What Is Retail Therapy?

Updated January 19, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Retal Therapy Cannot Replace Real Therapy

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 some undesirable long-term effects, like financial insecurity, debt, or poor credit, for example. Luckily, there are many other types of therapeutic treatments, like online therapy, that can help anyone overcome a shopping addiction or compulsive buying disorder.

What Is Retail Therapy?

Retail therapy is a misnomer, because it’s not an effective form of therapy at all and can actually become an addiction. It’s typically the act of going shopping to temporarily make yourself feel better about something, but this can be a very brief and ineffective way of managing problems. 

Retail therapy is the process of going shopping for the sole purpose of making yourself feel better. You might not need anything, yet you may find yourself at the mall shopping for something anyway, or buying a clothing item you've had your eye on for months because you hope it can give you an uplifting feeling and boost.

Splurging and spending money on some items can be fine on occasion if you have the disposable income to do it. If, however, you're putting things on credit that aren’t in your budget, then retail therapy may not be the best idea in the long run, even if it leads to an improved mood in the moment. Even if you don't otherwise need the money and it seems to give you a sense of control, excessive shopping may not align with your values and may not benefit the life you want to live. 

Experts define retail therapy as a psychological disorder referred to as "oniomania," or compulsive shopping disorder. This is because retail therapy can be a bit like gambling. One may keep doing it as a compulsion because it can make them feel good and offer a sense of relief from feelings like anxiety, even if it can ultimately be self-destructive.

Different Ways You Can Curb Your Retail Therapy Compulsions

Once one fully accepts that they succumb to retail therapy when upset, and know that it can be damaging to do that, then they can start taking steps and make a strategic effort 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 wallet 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, 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.

If you like to indulge in retail therapy after you've had a frustrating day at the office, school, or with the family, maybe go for a nature walk instead or dance around to some music you love or head to the gym. 

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 still want that item. You may find that many of items that you write down don't end up coming home with you because purchasing items like food or other necessities becomes more important. Making smart purchase decisions can help with the residual sadness you may be trying to eliminate with retail therapy. 

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 across the world they think you might want to buy? You can uninstall those apps. They may be encouraging you to spend money that you otherwise wouldn't spend.

The same thing goes with emails. Unsubscribe from marketing emails from your favorite brands and erase them or create a new email. The less temptation you have, 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 credit card because they can't see the money they're spending. Then, when it comes time to pay bills they may be surprised by the number.

Retal Therapy Cannot Replace Real Therapy

You can combat this with a budget for yourself. Write it down. This can give you a better idea of how many bills you have and how much money you truly have for spending as you’d like. The amount of spending money you have 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 can force 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 wish list 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

Consider getting just one small thing. Being able to bring home something small can satisfy 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 amount you're left over with every month for little trinkets.

Remember, there's nothing wrong with the act of a 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.


Do you have difficulties with retail therapy and controlling your spending habits? Our expert counselors here at BetterHelp can give you more advice on how to stop and where to find a community that can help. 

Therapists often use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to treat addictions or other mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. CBT is 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 addiction and offer resources and tools for changing it. Some studies have found that online CBT may even be more useful for treating certain mental illnesses than in-person CBT. So reach out to BetterHelp to find answers for your questions and solutions for your difficulties.

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