Retail therapy is not actually therapy, but it can help you feel better as long as you don’t overspend. Consulting a therapist may be more beneficial if you’re experiencing mental health symptoms or struggling with a serious problem.

Love it or hate it, shopping is a pretty standard part of modern life.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who can easily spend hours in stores, comparing prices on everyday items or shopping for the perfect gift. Or maybe you prefer to browse online for groceries, new clothes, and everything in between.

If you’ve ever shopped when feeling down or stressed, you’re likely familiar with the mood boost that can result from making a purchase or simply walking through a shopping mall and window-shopping. That’s the concept of retail therapy in action.

Turns out, shopping does tend to lift one’s spirits. This is backed by a 2011 study that looked at 407 adults in three different experiments.

The study authors drew a few conclusions:

  • Unplanned shopping seems to help relieve bad moods.
  • Resisting the urge to buy something has a similar mood-boosting benefit for people trying to avoid impulsive spending.
  • Retail therapy usually doesn’t involve negative effects, such as buyer’s remorse, guilt, anxiety, or other distress.
  • The mood improvement associated with retail therapy seems to last well past the purchase.

People often assume that engaging in retail therapy is a slippery slope toward overspending, but the researchers didn’t find this to be the case. In fact, most participants stayed well within their budget.

A second study from 2013 similarly found that retail therapy was an effective way to turn a low mood around. Interestingly, it appears to be more beneficial for sad moods, not necessarily angry ones.

Why shopping feels good

Feelings of sadness, stress, or anxiety are often rooted in feelings of powerlessness. The authors of the 2013 study suggest that retail therapy offers people a sense of control that counteracts these feelings.

Choosing to make a purchase (or not to make a purchase) helps people feel more empowered.

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It’s not unusual for people to talk about retail therapy as a kind of guilty pleasure or bad habit. But it if makes you feel better, and it doesn’t involve feelings of regret, can it really be that bad?

As with most things that feel good, moderation is key.

If you consistently use shopping to cope with distress, it can become a less than ideal way of dealing with what’s troubling you, whether that’s a huge assignment at work or serious issues in your relationship.

The temporary mood boost associated with shopping can prevent you from seeking help that would offer more significant, long lasting benefits.

Your financial situation can also affect whether retail therapy becomes harmful. If you keep your purchases within your spending budget, you likely won’t see any negative impact.

But if you spend more money than you have, you may end up with significant levels of debt over time, leading to even more distress.

Even too much window-shopping can become problematic. It may not involve money, but it can make it difficult to take care of responsibilities, spend time with loved ones, or participate in other hobbies or activities.

Compulsive shopping, or compulsive buying disorder, and retail therapy both involve shopping. But beyond that, they’re pretty different.

Experts believe the dopamine reward system that plays a part in addiction also contributes to compulsive behaviors like shopping.

Unlike retail therapy, the pleasure associated with compulsive shopping typically doesn’t last past the moment of purchase.

After you buy something, especially if you didn’t really want it, you might feel guilty or regretful. You might tell yourself you’ll stop spending money, only to find that you just keep doing it.

With compulsive shopping, you might also:

  • buy things you don’t need
  • feel unable to control shopping
  • feel a need to hide purchases
  • lie about the amount of money spent
  • need to shop more over time

Still, you can shop a lot or even spend more money than you’d like without being a compulsive shopper. You can also experience compulsive shopping patterns without going deeply into debt.

The key in determining whether your shopping is more compulsive or therapeutic lies in how you feel afterward and whether you can control the purchases you make.

Retail therapy typically involves desired purchases. It also restores a sense of control, rather than making you feel like you can’t control your spending.

There’s no shame in using retail therapy to cope with stress or sadness from time to time.

But if you know you tend to go shopping when you’ve had a rough day, keeping these tips in mind can help you continue to see benefits from retail therapy — without harm.

Stick to your budget

Most people would consider overspending and debt the primary negative consequences of retail therapy.

To avoid this hazard, budget for your spending. Set aside some money to use for retail therapy each month, then keep to that limit.

If you want to shop when you’ve already reached your spending limit, create a plan to save up for something you want. Saving for a desired item can feel rewarding, too, and so can using restraint when you’re tempted to shop.

Shop for things you actually need

If you know shopping makes you feel better, use your shopping trips to make purchases you need, like household groceries or toiletries.

Sure, grocery shopping isn’t always the most exciting task, but maybe trying out a new store will make it more appealing.

Simply being in the store and looking at items (whether you intend to purchase them or not) can offer the same benefits as other kinds of shopping. You might even find a new product you’re excited to try.

Pro tip

Try comparing grocery ads to find better deals, which can feel a bit like shopping on its own. Plus, by saving money, you might end up with a little extra to add to your “treat budget.”

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Try window-shopping first

Browsing shops or adding items to an online shopping cart without hitting “order” appears to offer similar benefits.

The next time you want to shop away feelings of sadness or stress, do some window-shopping before you buy anything. You may find your mood lifts simply by seeing what’s out there.

For an even bigger mood boost, head to a mall or outdoor shopping avenue to get a bit of exercise.

Think about your purchase first

If you worry about buying too many things when you’re feeling down, you might find it helpful to give yourself a brief waiting period — maybe a day or two — before you make your purchase. This can help you make certain you really do want that item.

The act of shopping for and locating the item you want, whether it’s a heated blanket, video game, or new phone, may help improve your mood for the rest of the day.

If you still feel like you want the item when you’re in a better mood the following day (and have the necessary funds), go back and get it.

Get help for serious concerns

Maybe you’re stressed about starting a new job, so you buy yourself a new outfit. Or perhaps your end of term research project presentation didn’t go as well as you’d hoped, so you treat yourself to a nice dinner out.

These problems are temporary, situational issues. They don’t, on their own, indicate underlying distress.

But if you want to go shopping after fighting with your partner (which seems to happen often) or find yourself consistently browsing online shops whenever you feel anxious during your workday (ignoring important tasks in the meantime), you may want to consider exploring these concerns with a therapist.

Shopping can help you feel better, but it can’t directly address deeper problems. Using shopping, or any other coping method, to avoid persistent distress usually makes things worse in the long run.

Coping methods help you get through difficult situations. But they don’t provide lasting relief from mental health concerns. To truly relieve distress, you have to identify and work through its causes. A therapist can help with this.

If you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, job dissatisfaction, grief, or any number of other concerns, it’s important to talk to a professional.

You may find actual therapy helpful if you:

  • feel a need or compulsion to shop
  • regularly spend more money than you want (or have) to spend
  • feel irritated, anxious, or ashamed after shopping
  • neglect responsibilities in order to shop
  • struggle to manage troubles without shopping
  • use shopping to cope with lasting emotional distress

Itching to treat yourself? In most cases, there’s no need to deny yourself. Retail therapy really can help you feel better, as long as you don’t overspend.

But remember, retail therapy isn’t actually therapy.

If you’re experiencing mental health symptoms or you’re struggling with a serious problem, talking to a therapist can have more benefit than pulling out your wallet.

Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.