT, HI, VA, SC is 11.99% APR, and for residents of ME is 12.24% APR. Personal loans not available to residents of MI who already have a student loan with SoFi. Personal Loans minimum loan amount is $5,000. Residents of AZ, MA, and NH have a minimum loan amount of $10,001. Residents of KY have a minimum loan amount of $15,001. Residents of PA have a minimum loan amount of $25,001. Variable rates not available to residents of AK, TX, VA, WY, or for residents of IL for loans greater than $40,000.
  4. Terms and Conditions Apply: SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet SoFi’s underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. To qualify for the lowest rate, you must have a responsible financial history and meet other conditions. If approved, your actual rate will be within the range of rates listed above and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, years of experience, income and other factors. Rates and Terms are subject to change at anytime without notice and are subject to state restrictions. SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. Licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. SoFi loans are originated by SoFi Lending Corp., NMLS # 1121636. (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org)

2 Includes AutoPay discount. Important Disclosures for Payoff.

Payoff Disclosures

  1. All loans are subject to credit review and approval. Your actual rate depends upon credit score, loan amount, loan term, credit usage and history. Currently loans are not offered in: MA, MS, NE, NV, OH, and WV.

3 Important Disclosures for FreedomPlus.

FreedomPlus Disclosures

  1. All loans available through FreedomPlus.com are made by Cross River Bank, a New Jersey State Chartered Commercial Bank, Member FDIC, Equal Housing Lender. All loan and rate terms are subject to eligibility restrictions, application review, credit score, loan amount, loan term, lender approval, and credit usage and history. Eligibility for a loan is not guaranteed. Loans are not available to residents of all states – please call a FreedomPlus representative for further details. The following limitations, in addition to others, shall apply: FreedomPlus does not arrange loans in: (i) Arizona under $10,500; (ii) Massachusetts under $6,500, (iii) Ohio under $5,500, and (iv) Georgia under $3,500. Repayment periods range from 24 to 60 months. The range of APRs on loans made available through FreedomPlus is 4.99% to a maximum of 29.99%. APR. The APR calculation includes all applicable fees, including the loan origination fee. For Example, a four year $20,000 loan with an interest rate of 15.49% and corresponding APR of 18.34% would have an estimated monthly payment of $561.60 and a total cost payable of $7,948.13. To qualify for a 4.99% APR loan, a borrower will need excellent credit on a loan of $15,000 with a term of 24 months, and qualify for at least two of the following discounts: (1) add a co-borrower who has sufficient income; (2) use at least fifty percent of the loan proceeds to directly pay off existing debt; or (3) show proof of having at least forty-thousand dollars in retirement savings – contact FreedomPlus for further details.

4 Important Disclosures for Citizens Bank.

Citizens Bank Disclosures

  1. Personal Loan Rate DisclosureFixed interest rates from 6.49% – 19.49% (6.49% – 19.49% APR) based on applicable terms. Lowest rates range from 5.99%-18.99% (5.99%-18.99% APR), are for eligible applicants, require a 3-year repayment term, and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment Discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change.
  2. Loyalty Discount: The borrower will be eligible for a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their loan if the borrower has a qualifying account in existence with us at the time the borrower has submitted a completed application authorizing us to review their credit request for the loan. The following are qualifying accounts: any checking account, savings account, money market account, certificate of deposit, automobile loan, home equity loan, home equity line of credit, mortgage, credit card account, student loans or other personal loans owned by Citizens Bank, N.A. Please note, our checking and savings account options are only available in the following states: CT, DE, MA, MI, NH, NJ, NY, OH, PA, RI and VT. This discount will be reflected in the interest rate and Annual Percentage Rate (APR) disclosed in the Truth-In-Lending Disclosure that will be provided to the borrower once the loan is approved. Limit of one Loyalty Discount per loan, and discount will not be applied to prior loans. The Loyalty Discount will remain in effect for the life of the loan.
  3. Automatic Payment Discount: Borrowers will be eligible to receive a 0.25 percentage point interest rate reduction on their Citizens Bank Personal Loan during such time as payments are required to be made and our loan servicer is authorized to automatically deduct payments each month from any bank account the borrower designates. If our loan servicer is unable to successfully withdraw the automatic deductions from the designated account two or more times within any 12-month period, the borrower will no longer be eligible for this discount.

5 Important Disclosures for LendingPoint.

LendingPoint Disclosures

  • Loan approval is not guaranteed. Actual loan offers and loan amounts, terms and annual percentage rates (“APR”) may vary based upon LendingPoint’s proprietary scoring and underwriting system’s review of your credit, financial condition, other factors, and supporting documents or information you provide. Origination or other fees from 0% to 6% may apply depending upon your state of residence. Upon LendingPoint’s final underwriting approval to fund a loan, said funds are often sent via ACH the next non-holiday business day. LendingPoint makes loan offers from $2,000 to $25,000, at rates ranging from a low of 15.49% APR to a high of 34.49% APR, with terms from 24 to 48 months. The loan offer(s) shown reflect a 28 day payment cycle which is being offered as a courtesy as many of our customers are paid on a biweekly schedule and thus this may better align the loan payment dates with your actual income receipt schedule.

6 Important Disclosures for LendingClub.

LendingClub Disclosures

All loans made by WebBank, Member FDIC. Your actual rate depends upon credit score, loan amount, loan term, and credit usage & history. The APR ranges from 6.16% to 35.89%. For example, you could receive a loan of $6,000 with an interest rate of 7.99% and a 5.00% origination fee of $300 for an APR of 11.51%. In this example, you will receive $5,700 and will make 36 monthly payments of $187.99. The total amount repayable will be $6,767.64. Your APR will be determined based on your credit at time of application. The origination fee ranges from 1% to 6% and the average origination fee is 5.49% as of Q1 2017. There is no down payment and there is never a prepayment penalty. Closing of your loan is contingent upon your agreement of all the required agreements and disclosures on the www.lendingclub.com website. All loans via LendingClub have a minimum repayment term of 36 months or longer.


7 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Earnest does not lend in Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky, Nevada, or Rhode Island.

8 Important Disclosures for Avant.

Avant Disclosures

* The actual rate and loan amount that a customer qualifies for may vary based on credit determination and other factors. Funds are generally deposited via ACH for delivery next business day if approved by 4:30pm CT Monday-Friday. Avant branded credit products are issued by WebBank, member FDIC.

** Example: A $5,700 loan with an administration fee of 4.75% and an amount financed of $5,429.25, repayable in 36 monthly installments, would have an APR of 29.95% and monthly payments of $230.33


* Important Disclosures for Upgrade Bank.

Upgrade Bank Disclosures

* Your loan terms are not guaranteed and are subject to our verification and review process. You may be asked to provide additional documents to enable us to verify your income and your identity. This rate includes an Autopay APR reduction of 0.5%. By enrolling in Autopay your payments will be automatically deducted from you bank account. Selecting Autopay is optional. Annual Percentage Rate is inclusive of a loan origination fee, which is deducted from the loan proceeds. Late payments or subsequent charges and fees may increase the cost of your fixed rate loan. All loans made by WebBank, member FDIC. Please refer to Upgrade’s Terms of Use and Borrower Agreement for all terms, conditions and requirements.

** Accept your loan offer and your funds will be sent to your bank via ACH within one (1) business day of clearing necessary verifications. Availability of the funds is dependent on how quickly your bank processes this transaction. From the time of approval, funds should be available within four (4) business days.

7.73% – 29.99%$1,000 - $50,000Visit Upstart
6.26% – 14.87%1$5,000 - $100,000Visit SoFi
6.99% – 35.97%*$1,000 - $50,000Visit Upgrade
8.00% – 25.00%2$5,000 - $35,000Visit Payoff
4.99% – 29.99%3$10,000 - $35,000Visit FreedomPlus
5.99% – 18.99%4$5,000 - $50,000Visit Citizens
15.49% – 34.49%5$2,000 - $25,000Visit LendingPoint
6.16% – 35.89%6$1,000 - $40,000Visit LendingClub
6.99% – 18.24%7$5,000 - $75,000Visit Earnest
9.95% – 35.99%8$2,000 - $35,000Visit Avant
Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality and will make a positive impact in your life. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print understand what you are buying, and consult a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time. Please do your homework and let us know if you have any questions or concerns.