How to Stop Emotional Spending (aka Retail Therapy)

Do you buy things when you've had a bad day?

Overhead View Of Young Woman Doing Online Shopping With Laptop

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Almost all of us participate in emotional spending from time to time. We have a bad day and want to ease the pain by buying a new gadget or item of clothing. Maybe someone we admire has an expensive handbag or new phone, and we feel the urge to purchase one just like it.

Occasional emotional spending isn’t usually an issue. But when it gets out of hand, when it damages our finances, or when it’s used in place of healthier coping mechanisms, it can become a problem.

Here’s what to know about emotional spending, and how to stop doing it if it’s become an unhealthy habit for you.

What Is Emotional Spending?

Emotional spending—sometimes described as “retail therapy” or impulse buying—is when you make a purchase that is guided more by your emotions than your need for a certain product or service. In other words, your emotions and desires overcome your willpower, or you ability to make a more rational decision about the purchase.

Research has found that shopping releases hormones like dopamine that make us feel happy and boosts our mood. In fact, the whole shopping experience—from looking or browsing for items, to purchasing the item, to unboxing the item or waiting for it to be delivered to your home—is a pleasurable experience for many people.

Emotional spending isn’t always a bad thing, but for many of us, it can become an ongoing habit and can strain our bank accounts. Not only that, but the rush of good feelings that we experience when we retail shop don’t last, and the feelings of unhappiness that we may be looking to push away can still linger.

Emotional Spending vs. Compulsive Buying

Emotional spending isn’t a disorder, but sometimes it can cross the line into one. Compulsive buying is considered a psychological disorder, where the person is unable to control their impulses, and purchases items they don’t need on an ongoing, obsessive basis.

Compulsive buying is an addictive behavior and can have negative impacts on one’s life and well-being, including problems at work, school, as well as financial demise.

What Causes Emotional Spending?

If you are interested in decreasing your emotional spending, it can be helpful to understand what is causing you to engage in the habit. Becoming more aware of your triggers is the first step toward breaking the habit.

Emotional spending is just what it sounds like: spending that is guided by emotions. Some of the emotions that might cause someone to engage in emotional spending include:

  • Sadness
  • Jealousy
  • Feeling like your life is out of control
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Stress, including financial stress
  • Social isolation
  • Boredom

Tips for Stopping Emotional Spending

Emotional spending may feel out of your control at times, but it doesn’t have to be. There are some steps you can take to gain more control of the habit, and decrease your impulse buying.

Understand Your Triggers

Next time you are about to make a purchase that seems to slant toward the impulsive side of things, ask yourself how you are feeling. Try to name the emotion. If you are experiencing a negative emotion—anxiety, jealousy, sadness—ask yourself what purchasing this item will do for you. Are you trying to make these bad feelings go away?

You don’t have to have all the answers here, but exploring and becoming aware of your feelings is an important step toward not acting quite so impulsively on your emotions.

Find Healthier Ways to Cope With Your Emotions

When you engage in emotional spending, you are often looking to tap into those positive feelings that come with making a purchase. “Feel good” hormones like dopamine are released when we retail shop, which can feel like an instant reward.

But there are healthier—and less expensive—ways to release those happy feelings. Next time you find yourself wanting to purchase an item because you want to feel better, consider:

  • Going for a walk or a jog
  • Playing your favorite sport
  • Meeting up with a friend for coffee
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Watching a favorite movie or TV show

Make an “Emotional Spending” Budget

Emotional spending isn’t always negative and is an acceptable habit to engage in from time to time. It’s OK to reward yourself with something special, and sometimes buying yourself something is an act of self-care. The problem is that when we act on our emotions constantly, we may end up overspending or making purchases without thinking rationally.

Creating an “emotional spending” budget can help you keep your impulse buying in check, because it will allow you to engage in emotional spending from time to time, but you will have to make a more conscious decision to do so. Pick a monthly or weekly amount you can afford to spend, and stick to it.

Check on Your Finances Regularly

Many of us prefer to be somewhat in the dark about our finances. We collect our paychecks, spend our money, and hope that we don’t spend more than we can afford. But this method often backfires, and if you are an emotional spender, you may find yourself spending more than you earn frequently.

Take one day a week, or even one day a month, to check on your accounts. Note what you have spent, and what you have left to spend. Doing so will make thinking about finances a routine part of your life, and also help you think more rationally about spending your money.

Learn to Enjoy the “Rush” of Saving Money

When we purchase items on impulse, or based on an emotional urge, we are usually doing so because of the positive feelings that rush over us. But what you might not realize is that saving your money can produce some of the same feelings.  

Deciding that you are going to set aside a certain amount of money each month to save—and then watching it grow—can produce feelings of excitement, happiness, self-confidence, and control—many of the same feelings you are looking for when you participate in emotional spending.

You can even have your money automatically transferred into a savings account each month, so you don’t have to think about it.

Take a Break

Next time you are considering making a purchase that comes from a more emotional than rational place, take a break before buying. If you are browsing online, put the item in your cart, and then step away for a few hours. If you are in the store, decide that you might purchase the item soon, but go home, and consider going back later to buy it.

During this “break” you may still decide that purchasing the item is right for you, but it will be less of an impulsive purchase. You may also realize that you don’t need the item to be happy, and will be able to refrain from purchasing the item.

If You Think You Might Have a Shopping Addiction

Sometimes emotional spending crosses a line and can become an addiction. Compulsive buying behaviors, or shopping addictions, are characterized by:

  • A compulsive need to buy things
  • An inability to control one’s desires to buy things
  • An excessive purchasing pattern
  • Often, the items purchased aren’t even used or enjoyed, but are just purchased to fulfill a compulsion to experience the emotional reaction of making a purchase

Usually, this addiction is coupled with financial problems, legal problems, relationship problems, and deep feelings of guilt and shame. If you think you are dealing with a compulsive buying issue, you should consider seeing a therapist or counselor who specializes in this disorder. Help is out there, and you deserve to feel better.

A Word From Verywell

It’s fine to enjoy a little emotional spending from time to time. You deserve to have things you enjoy, and there’s nothing wrong with chasing the thrill of going shopping. But if you are finding that your emotional spending is becoming a problem, or is straining your finances, it makes sense to address it.

Luckily, there are many simple things you can do to decrease your emotional spending—and they can have a positive impact on both your bank account and your emotional state. Emotional spending may feel good in the moment, but the truth is, there are usually healthier ways to cope with your emotions.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Cleveland Clinic. Why Retail “Therapy” Makes You Feel Happier.

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Additional Reading
  • Murali V, Ray R, Shaffiullha M. Shopping addiction. Advances in Psychiatric Treatment. 2012;18(4):263-269. doi:10.1192/apt.bp.109.007880

By Wendy Wisner
Wendy Wisner is a health and parenting writer, lactation consultant (IBCLC), and mom to two awesome sons.