Retail Therapy

On two separate occasions in my mid 20s I impulse-purchased a wicker love seat and an acoustic guitar. I mean, there are plenty of other silly things that I have bought over time, but these two items stand out particularly because I bought them after giant fights with my boyfriend at the time. It didn’t register at first (excuse the shopping pun) that these were items purchased in an emotional state of mind, a.k.a, Retail Therapy. It was later on (months? years? slow learner much?) that I realized why I purchased these items and what frame of mind I had been in when I forked over cash for these things that weren’t part of my carefully constructed and much-too-lean-for-stupid-purchases-budget at the time.

Retail Therapy is a common term in our culture that pokes fun at the self-indulgent parts of ourselves that are soothed by the purchase of “stuff” when in an emotional state of mind. Most of us have caved to the powers of Retail Therapy at some point, unless you are a saint or some other completely non-hedonistic type of personality. Researchers in the study of psychology and marketing report that 62% of Americans have used shopping as a means of improving emotional state.

Why Does it Work?

When we experience novelty or excitement, our brains release the chemical dopamine, which is basically the “oh wow, this is the best thing ever” chemical in the brain. (Dopamine is a more complex neurotransmitter than this and provides many more necessary functions for our bodies, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll look at the feel-good properties that propel us toward enjoyable things in life). Dopamine is highly associated with anticipation of reward, such as shopping. Oddly enough, studies have shown that levels of dopamine are higher when anticipating a purchase than when actually completing a purchase.

Psychologically speaking, Retail Therapy can offer some benefits when done in moderation. Professionals in the field of psychology suggest that Retail Therapy, in moderation, offers a sense of control and anticipation of the future as well as pleasure and satisfaction. “Too much” of anything offers negative consequences. For people who use Retail Therapy as their primary coping strategy for emotional discomfort, problems such as debt accrual can lead to major economic hardship, increased stress levels and relationship issues.

The same dopamine that gives us pleasure and satisfaction is also instrumental in the addiction process. In the same way that drugs and alcohol can become addictive, shopping and other activities can become addictive to those who may be more susceptible. We’ve all heard the term “addictive personality,” which is estimated to effect 10-15% of the population. People who tend to over-do it, whether through alcohol, drugs, shopping, sex or gambling are feeding the demand for dopamine in the brain.

The Art of Moderation

In the spirit of “let’s eat one candy bar, but not 10 in one sitting,” we learn to moderate our behaviors either through fear (of what might happen if I eat 10 candy bars at once) or discomfort (so THAT’S what it feels like to eat 10 candy bars at once. Ugh.)

Moderation in Retail Therapy can take a variety of forms.

1. Exploration of underlying purpose for behavior. Working on staying in touch with your emotions is an important step in recognizing when your retail adventures have exploited you

  • Ask yourself whether you are spending to escape negative emotions.
  • Identify whether this purchase will bring you the same satisfaction in a week, a month and a year.
  • Is there something you need emotionally that you are trying to fill with the acquisition of “stuff”?

2. Give yourself a Retail Therapy allowance. Set aside money in your budget for the sole purpose of Retail Therapy. When you are going out to shop, carry only the money you have set aside for this purpose to avoid the temptation to dip into other funds when dopamine comes bursting in like it owns the place, pointing at some irresistible thing you don’t really need. The use of an allowance system removes the post-purchase guilt that frequently accompanies a retail binge. (Like sugar free chocolate without the horrific after effects).

3. Window shop. Even as I type these words, my BS-o-meter is twitching, and yours probably is, too. BUT, the experts say that it is the anticipation of a purchase that boosts the dopamine production even more than the actual purchase of items. So leave your money at home and enjoy the process of shopping. Keep a little wish-list of future “planned” purchases that will keep your spending in check and will increase the anticipation and planning benefits of Retail Therapy.

4. Beware of the “I’m buying for someone else so it doesn’t count” justifications. Those dopamine-hungry pleasure centers can be pretty sneaky. There will be times when over-spending urges will be dressed up in some very altruistic clothing. Is it still Retail Therapy if I’m buying for someone else? YES. It is. We tend to think of shopping for others as a purely self-less act, and while it is thoughtful, sure, over-doing-it still counts as a detrimental behavior. I’m not suggesting that you abstain from gift-giving, (what kind of a wicked Scrooge would that make me?) but if you are finding yourself overspending, whether for yourself or others, consider whether there are ulterior motives at work.

Anyone want to buy a decades-old wicker chair or an ancient, out-of-tune guitar? I’ll give you a good deal.

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