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6 tips for how to avoid retail therapy

controlling retail therapy spending
June 16, 2017

By Pam Leibfried

When you’ve had a rough day at work or you’ve gotten some bad news, what’s your go-to tactic for lifting your mood? Sipping a cocktail while fixing your dinner? A yoga class or a game of pick-up basketball? Some good old-fashioned venting to your best friend or spouse? Primal scream therapy in your car on the way home? Each of these activities can be an effective way to let the worries of the day fade away.

Another common stress-release for many Americans is so-called “retail therapy.” That’s when shopping takes the place of other stress-releasing activities. I’ve been guilty of sometimes shopping to feel better, and I know I’m not alone.

If you’re guilty of this too, and you’d like to curb the impulse and spend less, how can you avoid retail therapy spending? I’ve significantly reduced my feel-better spending using the tactics below, and I hope they help you to do the same.

Avoid temptation entirely

We’ve all heard the advice to never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry. If you do, it’s likely your cart will end up filled with snacks and other food you didn’t plan to buy. When your stomach is growling, foods look extra enticing and are harder to resist.

Well, the same rule applies to shopping when you’re feeling emotional. If you know that you shop to make yourself feel better, don’t stop at Lowe’s or Nordstrom’s or T.J.Maxx on your way home from work after a bad day. When I’ve had a particularly stress-filled day and feel vulnerable to overspending, I take an alternate route home to avoid the malls and stores I pass on my regular commute. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

Talk to someone instead

I have found that if I call my BFF or my mom when I’m driving home, I get engrossed in conversation and am not even tempted to stop anywhere on my way home. This is an especially effective strategy if you have someone in your life who is frugal and can talk you out of shopping when you are tempted (Hi, Mom!). Or, if you have a friend who also therapy-shops, use the “buddy system” to help each other curb retail therapy overspending. A good laugh with a friend is often just the boost you need to feel better without shopping.

Set up a retail therapy budget

If you can afford to spend some money and you think shopping might make you feel better, it’s not the end of the world to stop at T.J.Maxx or Nordstrom’s to buy a new purse on the way home from work. The key is to be aware of what you’re doing and to not let your spending get out of hand. The easiest way to ensure that you don’t over do it is to set a budget for your retail therapy spending. If you’ve set aside $50 or $100 of “feel good” dollars every month, you can get a regret-free boost from shopping.

A picture is worth a thousand purchases?

I have a great tactic I’ve used when I’m upset or stressed about something and feel like I’m vulnerable to overspending on retail therapy items. If I give in to temptation and stop at HomeGoods on my way home from work, I still walk the store looking for cool stuff that would look awesome in my condo, but I don’t get a cart. After all, if I don’t have a cart, I can’t fill it with those awesome candles that are on sale, right?

I still bargain hunt, but I use my phone’s camera app instead of my wallet. If I see something I like, I take a picture of it. Then a day or two later, if I still want any of the items I photographed, I’ll go back and buy them. Nearly every time, when I look at the photos the next day, I decide they don't appeal to me as much – at least, they’re not appealing enough to motivate me to drive back to the store. And if I can’t even be bothered to go back to get the stuff, it’s pretty obvious that I didn’t really need or want it anyway, right? On the rare occasion that I do want to go back and buy something and it’s no longer available, I chalk it up to fate and figure it’s a sign from the universe that I wasn’t meant to buy it.

Make online checkouts more difficult

If online shopping is your biggest vulnerability, consider checking out as a “guest” if that’s an option the site offers. Because having all your information already in an online store account makes it easier and quicker to check out, it can serve to enable your retail self-soothing. When you’re feeling upset or are shopping impulsively, quicker and easier is not a good thing! Instead, you need a small obstacle that causes you to pause and think about whether you really want the item(s). If you have to get up off the couch to get your wallet, then fill out forms for your shipping and payment information every single time you make a purchase online, you’re less likely to buy on impulse.

Unfollow or block shopping sites on social media

Although you can’t avoid online store ads entirely, if you know you’re vulnerable to overspending when you see a Target or Walmart free-shipping offer or coupon in your Facebook feed, unfollow that store so you won’t see their promotions all the time.

For example, my personal online-ordering weakness is quilting fabric, so I hid all of their Facebook posts from my newsfeed. If there is something I really need to order, I can still click through to the stores’ Facebook pages to see if one of them has a free shipping deal or coupon on the item I need, but I no longer see promos every single night when I catch up on Facebook while unwinding from a long day. Since I’ve hidden these stores from daily view, I’ve cut my online ordering significantly because I’m not tempted by “daily deals.” 


Pam Leibfried is a marketing content specialist whose love of words led to a writing and editing career. After a brief stint teaching English, she transitioned to corporate communications and spent 20 years at The Nielsen Company before joining Alliant’s content development team. Early in her work life, Pam’s friend Matt explained the benefits of a 401(k) and her dad encouraged her to start a Roth IRA. Their good counsel prompted her to prioritize retirement savings, which just might enable her to retire early so she can read more and live out the slogan on her fave T-shirt:  “I have a retirement plan: I plan on quilting.”