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Retail Therapy: Are Emotions Draining Your Wallet?

I want to talk about the kind of shopping you don’t talk about with your friends. 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 might be costing you more than you know.

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.

But retail therapy doesn’t fix your problems. It just distracts you from them. For a bit. (And then it leads to even more problems in the end.)

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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.

You guys, I know buying a new outfit or gadget or device can temporarily relieve the weight of our emotions, but that hit of happiness never lasts. Retail therapy hangovers feel like a lot of guilt, shame, worry 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

So, that “fix” you get from retail therapy? You’re not just imagining it—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, 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, what Psychology Today calls "the feel-good neurotransmitter."1 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 likely 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 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).

Advertisers know this too. They paint a picture of the new life you can have if you just buy their product. And when you’re deep in your own emotions, that new life seems like the perfect way to avoid your feelings and your problems.

The Dangers of Retail Therapy: What Does It Actually Cost?

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.

Retail therapy puts our financial security at risk.

There are two sides to this coin. First, saying “I deserve it” and splurging on big-ticket items is a quick way to get upside-down with your money. You aren’t getting rid of your emotions. You’re just adding money stress and strained finances to the mix.

Second, those daily or weekly smaller purchases really add up too. If you’re constantly hitting “Add to Cart” every time work gets overwhelming, you’re slowly but surely eating away at your financial security.

Retail therapy gets in the way of our 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? Hey, those are awesome financial goals! But when you satisfy short-term desires without factoring in the future, that comes at a cost, not only to us, but also to those around us.

Retail therapy increases our lack of 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.

Retail therapy affects our 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, anxiety and buyer's remorse 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—for your wellness and your wallet.

Retail therapy tries to replace our 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."2 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 the morning after a big purchase or after treating yourself to something fun 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!

So, first things first. You need a budget. There are lots of ways to do this, but my personal favorite is with the budgeting tool called EveryDollar. And there’s a free version you can download right now, so jump on that!

And hey, I know what people say about budgeting. But listen: Your budget is the path to freedom and fun. Trust me.

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.

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 way, 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. That whole process made her feel some of the shopping buzz without any of the retail therapy burn.

3. Wait it out.

If you’re about to click “Purchase Now,” wait a moment and ask yourself these three questions:

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

If it checks all the boxes, you can play it one step safer by waiting it out. My rule of thumb is, when you find yourself wanting to impulse buy, think about it at least overnight. If you don’t want the thing in the morning, this waiting out trick helped you stop spending money! If you’re still excited about that "must-have" purchase tomorrow, it’ll be there when you get back!

Remember my friend who fills her online cart and leaves it there? Sometimes she’ll check back to see if any of those items went on sale, and if it’s in the budget, she’ll place the order! But you see, this way she’s given it some time so she knows it’s not an emotional purchase. It’s a thoughtful one.

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.

You can still get a little jolt of excitement buying the snacks your kids need for school online. Then that package shows up at your door, but instead of bubble-wrapped regrets, you can open up the feeling of being a mom who’s on top of things.

5. Shop smart.

Stretch your pennies by shopping smart. Use coupons, wait for sales and always compare prices. Instead of snap-decision shopping, use 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. You won’t find real contentment in shopping or in scrolling.

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. Delete those shopping apps off your phone so it isn’t so easy to mindlessly click your way to a purchase.

You can always go online or come back to the stores you love when you feel like shopping for the right reasons and you’ve got room in the budget to buy something!

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 right for you not only 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.” Listen, no matter how many times you feel like you’ve messed up, you are not a failure. 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. 

You’re more than your past, your income, and even your purchases. Believe that you can do and be better! And start working on doing just that!

Rachel Cruze

About the author

Rachel Cruze

Rachel Cruze is a #1 New York Times bestselling author, financial expert, and host of The Rachel Cruze Show. Rachel writes and speaks on personal finances, budgeting, investing and money trends. As a co-host of The Ramsey Show, America’s second-largest talk radio show, Rachel reaches 18 million weekly listeners with her personal finance advice. She has appeared on Good Morning America and Fox News and has been featured in publications such as Time Magazine, Real Simple Magazine and Women’s Health Magazine. Through her shows, books, syndicated columns and speaking events, Rachel shares fun, practical ways to take control of your money and create a life you love. Learn More.

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