5 Ways to Make Retail Therapy Good for You


After a long and frustrating day, nothing feels better than heading to your favorite store. When you emerge an hour later with heavily laden bags and a lighter wallet, you have forgotten all about the argument with your coworker, and you head home feeling much more cheerful.

The only problem with this scenario is the lighter wallet.

But what if you could have your retail therapy and balance your budget at the same time? As it turns out, researchers have discovered that shopping really does give you a needed pick-me-up, and used in moderation, retail therapy offers several psychological rewards.

Here is what you need to know about the psychological soundness of retail therapy — and some suggestions for how to make your therapeutic shopping profitable.

Why We Like to Shop When We're Down

In general, people get down or irritable because they feel out of control. When you are in a sour mood, it is often related to a sense of anxiety that you do not have control over your circumstances or environment.

And that is why retail therapy is so effective. You get a chance to have complete control over where you go, what you look for, and what you purchase. Add in the fact that most retail therapy also involves treating yourself in some way, and it's no wonder that shopping is such a common method for improving a bad mood.

In addition, according to Kit Yarrow of Psychology Today, "shopping can be a rich source of mental preparation. As people shop, they're naturally visualizing how they'll use the products they're considering, and in doing so, they're also visualizing their new life." Part of what makes retail therapy feel so good is getting a chance to imagine how great things will be with your new wardrobe/gadget/library of books.

If you're not a regular user of retail therapy, just keeping some money set aside for your occasional pick-me-ups should be sufficient. But if you often indulge in therapeutic shopping, then you might want to revise your shopping strategy to make sure your mood lifter doesn't get you into financial trouble.

Using Retail Therapy Strategically

Here are five different strategies for making sure your shopping habit actually helps your bottom line.

1. Shop for Gifts

While retail therapy traditionally means buying some sort of treat for yourself, it can also feel great to buy gifts for loved ones. The next time you go shopping to relieve stress after a bad day, decide to buy a present for someone on your Christmas list, no matter what time of year it is. Since you would spend the money on a gift anyway, your shopping trip will save you money in the future while still giving you the mood-boosting sense of the control you crave. Also, you can have fun visualizing how much the recipients will enjoy the gifts you are picking out.

If you make a habit of using retail therapy to shop ahead for holiday gifts, you will save money and stress at Christmas since you won't be shopping at the height of retail season.

2. Keep a List of Items You Need or Want

Living in the digital age means that it is possible to buy something for yourself as soon as you think of it. However, we don't necessarily need that level of convenience, and you receive no psychological benefits from it.

Instead, make a list of items that you need or want that you could get anytime. For example, there are currently two t-shirts and a DVD that I would like to own, but I am waiting to purchase any of them until a day when I need a serious cheer-up. (I liken this to keeping an emergency bar of chocolate hidden in my desk drawer. I'll wait to enjoy it until it's going to give me the biggest mood-boosting bang for my buck.)

By limiting your retail therapy to items that you have already decided to purchase, you keep the hit on your wallet to a minimum.

3. Use Gift Cards

Retail therapy is most dangerous when you engage in it mindlessly. But it is possible to get the same psychological benefit while being a thoughtful consumer.

For instance, purchasing a discounted gift card from a store that is your go-to retail therapy destination is a good way to feel better without spending too much. Get this gift card ahead of time and keep it in your wallet. On a day when you need to indulge in retail therapy, you can lock the rest of your wallet in your glove box and shop your bad mood away without hurting your budget. (See also: 5 Ways to Stop Your Mindless Spending)

4. Become a Mystery Shopper

If retail therapy is a regular habit, consider making it a part-time job by becoming a mystery shopper. Generally, mystery shoppers can receive between $5 and $20 per shopping trip, as well as reimbursement for their purchases, although there is often a limit to the purchase amount. While mystery shopping will not necessarily be as flexible as a normal session of retail therapy, once you have been hired by a company, you can select jobs when and where you want, saving your mystery shopping for the weeks you need to feel better.

It is important to make sure you go through a reputable mystery shopping company. You will never be asked to pay to become a mystery shopper for a legitimate company. It's also a good idea to check that the mystery shopping organization that hires you is a member of the MSPA, the official organization that regulates mystery shopping.

5. Indulge in Window Shopping

A recent study asked subjects to watch a depressing video clip, and then randomly assigned the subjects to one of two simulated shopping scenarios. The participants whose simulated shopping experience gave them more of an opportunity to choose the products they liked were found to be happier after the experience.

What's important about this study is the fact that the "shoppers" weren't actually buying anything, but they still experienced an improved mood. The authors of the study determined that it is the act of choosing between products that helps alleviate sadness, even if those choices are hypothetical.

This means that you will feel just as cheered up by trying on clothes without buying them than you would from purchasing a new wardrobe — all without spending a penny.

Making Retail Therapy Truly Therapeutic

It's very easy to feel guilty about the things that make us feel good, whether that's the hidden chocolate bar in the desk drawer, or indulging in retail therapy after a bad day. But there is no reason to deny ourselves the psychological benefits of these alternative "therapies," as long as we can find a way to do so strategically.

Do you frequently partake in retail therapy? How do you keep it under control? Share with us in the comments!

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