What Is Retail Therapy?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated May 18, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Laura Angers, NCC, LPC

Retail therapy, or shopping to feel better, can be like drug addiction if not handled well. It can give a person a high for the moment, but it can also bring with it some undesirable long-term effects. In this case, it's often when the bills come in. Luckily, there are many other types of therapeutic treatment, like online therapy, that can help you overcome the compulsion.

What Is Retail Therapy?

If you've ever had a bad day and thought to yourself that a shopping trip was to help you feel better, that is retail therapy. Retail therapy is the process of going shopping for the sole purpose of making yourself feel better. You don't need anything, yet you find yourself at the mall shopping for something anyway, buying those shoes you've had your eye on for months because it will take the gloom out of your otherwise crappy day.

Splurging and making a purchase on some items is fine on occasion if you have the money to do it. If, however, you're putting everything on credit because you live paycheck to paycheck, then retail therapy may not be the best idea in the long run, even if it feels good in the moment. Even if you don't otherwise need the money, excessive shopping may not align with your values and the life you want to live. 

Experts define the retail therapy meaning as a psychological disorder referred to as "oniomania," or compulsive shopping disorder. This is because retail therapy is a bit like gambling. You keep doing it as a compulsion because it makes you feel good, even if you're hurting yourself in the end.

Experts also agree that retail therapy is similar to drug addiction. Consider the process:

  • You feel like crap, so you go out and buy stuff.
  • However, you don't have the money to spend, so you immediately have buyer's remorse when you get home.
  • This leads to a comedown from your initial high of buying things, followed by feelings similar to those of withdrawal.

Different Ways You Can Curb Your Retail Therapy Compulsions

If you have fully accepted the fact that you succumb to retail therapy when you're upset, and you know that it's bad for you to do that, then you can start taking steps to refrain from engaging in that behavior. What follows are some helpful suggestions to help you choose other options when you are tempted to spend money you shouldn't be spending:

Recognize Your Triggers

What mood are you in when you want to grab your purse and head to the store? Are you mad? Sad? Frustrated? Once you recognize which mood it is exactly that causes you to try retail therapy, then you can start modifying your behavior once one of those moods hits you.

For instance, if you find that you do a majority of your online shopping when you're bored, take up a new hobby. You may enjoy journaling, or read a book on your phone. These low or no cost activities may still bring pleasure to your day and brighten your mood.

If you like to indulge in retail therapy after you've had a frustrating day at the office or with the kids, maybe go for a nature walk instead or do another activity or explore other ways. Not only is it a great way to get some exercise, but the fresh air combined with the birdsong and sunshine can do wonders for lifting your spirits. And even if you go while the parks are still open, it's a lot cheaper to pay for parking than it would have been to bring home bags of clothes from The Gap.

Let It Breathe

Say you're in the store, and you find one outfit that you have to have. The only way to know whether you truly want that outfit, or if your desire is stemming from a retail therapy compulsion, is not to buy the item right away.

Instead, write down the item that you want and the store that you saw it in, along with the item's price. Over the next 48 hours, then several days, decide whether you need that item and whether it's worth the price. You may find that many of items that you write down don't end up coming home with you.

Clean House

Do you have apps on your phone that greet you every time you log in (or worse, send you to push notifications), like Google, Amazon, or eBay, that remind you of available items they think you might want to buy? Do yourself a favor and delete these apps. They're encouraging you to spend money when you otherwise wouldn't spend if you hadn't known that item was available.

The same thing goes with emails. When you make a purchase in store, the associate asks for your email address, then sends you weekly emails featuring shoes that you just have to have? Unsubscribe from these emails, and delete them. The less temptation you have right there in front of your face, the less likely you will end up engaging in retail therapy and making a purchase you'll come to regret.

Make A Budget

It has been proven that people tend to spend more money when they use a debit card because they can't see the money they're spending. Then, when it comes time to pay bills - whoops! - all their money is gone.

You can combat this with a budget for yourself. Write it down. This will give you a better idea of how many bills you have and how much money you truly have for spending willy-nilly. This amount might be less than you originally thought, but it's good to know the real number. Budgeting can help you combat retail therapy because it forces you to put money aside for bills that you might otherwise not have earmarked and would have spent on something unintentional.

Window Shop

Window shopping can be frustrating for some people because it simply doesn't provide the same level of satisfaction to see all of those things you want and not be able to buy them. However, if you go with the express purpose of making a wishlist of things you may want to buy later on, that can make it a bit more fun, like a game of sorts. This can give you the satisfaction of retail therapy without the commitment or price tag.

Treat Yourself

No, not with the big items, but with the little ones. Being able to bring home something small satisfies your urge to purchase something without breaking the bank. Just make sure it's not death by a thousand cuts. Use that budget you just created, and only spend the $10 you're left over with every month for little trinkets.

Remember, there's nothing wrong with engaging in little retail therapy from time to time. It's only a problem when you spend too much money and put yourself in debt and leave yourself less money for bills.

Retail Therapy Quotes

What follows are some retail therapy quotes that glorify the practice. By no means are these meant to encourage you to go big or go home, but if you want to buy something within your budget to assuage your down mood, then the folks behind these quotes have felt your pain (and have also treated it by shopping).

  • "Whoever said money couldn't buy happiness simply didn't know where to go shopping." - Gertrude Stein
  • "Shopping is a bit of a relaxing hobby for me, which is sometimes troubling for the bank balance." - Rebecca Hall
  • "E-commerce is a strange situation for an old guy like me. You can buy a TV online, OK, but to buy a dress or shoes? Ugh. The customer has to go back to the store and breathe and smell and have a good time. Because shopping is a good time - like going to a nice restaurant." - Max Azria
  • "I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist." - Tammy Faye Bakker
  • "When you're shopping you forget about eating!" - Jennifer Hudson
  • "Online shopping makes everything so much easier - it's a bad habit of mine." - Barbara Palvin
  • "Shopping with friends is a great way of still enjoying the thrill of the chase without having to make a purchase. It can also be a real bonding opportunity. Helping your friend find something nice is just as rewarding as helping yourself." - Sophie Kinsella
  • "I don't shop because I need something, I just shop for shopping's sake." - Cat Deeley

Do you struggle with retail therapy and controlling your spending habits? Our expert counselors here at BetterHelp can give you more advice on how to stop.


What does retail therapy mean?

"Retail therapy" is a term to describe the coping mechanism of using shopping to deal with stress and is common in many people. 

Is retail therapy a problem?

Retail therapy can feel good temporarily, but credit card debt from this retail therapy can further compound whatever stressors you might be trying to ease and could become a problem financially and have lasting effects in your life. Adding items to your cart on a shopping website without going to checkout is an activity many use to satisfy the urge to shop without spending the money but it allows them to satisfy the urge and feelings to spend money. However, going to actual therapy will make you feel much more content in the long term when compared to retail therapy and can change this behavior for many over time.





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