Retail Therapy

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia, LCSW
Updated August 8, 2023by 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 spending money can give an individual a release of dopamine and positive emotions in the moment, it 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. 

Learn Research-Backed Coping Mechanisms To Cope With Spending Urges

What Is Retail Therapy?

Retail therapy is the process of shopping to reduce stress, 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. 

Splurging 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, retail therapy may cause long-term consequences, even if it leads to an immediately improved mood. Retail therapy can also impact those who have disposable income, as excessive shopping may not align with your values and could cause challenges in your relationships.  

Retail therapy, often called shopping therapy, is a misnomer because it's not a form of therapy and can become a psychological dependency and compulsive habit, similar to addiction. Experts define "retail therapy" as a psychological challenge called "oniomania," or compulsive shopping. One may continue partaking in shopping habits because it can offer a sense of relief from feelings like anxiety, depression, or shame. In addition, it may provide a short-term benefit to the spender, such as a new outfit, a fun outing, or food they enjoy. 

How Can You Reduce Spending Compulsions? 

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

Recognize What Prompts Your Spending Urges 

What mood are you in when you want to grab your wallet and head to the store? Are you mad? Sad? Frustrated? Recognizing which mood causes you to want to partake in retail therapy 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 brighten your mood. Studies have found that journaling and other expressive writing practices have been associated with positive mental health. 

If you often indulge in retail therapy after a frustrating day at the office, school, or with the family, consider going for a walk, dancing to music you love, or heading to the gym rather than 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 retail therapy by considering whether you truly want an item you are tempted to purchase or acting on impulse for the immediate gratification that comes with buying it. 

Instead of buying the item immediately, write down the item you want, the store you saw it in, and the item's price. Over the next several days, decide whether you still want that item. You may find that many items you write down 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 retail therapy 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. You can uninstall those 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. 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 after they spend money. 

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 a 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 retail therapy by forcing you to put money aside for bills you might otherwise not have considered and spent on an unintentional purchase. Continuing to offer yourself some spending money may make budgeting feel less overwhelming initially. 

Window Shop

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Learn Research-Backed Coping Mechanisms To Cope With 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 the activity 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 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 most 
  • Going to an antique store to look at old items like a museum 

Counseling Options 

If you're experiencing difficulty with spending habits, you're not alone. Therapy is a standard treatment for compulsive spending and can help you retrain your habits and thought processes. 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 therapy. 

Online platforms like BetterHelp offer clients connection to a matching system with over 30,000 therapists available. Many BetterHelp therapists offer unique specialties, with some specializing in psychological dependencies on behavior. When you try online therapy, 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 and works on techniques to change them. 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. 


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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