Urban Dictionary defines retail therapy as “the act of shopping as an outlet for frustration and a reliever of stress.”
But you probably didn’t need me to tell you that.
Chances are you’ve done retail therapy and, chances are, you’ve also felt a little guilty about it. Turns out, that guilt is probably unwarranted.
According to a 2011 study, shopping reliably cheered people up when they were feeling down and, importantly, didn’t create any major feelings of regret down the road.
As someone who recently shopped through a breakup, I found this news particularly reassuring.
Curious about the phenomenon of retail therapy, and when exactly it does become something to worry about, I reached out to a mental health professional and read through some studies. Here’s what you need to know.
1. It gives us a feeling of control
When you buy something, you’re making a decision and the very act of choosing can give you back some control over your circumstances.
Case in point: When I moved into my new house, I became fixated on furnishing my ideal bedroom. I spent untold hours scouring the internet and stores alike. Every time I went through with a transaction, I felt myself exercising power over how I wanted my life to — quite literally — look.
One study on retail therapy points out that sadness and frustration are strongly associated with feeling like circumstances are out of our control. According to the authors, shopping is soothing because it gives at least the illusion of control.
2. Shopping is enjoyable
Raise your hand if you’ve felt stressed this week. Yeah, adulthood is a lot — and shopping can ease some of that stress.
“Often when we are under stress, we engage in more pleasure-seeking to try to fill the void or to cope with negative emotions,” says board certified psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner and Assistant Professor at Regis College Shari Harding. “Similar to other pleasurable activities, shopping can increase dopamine in parts of our brain known as the ‘reward pathway.’”
You can also shop as a way to reward yourself for an accomplishment. Nail a work project? Maybe it’s finally time for that new couch you need. Finally stop drunk texting your ex? Go out and get a glazed donut. You deserve it.
3. Buying yourself something is a way to self-nurture
One of the first purchases I made when my relationship ended was a set of sage microfiber sheets and a bright white duvet that I spent twice as much on as I normally would have.
Before we’d broken up, I dreaded falling asleep without the nightly cuddles I’d come to depend on. But that first night I crawled between my new buttery soft threads, I didn’t feel lonely or sad. I felt cozy as hell — and I’ve been excited to dive into my new bed every night since, cuddles or not.
Being able to self-nurture is like having insurance against the dark forces of life. You can’t control what happens, but you cushion the blow by giving yourself comfort.
4. A purchase can give you long-term joy and satisfaction
One of the more surprising findings to come of the 2011 retail therapy study was that the joy and satisfaction experienced by shopping tended to last far longer than the initial purchase, even though many of these buys were made impulsively.
If you’ve had your eye on something for a long time and can’t get it out of your head, this is a good indication it’s something that’ll make you feel fulfilled if you own it long term. Those buys we make in an instant without much thought are more likely to lose their appeal the next day.
5. Going shopping IRL gets you out of the house
When you’re feeling down, home usually feels like the safest place. After all, that’s where Netflix and sweatpants are.
But, anyone who’s experienced prolonged bouts of anxiety or depression knows that sequestering yourself for too long can make those mental spirals even deeper and darker. Physically going shopping is an excuse to leave your house, which can help you get out of your head.
6. A new thing can give you confidence
During one of my breakup sprees, I bought a pair of Levi’s that fit me like a glove. I’m not lying when I say these jeans make me feel like Jemima Kirke. In these jeans, I can do anything I put my mind to.
Physical items have the ability to give us the confidence we need to face the world — like the mechanical salt and pepper grinder that gave new hope to an arthritic dad and the slow cooker that made breaking up a little less arduous.
7. A purchase can be a symbol of a time in our life
If you’ve ever had bangs or gotten a tattoo, you understand how a certain time in your life can get attached to a physical symbol. For me, that’s always been clothing.
When I was 22, I found an oversized jean jacket in a tiny thrift store in the church basement. I was obsessed, but when I flipped the tag and saw the $11 price tag, I put it right back. (I was living off a $700-a-month stipend at the time.)
I thought about the jacket all the next day at work and, knowing it had to be mine, I went back and was delighted to see it still hanging on the rack. I wore that thing every day for years. Now it hangs in my closet as a reminder of that era: when $11 was a fortune, and when an oversized jean jacket was my ideal aesthetic.
“It is important to self-monitor to ensure we are not engaging in any activities compulsively,” says Harding.
While retail therapy is usually innocuous enough, maintaining a level of self-awareness about your habits is how you keep retail therapy manageable for your mental health and budget.
Here are some ways to avoid retail therapy distress:
1. Stick to a budget
Harding suggests setting aside a reasonable amount of money that you can afford to spend on monthly shopping. You might even try physically putting money away in an envelope since handing over cash can make your spending feel more real.
She also suggests using a budgeting app — like BUDGT, Learnvest, or Mint — and getting reports from your credit card company to visually break down where your money is going.
A good rule of thumb for budgeting is dividing up the money you get after monthly expenses are taken out and deciding what percentage you feel good about putting into savings.
The money that’s left is essentially “fun” money, which can be distributed across your fun activities.
2. Make sure the item can be returned
You know that little jolt of excitement you get when you click “Place your order”? Well, sometimes it’s that jolt we’re after instead of an attachment to the thing we’re buying. It’s possible that feeling of elation will have passed in a couple of days.
If you spent more money than was responsible, you’ll want to at least have the option of returning your impulse buy.
3. Reflect on your triggers and habits
In order not to shop too much, you’ll want to pay attention to why you feel the need to go shopping in the first place.
“If you notice you always shop after an argument, for example, being aware of this can help you alter your response instead of just reactively shopping,” says Harding.
4. Try other self-soothing activities
For your wallet’s sake, retail therapy shouldn’t be your only coping mechanism. Harding recommends other inexpensive pleasurable activities, like:
There does come a point when habitually shopping to feel good starts to work against our happiness and may even cause serious problems. After all, the vast majority of us don’t have endless money to spend.
If your shopping behavior causes regular distress or impairment, it’s possible you have compulsive buying disorder. This often occurs alongside other mental health conditions, such as mood and anxiety disorders, substance use disorder, and impulsive control issues.
“Many people find they’re unhappy afterward and the ‘problem’ was not really solved,” says Harding. “This is often a sign there’s a deeper root cause problem such as low self-esteem, loneliness, anxiety, or depression.”
If you’re concerned about your shopping habits, be on the lookout for the following warning signs:
- You feel unhappy or regretful afterward.
- You lie about your purchases.
- You feel like you can’t control yourself when you shop.
- You’re buying things on credit or going into debt.
Despite the term “retail therapy,” it’s important to remember that shopping can’t take the place of actual therapy or other mental health interventions.
If you’re worried about your shopping habits, your first step should be contacting a mental health professional, so they can help guide you through the steps of intervention.
Harding says cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in addition to joining a 12-step group program such as Debtors Anonymous are good resources for working through the underlying forces driving your compulsive shopping habits.