4 Tips to Avoid Letting Retail Therapy Ruin Your Financial and Mental Well-Being

Don’t let retail therapy misguide you and impact your mental well-being

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Woman in shopping mall with bags shopping during pandemic and wearing face mask against coronavirus
Woman in shopping mall with bags shopping during pandemic and wearing face mask against coronavirus

I had a history of responsible money management. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, I was able to put my stimulus checks toward my savings and even continued to pay down my student loans. 

But as 2021 arrived and the world began shifting again, I found myself slipping into unexpected debt — with retail therapy to blame. 

I felt more stressed as things returned to normal. Financially, I felt I was doing really well, but I started slacking off after I slipped from my strict budget.

Before I knew it, I was nearly $2,000 in debt after just a few short months. The turning point came when my boyfriend of six years had to call me out on the behavior, which had also created clutter and excess in the apartment we shared during quarantine.

What is retail therapy, and why does it appeal to us?

4 tips to break your retail therapy habit

Understand the motivation behind your behavior

Break the connection between shopping and emotional gratification

Create a plan to get yourself out of a bad place

Be kind to yourself — choose grace, not shame

The bottom line

What is retail therapy, and why does it appeal to us?

Retail therapy refers to shopping under stress in an attempt to soothe anxiety. People often turn to retail therapy when they feel out of control in other aspects of their lives. Whether you’re going through a breakup, struggling through health issues or navigating a big transition, shopping can provide a short burst of gratification that counteracts feelings of helplessness.

“Spending stimulates the release of dopamine, and this activates our brain’s reward center, giving us a burst of pleasure,” says psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee Chambers. 

But an impulsive spending habit can quickly spiral out of control. And if the behavior is motivated by financial stress, retail therapy can create a vicious cycle, making the problem worse than before. 

Fortunately, retail therapy isn’t a death sentence for your finances. The tips below will help you get back on track toward financial and emotional health. 

4 tips to break your retail therapy habit

Understand the motivation behind your behavior

Like many other people, I juggled several major life stressors throughout the pandemic, including an unexpected move to a city with a heightened fashion sense. Miami is a lot more stylish than what I’m used to, and after a year of wearing loungewear, I kept wondering how to discover my style again.

I originally tried to curb my shopping by setting strict budgets and cutting out as much of my fun spending as possible. However, I often found myself breaking my own rules to splurge on impulse purchases, making the problem worse. 

Instead, cultivating my self-awareness helped me realize that my shopping habit was merely a symptom of my insecurity. Addressing the root cause made it much easier for me to dial back on my retail therapy. 

These days, I focused my attention on how clothing makes me feel by asking myself, “Will I really feel happy when I wear this? Will it give me some kind of value?” I have also learned more about fashion as well as dressing for my body type, which has helped my walk away from purchases that would have tempted me in the past. Now, a purchase needs to have what I call the “wow factor” in order to catch my attention.

Break the connection between shopping and emotional gratification

“Retail therapy can give us a small lift, but so can exercise, eating well, sleeping optimally and spending time on self-care,” Chambers says.

Understanding the emotional appeal of retail therapy can make it easier for you to break the habit, and pursuing other activities that bring you joy or peace can help soothe the desire for quick gratification. 

Toward the latter months of the pandemic, I sought mental health support through an app-based therapy service for help when I felt overwhelmed. My sessions with a therapist helped me understand that much of my shopping behaviors were an indication of something to work through — in my case, a lack of confidence. 

I now keep a journal with prompts that help my focus on gratitude, peace and a sense of calm. Writing down my emotions and desires has enabled me to find much of the same gratification I used to find from shopping. 

Create a plan to get yourself out of a bad place 

If you’re struggling with a retail therapy habit, you may notice excess in other aspects of your life as well. Your shopping sprees, for instance, may have left you with more clothing or household items than you need. Mounting debt often creates more stress, compounding the original issue.

Drafting a plan of action can eliminate some of the emotional overload associated with daunting problems. In the 2009 comedy film Confessions of a Shopaholic, the main character freezes my credit card inside of a block of ice to keep myself from using it. You may not need to resort to such drastic measures, but the concept is the same: Limiting your access to your money can help you ease out of an unhealthy spending habit. You should also make sure to monitor your credit, as higher account balances will often prompt an unwelcome drop in your score.   

As for your material possessions, you can use secondhand platforms such as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace to purge unnecessary belongings, perhaps even at a small profit.

I turned to clothing resale apps such as Poshmark and Mercari to clean out my closets and earn money that would help pay down my debt. I have sold nearly $1,000 worth of clothing since February 2021, and some of my clothes have sold for even more money than I originally paid. 

However, I cautions that resale apps can be a double-edged sword, since other sellers also offer interesting items that can be tempting for a recovering shopaholic. 

Be kind to yourself — choose grace, not shame

Contrary to what you may have heard or believe, retail therapy is not always destructive. Researchers found that retail therapy is a behavior that often arises during temporary, mildly negative times of stress and isn’t usually an indication of a chronic issue. 


Practicing self-compassion helped I break out of my financially destructive patterns. I’m not telling myself ‘No’ too much, because that’s what got me here. It’s not that I shouldn’t spend money, but I want to focus on things that represent me well and I’ll get a lot of wear out of.

“If we are able to become aware of why shopping is therapeutic, that can empower us to use it mindfully and with intention, rather than impulsively,” Chambers says.

The bottom line

If you can relate to I’s experience, don’t lose hope. Dig deep to understand your motivations, then create a budget check in on your credit, and develop a plan to tackle your debt and kick the habit. 

It’s not that you’re being purposely reckless or you’re bad with money. Just look into what’s at the root of your behavior so you can do something about it.

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