Retail Therapy shopping cart

It’s human nature to want comfort in stressful times, and there certainly has been a lot of stress in the world lately!

Whether it’s comfort from pets, friends and family, a favourite food, or classic films (my go to), we all need and deserve it.

So what about the comfort we derive from buying stuff?

What’s the harm in a little Retail Therapy?

Well, sometimes very little, or potentially a lot more than we realize.

I was talking with my friend Sean the other day. This was the first time we had connected since the Covid-19 lockdown, so we mostly talked about our new normal.

We chatted about trying to stay fit and active, keeping up a schedule, and Zoom’ing our lives away.

We also talked about new shopping habits consisting of almost entirely of online orders. He then described a shopping event where he managed to catch himself before going too far.

He had clicked through to a big sale on a retailer’s website and spent 90 minutes amassing a large number of items in his cart.

Right before finalizing the sale, he realized how much time he had just spent and how much money he was about to spend and decided against placing the order.

Good catch, Sean!

What was it that made him and us get caught up in shopping patterns like that?

During stressful times, like all of 2020 so far, the comfort we derive from Retail Therapy can be pretty powerful.

First appearing in this 1986 Chicago Tribune article1, the term ‘Retail Therapy’ is defined by as “the action of shopping….in order to cheer oneself up”2.

Regardless of the official definition, Retail Therapy can mean different things to different people.

It can go from window shopping without making a purchase all the way to Oniomani or Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD). I suspect it is somewhere in between for most of us.

Probably not surprising to my readers, I used to get my Retail Therapy through finding a great deal. The ‘high’ I would get from buying something on a huge discount was ridiculous.

Often the deals would be on things I needed, but too often it was on items I really didn’t. You should have seen my DVD collection back in the day. Sure, I enjoyed many of them, but the majority were viewed once or not at all prior to me the first purge.

So does that mean Retail Therapy is bad for you?

Well, like with alcohol consumption, not necessarily. A lot depends on how often we do it, how much we spend, our financial situation, and whether or not we have a dependency on it.

There are actually lots of studies that say Retail Therapy can be good for you, and not all of those studies were conducted by retailers!

This Forbes article quoting several studies mentions “retail therapy not only makes people happier immediately, but it can also fight lingering sadness or stress.”, “shopping can improve a sour mood” and “individuals did not regret spending money on ‘self-treats’ with the goal of improving mood.”

The article also mentions some pitfalls of Retail Therapy including accumulation of debt.

Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Now, the goal of this blog from day one has been to help us do more with our money, by ensuring we don’t spend more then we must, and that we have a fully informed view of what may be influencing our purchases.

Retail Therapy (and the comfort we get from it) is a perfect example of something that influences purchases, and can lead to spending more than we should.

As such, I wouldn’t be doing a very good job if I didn’t take an opposing view to the benefits of Retail Therapy.

The problem with Retail Therapy starts to occur when we indulge in it too often, making impulsive or unnecessary purchases, and are spending outside of our means.

Or really just wasting money on things we don’t necessary need or want because we’re trying to improve our mood.

Photo by fran hogan on Unsplash

Therapist Peggy Wynne mentions warning signs of a serious problem include “avoiding credit card or bank statements, lying or hiding purchases; missing work, school, or other obligations to go shopping and feeling shame, guilt or irritability associated with shopping.”3

That, and if we are using Retail Therapy in lieu of actual therapy or other longer terms solutions to address that sadness, stress or other issues, then can become an ever bigger problem.

What alternatives are there to Retail Therapy?

There are tons of articles that offer ideas about what you can do instead of Retail Therapy.

I like a lot of the suggestions in this article including:

  • Know your emotional spending triggers
  • Use the 48-hour rule
  • Remove spending apps from your phone (and unsubscribe to emails encouraging you to spend)
  • Improve your mood by window shopping
  • Treat yourself with small purchases (within your budget)

I’d like to take it one step further though, and that’s to find a way to reset our dependence on shopping to feel good. 

I’ve mentioned before that I’m kind of on a path towards minimalism. Although far from a full-on Minimalist, I’m well on my way, especially as it pertains to cutting down dramatically on buying stuff.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Did you know that the average American apparently has 300,000 items in their home? This is according to the LA times, referencing Professional Organizer Regina Lark4.

The 300,000 includes every little thing, like each and every utensil, photograph, paper clip, etc.

I haven’t vetted that number, but even if it’s not actually that high, Americans (and Canadians!) accumulate a ton of things!

I know first-hand with myself, and seeing it in others. A few years ago, I was helping someone downsize from their large house to a condo. They had accumulated a lot of items over the years, many of which were beloved.

After a session of sorting through their stuff, I returned to my own home and started looking differently at my own things.

I looked at my DVD collection and wondered why I kept it. I hardly watched any of them, especially as my viewing habits had shifted much more towards streaming.

I also saw more clearly all the little items that filled my closets, garage, drawers and every other storage space.

All the clutter, all the excess.

Things I had used once or never at all.

Items I was keeping in case I needed them one day.

I also became aware of little bits of never-before-noticed frustration associated with clutter.

You know that stuffed drawer in your kitchen that jams when you try to open it?

We all have one.

I realized each time I opened mine and it jammed, my neck got a bit tight.

I was experiencing angst about opening a drawer, of all things!

Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t ruining my day or anything, but it did negatively impact my piece of mind.

So I purged. I did a massive clean getting rids of tons of stuff. Some things went into the garbage, some were donated, others were posted on Kijiji and ebay to be sold.

I got rid of a ton, and felt really good about it!

A few months later though, I started noticing things that I hadn’t purged, but should have.

Why do I still have this, and that? Why didn’t I get rid of it in the purge? I also had accumulated some new things…some promotional items from work, some purchases I really didn’t need, some gifts, etc., etc.

So I did a second purge.

A year later, I did a third.

Photo by Bench Accounting on Unsplash

Now I am much more conscious of anything coming into the house.

It’s almost like I’ve erected a force field around my house for which anything new needs to go through a strict screening process!

I am especially more careful about anything I buy. I’ve also talked to my friends and family about it and am pretty direct when it comes to gifts or other things people bring over.

You don’t need to bring anything at all, your company is all that’s wanted.

If you absolutely must bring something, consumables like wine, a dessert etc. is great, but for anything else, please, please, please run it past me first.

It’s made for the odd awkward interaction when I’ve politely declined to accept a gift, but I’d rather do that then to turn around and donate or sell it.

That’s not helping anyone do more with their money.

Plus I’m hoping by sharing my own changing view of the accumulation of stuff, others may challenge their own perceptions.

But I still need comfort, just like everyone else. So what did I do to replace the comfort I was getting from my own Retail Therapy?

Part of how I transitioned away from Retail Therapy and accumulating stuff was to re-focus my time, energy and money onto experiences like travel, dining out, concerts, baseball games etc.

Photo by Paul Gilmore on Unsplash

I’m still spending, so you could argue that I’m just substituting a Goods based Retail Therapy with Services based Retail Therapy.

That’s tough to argue, especially when I think about the comfort and excitement I get when I book a trip!

I’m ok with it though, as I get immensely more joy out of experiences than I ever did with stuff.

I also spent time thinking about other activities I get comfort from that didn’t involve Retail Therapy, many of which don’t involve spending money at all.

Things like:

  • Exercise – A good workout feels better than any purchase for me
  • Finding an alternative to buying something – I now get a kick out of finding a way not to buy something. Whether it’s borrowing or renting a tool, or Macgyvering it using an item I already own, it makes me happy when I find a way to avoid a purchase.
  • Getting rid of items – While I don’t need to do any more big cleans, I do regularly come across items that escaped the purges. Sounds like a movie – Pixar, Toy Story 5 idea – ‘Escape From The Purge’.
  • De-Cluttered Space – That kitchen drawer that always jammed and gave me a bit of angst? I de-cluttered and organized it. Now instead of angst, every time I open it I get a shot of Zen!
  • Sense of Accomplishment / Crossing things off my To-Do list – The latch on the gate to my yard keeps sticking. After repairing it the other week, I now get that a little sense of satisfaction each time it opens effortlessly.
  • Offsetting the cost of a necessary purchase – Usually I just forgo a regular purchase for an irregular purchase, but sometimes I get a bit more creative. One of my favourite bands did a live acoustic show with tickets for $125 that included free limited-edition live recording of that show. I just sold that record for $120 on Kijiji. Basically I went to a great concert for $5 (not including beer)! That makes me feel pretty awesome, much better than Retail Therapy ever could!
Limited Edition Metric Record sold for $120!

These are just some examples of what helps me offset the comfort that I used to get from Retail Therapy. It’s important to find what works for you.

If nothing else, at least recognize Retail Therapy for what it is – something that gives us comfort that can consciously be averted like my friend Sean was able to do.

Avoiding Retail Therapy, or at least minimizing it can go a very long way in helping us do more with our money.

Thanks for reading!






6 Replies to “Retail Therapy”

  1. Great post, Mike! I find that de-cluttering is a great way to discourage retail therapy because when I see any potential purchases now my brain immediately starts picturing whether I’m going to have to make a trip to the Salvation Army to get rid of it in two years. The stress of that future trip is enough to make me stop buying lol

    1. Yes, exactly Louisa! Plus with my environment now being much less clutter free, I am really hesitant to let it get cluttered up again!

  2. Waifair will be very disappointed to know I have unsubscribed to all of their emails. When I need something, I’ll go find it. 🙂
    Thanks, Mike!

    1. lol funny enough I just ordered two light fixtures from Wayfair – to be clear, they are two fixtures I need and have been looking for awhile, they weren’t impulse purchases I promise!

  3. Great article Mike. Keep them coming.

    I am glad I emptied my cart, I had lots of great outfits with nowhere to go 🙂

    And interestingly enough Sarah just finished a project on minimalist and she told me about the 300,000 items. She got a kick out of reading it in your blog.

    1. lol that’s awesome, Sean! Very cool that Sarah did a project on Minimalism…it’s an interesting subject!

Comments are closed.