What is shopping or retail therapy?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated March 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Retail therapy is the practice of using shopping to cope with emotional distress and can be detrimental to your mental health and financial well-being if not controlled. Although the benefits of retail therapy can include giving an individual a release of dopamine and positive emotions in the moment, retail therapy can often cause undesirable long-term effects, like financial insecurity, debt, relationship challenges, or poor credit, among other challenges.

If you're experiencing the urge to partake in retail therapy or feel you may struggle with compulsive shopping or spending, you may benefit from speaking to a mental health professional for support. 

iStock/DisobeyArt
Learn research-backed coping mechanisms to manage spending urges

What is retail therapy?

Retail therapy is the process of shopping to reduce stress, feel good, improve mood, or fulfill a compulsive urge. When shopping out of compulsion, you might not need or want the items you're buying but do so for a mood boost or to fulfill a habit urge. 

Shopping and spending money on some items can be healthy on occasion. However, if you're putting many items on credit that aren't in your budget, there may be long-term consequences, even if it leads to an immediately improved mood. Spending compulsions can also impact those who have disposable income, as excessive shopping may not align with your values and could cause challenges in your relationships or lead to residual sadness.  

Retail therapy, often called shopping therapy, is a misnomer because shopping is not a form of mental health treatment. The act of shopping can become a psychological dependency and compulsive habit, similar to addiction. Experts define "retail therapy" as the psychological challenge called "oniomania," or compulsive shopping. One may continue partaking in shopping habits because it can offer a sense of relief from their feelings of anxiety, depression, or shame. In addition to providing temporary stress relief, shopping may provide the buyer with a sense of personal control. The act of making purchase decisions may inflate the buyer's sense of control and contribute to their shopping compulsion. Finally, shopping may also provide a short-term benefit to the spender, such as a new outfit, a fun outing, or food they enjoy. 

How can you reduce retail therapy habits? 

If you've decided you're experiencing the impacts of compulsive spending and have the urge to stop, recognizing the reality of your situation can be the first step to avoiding engaging in a behavior that you or a professional deem unhealthy. Below are several suggestions for reducing these habits in your life.

Reflect on why you’re spending money

What mood are you in when you want to grab your credit cards and head to the store? Are you mad? Sad? Frustrated? Recognizing which mood causes you to want to shop can help you start modifying your behavior. 
For instance, if you do most of your online shopping when you're bored, consider taking up a new hobby. You may enjoy journaling or reading a book on your phone. These low or no-cost activities may still bring pleasure to your day and serve as a mood booster. Studies have found that journaling and other expressive writing practices have been associated with positive mental health, in addition to other health benefits. 

If you often indulge in retail therapy after a frustrating day at the office, school, or with the family, consider trying other activities in an effort to improve mood and feel happier. You can try going for a walk, dancing to music you love, or heading to the gym rather than to the mall. Finding productive ways to increase dopamine and other positive neurotransmitters in your brain can supplement the joy you receive from spending with a healthier habit. 

Give yourself time

Giving yourself time is a method of deferring shopping compulsions by considering whether you truly want an item you are tempted to purchase. This can help you determine whether you are acting on impulse for the immediate gratification or whether you have a genuine need to be making a purchase. 
Instead of buying the item immediately, write down the item you want, the store you saw it in, and the item's price. If you're browsing online when this happens, add the item to your shopping cart, but don't checkout. Over the next several days, decide whether you still want that item. You may find that many items you write down or save for later don't come home with you because purchasing items like food or other necessities feels most important. 

Clean your digital space

Cleaning your digital space can help you identify and eliminate spending compulsion causes. For example, you might have apps on your phone that greet you every time you log in or send notifications and ads, like Google, Amazon, or eBay, that remind you of available items to buy. This has to do with the consumer psychology behind creating a context for which a person may feel pressured to make a purchase. The Journal Of Consumer Psychology states, "With the growth of e-commerce and television shopping channels, consumers have easy access to impulse purchasing opportunities..." To combat this, you can uninstall shopping apps or turn off notifications and ads to reduce your exposure to them. 
In addition, you can unsubscribe from marketing emails from your favorite brands or create a new email. You can even stop following influencers on social media who frequently post sponsored or product-centric content. With less temptation, you may find yourself less likely to engage in retail therapy and make a purchase you regret. 
Getty/Luis Alvarez

Make a budget

Studies have found that individuals spend more money when they use a credit card because they can't see the money they're spending. When it comes time to pay bills, they may be surprised by how much they've spent or how much is left in their account. In addition, some people may feel anxious to check their bank account out of fear of seeing a low amount or confronting their money problems after they splurge. 
You can combat these experiences with a concrete budget plan. Write down your monthly budget to better understand how many bills you have and how much money you have for spending. The amount of spending money you have might be less than you thought, but having the number can remind you not to go overboard when shopping. If you struggle to do this, consider withdrawing your money for spending in cash, and do not buy any impulsive or personal purchases with any other form of payment. You can refuse to buy more until the next pay cycle when your cash runs out.  

Budgeting can help you combat your shopping compulsions by forcing you to make a strategic effort to improve the amount you spend on an unnecessary purchase. Putting money aside for the bills you might otherwise not have considered and spent on an unintentional purchase may also fulfill the sense of control that shopping gives you. Continuing to offer yourself some spending money may make budgeting without shopping feel less overwhelming initially. 

Window shopping

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Learn research-backed coping mechanisms to manage spending urges

Window shopping can be frustrating for some individuals because it might not provide the same level of satisfaction as buying items. However, there are a few ways you can consider making window shopping fun, including the following: 

  • Going to a clothing store to try on cool outfits and take selfies in them 
  • Making a list of all the items in a store you'd like to own one day 
  • Making a list of the items you'd love as presents from others for the holidays 
  • Going to a store with items for less than two dollars each to buy one or two items
  • Going to all of the thrift stores in your city to find out which one you like the most 
  • Going to an antique store to look at old items like a museum 

Counseling options to address compulsive shopping and compulsive buying disorder 

If you're experiencing difficulty with spending habits and controlling your urges, you're not alone. Counseling is a standard treatment for compulsive retail spending and can help you retrain your habits and thought processes. Retail therapy can turn into a more serious condition, compulsive buying disorder, if left unaddressed. This condition may eventually affect your work life, health, and relationships, so it's important to recognize these habits early. If you're looking for a budget-friendly option while exploring these habits, you can try online counseling, which is often hundreds of dollars cheaper monthly than in-person solutions. 

Online platforms like BetterHelp offer clients connection to a matching system with over 30,000 therapists available. The BetterHelp platform also offers affordable counseling options, with prices ranging from $65 to $100 per week (based on factors such as your location, referral source, preferences, therapist availability and any applicable discounts or promotions that might apply), billed on a monthly basis at $260 to $400. Many BetterHelp therapists offer unique specialties, with some specializing in psychological dependencies on behavior. When you try online counseling, you can have control over the type of treatment you receive and potentially reduce your urge to spend by staying at home instead of going out.  

Therapists often use cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) to treat dependencies or mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. CBT can be effective because it targets thought patterns that are not beneficial to you, reduces residual sadness, and works on techniques to change unhealthy behaviors. When your thoughts change, your words and actions can change as a result. A therapist can help you look for the source of your shopping compulsions or online shopping addiction and offer resources and tools for changing them. Some studies have found that online CBT may be more effective for treating certain mental illnesses than in-person CBT. 


Takeaway

While occasionally purchasing yourself a new item as a treat can be rewarding and healthy, constant shopping to reduce distress or fill an emotional void may cause financial and mental health consequences. Finding ways to curb impulse shopping until they are appropriate can make the shopping you commit to healthier. Consider reaching out to a mental health professional to gain further insight into how to treat these challenges.
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