8 Ways to Stop The Costly Cycle of Retail Therapy

No matter how tempting, shopping until you drop might not be in your bank account's best interest. Or yours. So let's put a stop to emotional spending once and for all.

With another year swiftly approaching, there’s no time like the present to start practicing smarter spending habits.

If you consider yourself a serial shopper, don’t worry. It’s possible– and important– to overcome emotional spending. And you can start right now. For those who have long relied on retail therapy, it might take some very real discipline and routine shifts at first. But I promise it’ll be worth it.

Various studies have shown that shopping really does make us happier. Thanks to all the pleasure-seeking receptors in our brain, buying something we crave can release a flood of feel-good chemicals. For some, it may also alleviate anxiety and provide a sense of control.

The problem is, giving in to those urges often backfires. After all, retail therapy only produces a momentary thrill while often causing lasting damage in the form of more debt, more stress, and less financial security.

credit card shopping spree

It’s perfectly healthy to go on a shopping spree or online splurge once in a while. But if you’re worried you’re a true “shopaholic,” first things first: assess how often you’re shopping, how much you’re spending at one time, and how necessary your purchases tend to be. Also, are you still saving money? Or, are you rationalizing buying things because certain sales are so good that you can’t pass them up?

Ultimately, if you’re moving money around to support your spending or putting yourself in a tight spot to buy things you don’t need, you’re spending too much. You’re also creating an unhealthy pattern of self-soothing by spending money.

If this sounds like you, it’s time to draw some hard lines between what’s a necessity and what’s a needless luxury. Retail therapy might make you feel good in the moment, but it’s not worth dampering your happy financial future.

So without further ado, here are some great ways to avoid emotional spending.

Make a Budget And Stick to It

Perhaps you have a little extra for fun shopping in your budget. But you won’t know for sure until you sit down and write it all out. You need to know exactly what you’re working with. Once you’ve decided how much money can be set aside for extra spending, stick to it.

And if you need to write yourself little reminders about what happens when you ignore you’re decided budget, I strongly recommend doing so.

woman writing out a budget with a cup of coffee

Retail therapy is all fun and games until you’re hit with that credit card balance. Keep that last-spent amount somewhere you can see it. If you’re an online shopper, put it near (or on) your laptop. This way, when you’re tempted to go on yet another late-night shopping spree, you’ll be able to remind yourself why it might not be in your best interest. As they say, hindsight’s 2020. So don’t forget what the aftermath looks like.

Not sure where to start? Check out these financial expert-recommended budgeting techniques.

Create a Routine and Maintain Your Routine

Solid routines are one of the best ways to steer clear of impulsivity. And retail therapy is one of those things that fills a void when you’ve already got too much time on your hands. In other words, stay busy.

Release some of that nervous energy by finding a productive task and completing it. Read a book. Go for a walk. Clean out your closet. Whatever you do, don’t give in to the urge to distract yourself or pass the time by browsing shopping sites. No good can come of it.

woman reading newspaper over breakfast during her morning routine

When it comes to establishing a healthy routine, the beginning of your day sets a tone. Eat a balanced breakfast to start. Be sure to squeeze in some exercise. Maybe you’ve been planning to learn a new language. Now’s the time to do it. The trick is to make true use of the time you have on your hands.

With that said, don’t run yourself ragged. Make time for fun, friends, and take a power nap if you’re in the mood. A lazy afternoon can be good for the soul, but don’t throw your routine out the window.

Know Your Triggers

Perhaps most importantly, you need to know your triggers. Learning what drives you to start spending can help you get ahead of the pricey habit before you’ve thrown caution (and your emergency fund) to the wind.

What mood are you in when you go on a shopping spree? How about right before? Your emotional state plays a big part. So pay attention to what triggers you.

As mentioned, going wild in the mall once in a while isn’t necessarily indicative of a problem. But when you needlessly shop more often than not, it may be an unhealthy coping skill that you need to be aware of, combat, and cope with.

happy man looking in shop window

Because shopping can boost our mood, it can make all of us feel great when we’re in the mood for it. But for those who turn to it as a consistent means to cope, feelings of guilt, shame, and new stress often follow.

Per Talk Space, Dr. Meaghan Rice offers up these alternatives to curb your retail therapy tendencies:

  • Practice groundedness. Pay attention to all of your senses, your surroundings, and what’s going on within.
  • Turn to yoga, deep stretching, and mindful breathing exercises to destress and add them to your routine.
  • Do some intensive exercises to release your energy and produce feel good chemicals in another way.
  • Go outside and rejuvinate. Take a nature walk, a hike, or a simple stroll around the block.
  • Volunteer. Finding a way to “pay it forward” within the community can do wonders for your well being.
  • Have some heart to hearts with your loved ones. Connecting with others will put you at ease.

Practice Patience

Have you ever heard of the 48-hour rule? It’s simple but incredibly effective. Since lavish shopping sprees are a lot like sudden cravings, with enough time, this too shall pass. So the next time you see something you simply must buy, don’t put it in your cart right away. Get out a pen and write it down.

woman waiting with clock

Don’t attempt to buy it for 48 hours. Instead, think on it. While this is a practice in patience, it’s also about practicing financial mindfulness. This will give you time to consider how the purchase will impact your budget, and how much it’s really worth to you. In the end, you may still buy it. But you’ll undoubtedly return to it from a more level-headed and objective place.

Make Shopping More of a Task

One of the things that makes emotional spending and overspending so easy is the endless access to everything we want at our fingertips. And so, making shopping a little more difficult can often help.

woman cutting credit card with scissors

My advice: Don’t keep your credit cards saved in your online wallet. Yes, it’s convenient. But the convenience is also what makes it problematic. If your credit card information is on various sites, don’t stay logged in. Give yourself the extra barrier of having to log in each time, if nothing else. And if you’re really having trouble with self-control and this can’t seem to stop you, maybe it’s time to cut up those credit cards and move on. But that’s up to you to decide.

Or, try keeping your credit cards somewhere inconvenient. Some people recommend a block of ice. Personally, I like to keep my credit cards just a little out of reach. So that if I really want them, I have to take a stool out, make my way to the top bookshelf, and open a locked box. This may sound extreme, but it works. It’s sort of like an “out of sight, out of mind” strategy. But the effort it takes gives me a moment to stop and ask myself “do you really need this?”

Go Ahead, Fill Up Your Cart. Then Empty it.

Window shopping can be pretty therapeutic. It’s also free. Similarly, filling up your shopping cart is part of what gives you that sweet satisfaction. Your joy doesn’t just come from buying things. It’s more about oogling the things you like or want. Give into that part of the process, but commit to not buying it all.

Adhere to your budget at all times. If you can afford some of what’s in the cart, then take everything else out. Leave what you might buy for 48 hours and see how you feel when you return to it. Also, if I really, really think I just have to buy something, I sometimes go with the 24-hour rule instead. We don’t always need two days to change our minds or know what we definitely want, after all.

tiny cart with boxes on top of lap top keyboard

When you’re filling up the cart with no intentions of buying anything, go crazy. Be as frivolous as your heart desires. But when it’s time to check out, abandon the fantasy and come back to reality.

Seek Support

If you’re turning to retail therapy in an unhealthy way, then it might be time to lean on your support system a little more. Not to mention, window shopping with friends can be fun and cathartic.

two women window shopping

To take things one step further, find a friend you trust and ask them to hold you accountable. Having someone to check in on your spending habits will lead to you checking in with yourself. Plus, just having someone to talk to can do wonders, especially when you’re trying to avoid temptation.

Treat Yourself (Within Your Budget)

Retail therapy is not necessarily a bad thing. How healthy or unhealthy it is mostly comes down to you. But no matter when or why you go on a spending spree, you should not disregard your budget. Not to mention, financial stability can make fun shopping much more fun and worry-free.

young woman in sunglasses eating an ice cream cone

When creating your budget, set aside some money for a rainy day. Emotional spending doesn’t have to be destructive. Many psychologists say that retail therapy in moderation can actually be a healthy outlet. The key is shopping within your means.

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