Can A Shopping Therapist Decrease Compulsive Spending?

Medically reviewed by Bobbi Jo Stoner, LPC
Updated May 31, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

For some people, shopping can bring a sense of satisfaction and excitement. As a result, it’s possible to use shopping as a source of stress relief or dopamine release when feeling down or stressed. This behavior may lead to unhealthy spending habits, such as compulsive buying. It can then become difficult for you to cope with difficult emotions without this habit, and it can cause financial difficulties such as overspending, debt, and an inability to cover one’s core expenses like rent and bills. Further stress and even anxiety and depression could result.

If you're one of the millions of people with compulsive spending habits or online shopping addiction, seeking professional help may help you change these behaviors and take control of your emotions and finances.
Getty/Luis Alvarez
Are you managing compulsive spending habits?

Are shopping therapy and compulsive buying disorders real?

"Shopping therapy" or "retail therapy" are slang terms some people may use to describe the positive feelings they get following a shopping trip. However, licensed therapists may discourage the use of these terms, since they’re not actually approved forms of mental health therapy. 

Therapists are trained to help people deal with mental health disorders, unhealthy behaviors, and life issues—and compulsively spending is one of the many habits that a licensed therapist may support you with. Often, compulsive spending is a symptom of a problem rather than the root itself; although there is an official condition called compulsive buying disorder, also known as compulsive shopping disorder. A therapist may work with you to determine what is going on in your life that’s leading you to engage in compulsive buying. For example, a person could turn to a coping mechanism like this due to mental health challenges including but not limited to:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Past trauma
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic stress
  • Grief
  • Depression
  • Drug use or substance use disorder
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Some forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and associated disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Some eating disorders

Some may also fall into unhealthy spending habits due to a family history of poor spending habits; growing up around people who experience shopping addiction may make you more prone to that behavior yourself. A therapist can work with you to find healthier ways to manage your personal distress or other intense emotions that could be related to your spending behaviors. They may provide you with "homework" or coping mechanisms to use outside the session to help you learn to control your habit, and they may spend time helping you unearth and address the root of the shopping disorder.

Potential signs of compulsive spending

The habit of compulsive shopping is easier than ever to fall into today, thanks to consumer culture and the ubiquity of online shopping, and the near-instant gratification of next-day delivery times. For some people, shopping can be like a drug, helping them avoid feeling anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions – only to lead to more of those emotions, and potentially mental illness, the more spending and shopping they engage in.

The stress of world events and social isolation seem to have also upped the number of compulsive spenders; a 2022 study on the topic suggests that compulsive spending gradually increased during the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting the idea that many spend money to cope with difficult emotions. 

That said, spending money or even a significant amount of money does not always mean someone is addicted to shopping. Though this tendency alone isn’t a diagnosable disorder in the DSM-5, there are certain signs that could indicate a potentially problematic shopping addiction that might benefit from therapeutic attention, including:

  • Shopping and spending excessively when you feel stressed, sad, anxious, or another negative emotion
  • Frequently buying things you don’t need
  • Hiding your finances and purchases from others
  • Feeling out of control when shopping
  • Feeling elated and then guilty after shopping
  • Experiencing financial difficulties as a result of excessive shopping
  • Your shopping habits causing conflict in your relationships
Getty/AnnaStills

How to change your spending habits

The key to shifting a tendency like compulsive buying generally lies in addressing the root causes of the behavior, usually with the help of a therapist. You might also meet with a financial counselor to learn about better money management and to create a reasonable budget for yourself. You can try meetings like Debtors Anon to help find support and community as you work through the issue. Finally, you might put some of the practical strategies below into place as well.

Replace the habit of ‘window shopping’

Online or in-person browsing or window shopping may lead to unplanned spending for compulsive buyers. That’s why it can be effective to find other ways to spend your time if this is a habit or hobby of yours. Relying on willpower alone to help you avoid getting out your credit cards may not be the best way to set yourself up for success. Instead, changing your habits to take a walk, pick up a book, or call a friend when you feel the urge to browse items for sale or spend time shopping could help you avoid falling back into old patterns, especially at first.

Implement a 48-hour rule

Setting a 48-hour rule for yourself may be helpful when trying to change spending habits too. When you feel the desire to buy something, you might wait 48 hours before deciding whether to purchase it. Most people with spending problems find that the urge to spend decreases as time passes, and this period could give you time to find out through consideration and reflection whether the purchase is healthy and necessary. Items that you forget about or decide against in this time likely were not crucial.

Shop with a list and a budget

If you’re a compulsive spender, putting parameters like a list and a budget in place can also help you keep your spending under control. Since you’ll still regularly have to shop to buy food and other necessities, it can be helpful to prepare yourself for these trips by making a list of specific items you need and your budget for purchasing them—and not deviating from it. This can help you still get what you need while avoiding impulse buys or overspending. Shopping with the support of a friend or someone from your family could also help you stay on track.

Getty
Are you managing compulsive spending habits?

Seeking counseling for spending disorders

If you feel your shopping habit has reached a problematic or harmful level, it may be worth meeting with a mental health professional about it. Although there might not be a specific "shopping therapy," an individual therapist or leader of a support group may be able to help you address your behaviors through cognitive behavioral therapy and provide you with healthy coping skills to try. If your habits are the result of or exacerbated by a mental health condition or other addictions, they can also help you address and manage symptoms.

Online therapy in particular may feel like a more approachable format for those who find in-person therapy to be intimidating or inconvenient. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can meet with a therapist via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging using a personal device at home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests that online therapy can represent “a viable alternative” to in-person therapy for treating a variety of mental health conditions and challenges, so you generally have the rights reserved and the freedom to choose whichever format you prefer.

Takeaway

Compulsive spending behaviors can cause guilt, depression, anxiety, relationship problems, and financial difficulties. Meeting with a therapist may help you identify potential triggers and causes of compulsive buying behaviors and provide resources for managing these tendencies. 

Explore mental health and healing in therapy
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started