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What is Retail Therapy?

Jessica Ellis
Updated Jan 26, 2024
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Retail therapy is a term for buying things in order to cheer up, boost self confidence, or avoid a depressing or stressful situation. It is a very common practice in modern society, and is not necessarily harmful in moderation. Obsessive retail therapy is sometimes referred to as retail or shopping addiction, and may indicate severe depression of psychological problems, as well as leave shopping addicts with mountains of debt.

Since the advent of credit lines, shopping has become easier and far less need-based. People shop to stay up on trends, impress others, or affect their own feelings. The abundance of products and effectiveness of advertising both send the message that shopping can be entertaining and fulfilling as well as simply resulting in purchasing necessities. The culture of shopping as an activity can be said to have created the concept of retail therapy.

People seeking retail therapy are usually trying to brighten their mood or improve their lives, even if only temporarily. The practice can take many forms, with both positive and negative effects. Some people shop to reward themselves for losing weight, getting a promotion, or scoring high on a test. People in unsatisfactory relationships may indulge in the practice to cheer themselves up, and also to anger significant others about spending money. Still others enjoy retail therapy as a way to escape stress in daily lives; problems at work, impending finals, or difficult family situations may all seem more manageable after a break to go out and have a shopping treat.

Retail therapy usually involves purchasing items for personal use. Clothing, electronics, gadgets, and beauty products are all examples of products that may provide mood boosts and instant gratification. Some people may get a kick out of purchasing luxury designer items, while others will feel better and more gratified if they come away with a great bargain or unexpected sale items.

The line between occasional retail therapy and shopping addiction is somewhat blurry. People that are addicted typically will accept the short-term mood boost in the face of long-term, more devastating consequences. Without a realistic budget, people can quickly overspend and turn to credit cards, delaying payment but usually increasing the total amount paid when interest is included. Worse, overspending can actually amplify stress and unhappiness, leading to a greater compulsion to temporarily avoid pain by shopping.

People suffering from shopping addiction may need financial and psychological counseling before they destroy their credit, savings, and future. Although it is easy to think of shopping addicts as vain and out of touch, they are often suffering genuine pain and feel that there is no escape other than to shop. Through professional therapy and discipline, shopping addicts can overcome their spending problem and find new outlets to relieve pain and depression.

In order to indulge in retail therapy without venturing toward debt or addiction, set realistic guidelines. Make a monthly budget to determine how much spending money can be used for non-essential shopping, and stick to it. Try to indulge the desire to shop during yearly sales; post-Thanksgiving and Christmas sales are legendary, and can be a good way to shop all day but not overspend. Take friends with similar budget restrictions and challenge one another to find the best deals.

If there is no money in the budget for extra spending, look for other forms of personal reward or mood enhancement. A long walk, free yoga class, or hot bath can help some people de-stress. Arrange a closet-switch with a group of friends and walk away with a whole new wardrobe. Take old books to a secondhand bookstore and trade them for a brand new library. Even going to the pound or pet store and hugging a lonely puppy can give a temporary mood boost.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for WiseGeek. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By comfyshoes — On Mar 15, 2011

"@BrickBack" - I know what you mean. There was a financial counselor that I read about in a magazine that got a couple to finally admit what their problem was and then placed them on a cash only budget.

She had them withdraw a few thousand dollars from their bank account and then had them place specific amounts in envelopes that were designated for specific fixed expenses.

This way once the money in the envelope is spent then the couple could not spend anymore until the following month.

Also, if they needed more money for one of the other categories then they would have to take money from one category away but could not increase the level of spending.

I can understand why retail therapy is so popular because when you go to a store a buy something and it looks great on you, you feel fantastic for the moment and almost forget what was upsetting you in the first place, but like all other addictions it does have major consequences that are not worth those few moments of bliss.

By BrickBack — On Mar 14, 2011

"@Bhutan" -I agree with you. I also saw a financial expert on television make a couple that was overspending constantly put the content of all of the things that they bought in the center of their living room in a large pile.

The couple could see what the all that spending actually represented. Many of the items still had tags on them which really indicated that they were impulse purchases.

It was really a reality check because we often spend money on things and never remember buying it. The best thing to do if you want to stop the retail therapy is to understand why you are doing it.

Once you determine why you are doing it you can develop a cash budget that can help you stay out of the malls. Until you really address the reason why and until it really starts to bother you it will be difficult to change this addictive behavior.

It is also a good idea to cut up your credit cards to avoid the temptation to spend again.

By Bhutan — On Mar 13, 2011

SauteePan - I agree that cognitive behavioral therapy works with people with shopping addictions. It also works with people that have food addictions as well. Therapists using these types of therapeutic techniques often role play with their patients in order to demonstrate how they can select a better choice the next time they are faced with the urge to buy something.

Another very powerful thing that a cognitive behavioral therapist does is make the patient write his or her feelings down daily in a journal. This will help the patient create the link between buying and their emotions.

Once the feeling that causes the impulsive spending is recorded over and over again the patient sees the pattern of behavior that has to change. The therapist can also get to the source of the problem and treat the issue. The therapist can also designate other activities that the patient participate in instead of going out to spend money.

She may suggest exercising or even painting as alterative exercises to perform instead of the spending.

By SauteePan — On Mar 12, 2011

If you want to define retail therapy it is really nothing more than an addiction to shopping. Addictions usually develop to mask some problem or to achieve momentary instant pleasure. Like all other addictions there is a high with shopping addictions when someone finds a great deal on a blouse or a pair of pants but this type of addiction will lead to overspending.

In the movie. “Confessions of a Shopaholic” the viewer experienced the stress and embarrassment that followed someone with a shopping addiction. There were scenes in which bill collectors were constantly calling the main character and she was unable to make a single purchase on one credit card and had to use multiple cards in order to finance a small purchase.

While this movie is an exaggerated account of what defines retail therapy it does have dire consequences. Hurting your credit score and maxing out your credit cards on frivolous purchases does not allow you to have the piece of mind that you will okay should an emergency strike.

In addition, if you ruin your credit with late payments not only will it cost you a lot more but you may find it more difficult to obtain financing for more important things like a car, an apartment or even a house. Retail therapy has long term financial consequences so if you are depressed or need a lift it is better to join a workout class or talk to a friend.

If the problem persist then see a therapist because you might be able to treat your condition with some cognitive behavioral therapy and along with some antidepressants.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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