Is Retail Therapy Good for You?

Why that Shopping Buzz Isn't Worth It

Retail therapy won't solve your problems. Image © Comstock / Getty Images

Retail therapy seems like a simple answer to feeling down. The allure of shopping, whether alone or with fellow shopaholics, can promise to chase the blues away with the simple swipe of a credit card. But retail therapy, like the advertising that feeds it, offers a false promise that can actually make you feel worse rather than better.

What is Retail Therapy?

Retail therapy is a term in common usage that refers to the process of shopping as a way of making yourself feel better when challenged with difficult life events or emotions.

The idea behind retail therapy is that you can get the same benefit from buying yourself something as you would from engaging in psychotherapy. Retail therapy is often used in a joking manner, as if the speaker recognizes the absurdity of the idea that spending money could help you solve your problems. Yet in reality, many shopaholics depend on retail therapy to cope with their day-to-day disappointments and emotional ups and downs.

Why it Doesn’t Work

Research shows that people who engage in retail therapy as a way of coping with negative feelings have brief periods of elation just before or during the buying process, and sometimes immediately afterwards. However, these positive emotions are usually quickly followed by negative emotions such as guilt, shame, and disappointment.

Most emotional problems are based on factors that can’t easily be solved by buying things. While material possessions might help with some aspects of a situation, they usually only address superficial aspects of the problem.

The underlying problem you are trying to solve with retail therapy usually requires more self reflection than changes in external things that can be purchased.

For example, if you lack confidence at work, you may temporarily feel more confident wearing a new outfit that you bought during your retail therapy shopping trip, but if your lack of confidence is due to deeper problems with self-esteem, or a lack of skill or ability, looking the part won’t help you to overcome them.

The only way to become more confident is to take steps to build your self-esteem, or to actually become better at doing your job. This is not something you can buy -– to improve your professional abilities, you will have to think about taking more training, or developing your job skills through difficult processes such as changing the way you organize yourself, relate to others, or get the job done. Responding to feedback from supervisors requires you to think about what you don’t do well, and to improve on it, rather than hiding behind the appearance of professionalism –- and this is difficult.

Retail Therapy Can Cause More Problems

As well as being only briefly helpful in elevating mood, and an ineffective way of solving problems, relying on retail therapy to make yourself feel better can actually cause you even more problems.

The first and most obvious problem that retail therapy can cause is debt and other money problems. Overspending, particularly if you shop while you are in an overly emotional state, can lead to expensive mistakes.

Over time, as shopping addiction develops, you can find yourself falling into mounting debt, or simply living from paycheck to paycheck without being able to use your hard-earned cash to change your circumstances in any genuinely useful way, such as reducing your mortgage payments, saving for retirement, or getting some real therapy.

Often related to money problems, using retail therapy to handle difficult emotions can lead to relationship problems. Money is the top cause of arguments between couples, and if one partner in a couple is spontaneously spending on impulse buys, or trying to justify overspending as a way of coping, the other partner can feel unfairly treated, that they are missing out on things they would like to buy or save towards, or that they are being manipulated or taken advantage of. They may also have to cope with the stress and financial burden of sharing the responsibility for debts.

Children may also miss out on things that they need, as the parent’s financial priorities are for things that make them feel good in the moment rather than necessary purchases. And kids can be badly affected by the stress of money problems preoccupying their parents.

An often overlooked negative consequence of retail therapy is loss of time. Even if you are only window shopping, and you don’t spend a penny, the time you spend browsing is a waste of your most precious and limited resource -– your time. Any time you spend shopping is time you can’t spend on solving your problems, whether by thinking, reading, seeking advice, planning or action. You may feel you are taking a necessary step in overcoming your negative emotions by indulging in retail therapy, but you aren’t developing any real abilities to handle your emotions better, or to learn from the emotions you are experiencing.

Research has also shown that retail therapy can cause excessive rumination, or obsessively thinking about problems in an unhelpful way, and can cause difficulties in managing other problematic behaviors.. Far from making you feel better, it is associated with an increase in a variety of psychological difficulties.

What Should I Do Instead?

Depending on the extent and nature of your problems, you might simply need to adjust your approach to handling stress and emotions, make and follow a spending plan, or you might benefit from therapy.

If you have found yourself slipping into compulsive shopping and are finding that it is making you feel worse rather than better, now is the time to look at what is really making you unhappy and do something about it. Tackle your problems head on: are you lonely, dissatisfied with your career, or having relationship difficulties?

Once you have figured out what is really bothering you, it’s time to do something about it. Your local library is a great place to start finding out about local events and self-help resources that can give you the answers you need. You can also find information about dealing with money problems you may have. The internet is also a great source of information you can use to change your situation.

If your problems are deeper, and you think you may be suffering from depression, anxiety or another emotional or mental health problem, or if you have suffered from past abuse or loss, or some other trauma that you haven’t dealt with, talk to your doctor about treatment options.

Sources:

Benson, A. To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop. Boston: Shambala Publications. 2008.

Lisjak, M., Bonezzi, A., Kim, S., and Rucker, D. Perils of Compensatory Consumption: Within-Domain Compensation Undermines Subsequent Self-Regulation. Journal of Consumer Research, Vol 41. 2015.

Mellan, O. “Overcoming overspending in couples.” In A. Benson (Editor). I Shop Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. Lanham, ML: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. 2004.

O'Guinn, T, & Faber, R. “Compulsive buying: a phenomenological exploration.” Journal of Consumer Research 16:147-157. 1989.

Silbermann, A., Henkel, A., Müller, A. & de Zwaan, M. “The application of ecological momentary assessment to the study of compulsive buying.” Psychother Psych Med 58: 454-461. 2008.

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