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The Danger of Retail Therapy this Holiday Season…and Beyond

Have you ever found yourself buying something you don’t need, just to make yourself happy? Do you spend more when you’re stressed? “Retail therapy” is one method of stress relief that many people employ consciously or unconsciously. Simply put, it’s the act of buying yourself a little something to boost your mood when you’re feeling low, and it may be more common than you think.

Retail therapy (and even its more intense cousin, compulsive shopping) may be more common than people realize. One study conducted by a Penn State researcher surveyed a group of regular shoppers, all of whom had bought themselves a treat in the past week, and found that 62% of those purchases had been made in an effort to lift mood. Another study on the demographics of compulsive buying found that women and those who were younger (late teens) were more prone to this behavior.

How Shopping Affects Us When We’re Stressed

When we’re under stress, we react to shopping differently. Just as we may naturally crave sweets to lift our moods, and we respond positively to other pleasures in life, people tend to feel stronger impulses to buy themselves treats for a mood boost when stressed.

The previously mentioned survey of shoppers found that 82% had only positive feelings about these purchases, and that the positive mood boost that followed these purchases was long-lasting. This demonstrates that purchases made as a “pick-me-up” were largely immune to feelings of “buyer’s remorse.”

However, when this type of buying becomes more compulsive, especially when money is tight, it can feel quite different. When shopping becomes primarily and chronically an exercise in mood enhancement, other issues can arise. The unintended consequences of compulsive buying can include extreme levels of debt, anxiety and frustration, the feeling of loss of control, and conflict at home.

The Obvious Shopping/Stress Paradox

Because retail therapy seems to be a slippery slope for many, what can start out as a relatively harmless mood booster could possibly grow into a compulsion that drains finances, causes conflict, and ultimately adds significant amounts of stress. It’s best to be cautious if you find yourself engaging in this type of behavior, or if others close to you are beginning to notice this as well. Giving yourself a treat from time to time is fine (and is even a recommended strategy for achieving goals), but letting your spending get out of control is obviously counterproductive for your overall wellbeing.

Healthier Alternatives to Retail Therapy

If you find yourself indulging in a little retail therapy now and then, particularly around the holiday season, it may not be the most effective way to relieve stress, but it can be a nice mood booster if it doesn’t become a compulsion. To get the best benefit from retail therapy with the least amount of negative consequences, many people have found the following strategies to be helpful:

DeClutter: Rather than going out to get new “stuff,” you may find the feeling of abundance you crave by looking through what you may have forgotten you already have.

You can make it a major undertaking (re-organizing all the closets in your house and moving furniture in the process) or a 10-minute project (cleaning out your junk drawer). You may find yourself discovering things you had forgotten you had. In the end, the “new” thing you get will be a less-cluttered environment to use how you choose, which can definitely be a mood booster.

Count Your Blessings: Cultivating a sense of gratitude for what you presently have in your life can help you to feel a sense of abundance, which can subsequently lessen feelings of desire for the acquisition of more things. Maintaining a gratitude journal and writing about what you appreciate in each day can be a transformative experience.

Counting your blessings the next time you feel the urge to make a purchase can help reduce the cravings to get more. Because compulsive shopping can be an effort to “fill a void,” indulging in activities that fill you emotionally can reduce your cravings for material items in the long run.

Simply Spend Less: Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a treat, and talking yourself out of it takes more effort than it’s worth. If done in moderation and within your means, small treats can be mood-lifters that don’t bring lasting debt. Going to discount stores and purchasing one item on an extreme sale can sometimes be just the thing. Better still, getting something inexpensive that will allow you to enjoy a quiet “moment” (like a cup of tea at a nice cafe, or a scented candle that will brighten up a room) can help you feel that you’re enjoying a small “escape” without going overboard.

Positive psychologists recommend the use of “little pleasures” in life, and a small “retail therapy” investment can indulge the part of you that yearns for something new. Of course, this can be done without going too far and creating an expensive habit that you can’t afford, with the guilt and additional stress that comes with it.

As with any advice, if you find that you are unable to manage your stress-related spending, and suspect that your shopping is out of control (not just around the holiday busy season, but all year long), it’s a good idea to talk to a professional for additional support and expertise.


  • Atalay, A. Selin; Meloy, Margaret G. Retail therapy: a strategic effort to improve mood. Psychology & Marketing, Jun2011.
  • Dittmar, Helga. Compulsive buying—a growing concern? An examination of gender, age, and endorsement of materialistic values as predictors. British Journal of Psychology; Nov2005, Vol. 96 Issue 4, p467-491.
  • O’Guinn, T. C.; Faber, R. J. Compulsive Buying: A Phenomenological Exploration. Journal of Consumer Research; Sep89, Vol. 16 Issue 2, p147-157.
  • Peterson, C. A primer in positive psychology. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006.
The Danger of Retail Therapy this Holiday Season…and Beyond

Emily Waters

Emily Waters earned her Master's degree in industrial psychology with an emphasis in human relations. She possesses keen insight into the field of applied psychology, organizational development, motivation, and stress, the latter of which is ubiquitous in the workplace environment and in one’s personal life. One of her academic passions is the understanding of human nature and illness as it pertains to the mind and body. Prior to obtaining her degree, she worked in both the corporate and nonprofit sectors. Presently, she teaches a variety of psychology courses both in public and private universities.

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APA Reference
Waters, E. (2019). The Danger of Retail Therapy this Holiday Season…and Beyond. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 20 Dec 2019 (Originally: 20 Dec 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 20 Dec 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.