What is Retail Therapy and How It Can Become a Problem

In today’s fast-paced and stressful world, we take comfort wherever we can find it. Some people find it in socializing, others come across it in exercise and physical exertion, while others might find relief in food. For a significant number of people, comfort can be found in shopping for new things. Experts have even found a term for it – retail therapy. 

In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, retail therapy works on the premise that shopping can restore a sense of control and happiness in people. Studies even claim that just window shopping can already induce a release of dopamine in our system; buying things can release an even more concentrated dose of the hormone. And with the advent of online shopping, it has become easier to get an instant dopamine fix from shopping. 

However, retail therapy is only good in moderation. Too much of it can do more harm than good for our mental health and especially for our finances. And unfortunately, if left unabated, engaging too much in retail therapy would likely end up ruining our mental state rather than fixing it. 

Companies and marketers are becoming savvy at nudging people to buy more things even if they don’t need them. With clever marketing gimmicks, some people can fall into the trap of overbuying. 

CNA Lifestyle aims to tackle this issue head-on with its recently published article called Impulse buying: Why some people can’t stop shopping and how not to overspend. In the article, writer Karen Lee features Sue Ann Han, Adelphi Psych Clinic’s principal consultant psychologist, and other mental health experts. 


The Dangers of Overbuying 

What makes shopping as a coping mechanism even more dangerous is that it can easily turn into a vicious cycle. Sue Ann Han explains it this way: 

“While shopping can offer a brief boost of positive emotion, such behaviors are often then quickly followed by shame, guilt, and regret. And to manage the feelings of shame and disappointment, they get into another reinforcing cycle to cope with the feelings – so you feel good, then you feel bad, and then you spend more to feel good again.” 

If left unchecked, overspending can lead not only to crippling debt, it can also end up with us on a hedonic treadmill and the ensuing existential crisis and depression that follows. 

How to Know When We’re Already Overbuying 

It’s a good thing then that mental health professionals have found some effective ways that can help us determine if people’s retail therapy has turned from a form of self-medication for stress to a full-blown problem. 

Lying to Ourselves and Others 

There’s nothing wrong with indulging in a little shopping spree once in a while. However, when we find ourselves falling to marketing tricks, it might be time to reevaluate our shopping habits. Those minimum purchase for free shipping offers, for example, is a classic way marketers nudge us to buy more things that we don’t need. 

However, when we find ourselves making illogical or outright truth-bending justifications for our purchases, then we might already be in trouble. Self-deception is never good for mental health. 

When this happens, retail “therapy” ceases to be therapy. Instead, it becomes emotional shopping. In this case, we let our emotions govern our purchase decisions which is rarely ever a good financial decision.  

Going into Debt 

Modern economies are built mostly from debt. Home equity loans, for example, are a type of necessary debt that a lot of Singaporean people have to incur. However, there are some unnecessary debts. Items bought just make you feel better, for example, is one of these things that you shouldn’t go into debt for. 

How to Prevent Retail Therapy from Becoming a Problem 

In a world where it’s so easy to get a small dopamine fix from ordering from your favorite shopping site, there’s very little that can prevent a little retail therapy from becoming a full-blown bout with emotional shopping. So, if you’re worried that your shopping habits may already be becoming a problem, read on. Ms. Sue Ann Han has kindly compiled a list of things that we can do to make sure that it doesn’t become any worse. 

Take A Second Before You Swipe Your Card or Click on the Buy Button 

Oftentimes, our spur-of-the-moment purchase decisions can easily be averted by simply taking a second to think about it. So, delaying the actual purchase can go a long way in helping you truly determine whether you need the item or not. 

Commit to a Financial Plan 

“Failing to prepare is to prepare for failure,” the adage goes. The same is true when it comes to our approach to retail therapy. This is why it’s important to create and adhere to a financial plan. 

You can even set aside a certain amount every month specifically to spend on retail therapy purposes. Just make sure you’re not tempted to use funds from your other financial baskets. By doing so, you’re not depriving yourself of your shopping tendencies. 

One method that Sue Ann Han approves is using a separate debit card to make sure that we’re not spending beyond our means. Credit cards are the enemy of the emotional shopper so we need to make sure that we don’t carry one at all times. This can help immensely in curbing our opportunities for compulsive spending. 

Find Other, More Useful Outlets 

At the end of the day, retail therapy is just a self-medicative way of dealing with stress. Sue Ann Han says that finding an alternative to shopping may be a worthwhile endeavor. This way, you wouldn’t even have to spend as much. 

Exercising, for one thing, is one of those dopamine-inducing habits that have a very little chance of becoming harmful even if we overdo it sometimes. Creative expression through art therapy is another excellent way of coping with the stresses of modern living. Sometimes, emotional-shopping is a symptom of some deeper issues, consider reaching out to a psychiatrist in Singapore for a consult.