You Can’t Buy Your Way to Happiness: How to Avoid the ‘Retail Therapy’ Trap

Shopping online can be a quick way to lift your spirits. But losing control of your “retail therapy” purchases can just as quickly put you in a losing position.

The internet has made shopping extremely easy. The stores don’t close and you can shop day or night, even in your pajamas. The barriers to impulse buying have crumbled.

Retail websites know this and many are doing everything they can to win over your purchase. You’ve seen it: a limited-time discount or a flood of marketing emails. Some sites engage in the ethically questionable practice of “dark patterns,” designs that deliberately use misleading wording and design choices to trick you into making a purchase you probably wouldn’t otherwise have made.

Excessive purchases, especially of unnecessary or unwanted items, can be emotionally and financially unhealthy. Some people end up straining their relationships and digging into piles of credit card debt and unpaid bills. An estimated 1% to 5% of the population suffers from shopping addiction, a compulsion to buy more even in the face of mounting debt as they battle anxiety, OCD and other mental health issues.

Of course, making an impulse purchase once in a while to boost your spirits is not a problem. Nor is it surprising. Psychologists can measure the improvement in people’s moods when they buy something new.

“It releases some of that dopamine in our brains,” said Cleveland Clinic psychologist Susan Albers-Bowling, referring to a neurotransmitter that induces pleasure. “So that feels good.”

Everyone has to shop at some point, so cold turkey is usually not an option, even for people with serious issues. Here are four ways to keep your spending under control.

Keep an eye on your expenses

Knowing where you spend your money will help you spend it on what you value the most.

An easy way to track your purchases is to find your credit card spend breakdown. Most credit cards provide a line pie chart that details your spending on food, clothing, restaurants, and other items. (You may have to scroll through a few pages of your credit card company’s website or app to find it. If you can’t, call the service number on the back of your card and ask for help .)

If you want to be more proactive, try a budgeting app, such as Mint, You Need A Budget, or Pocketguard. The software lets you set a target amount for spending each month, then helps you track where your money is going. It will also help you set financial goals and show you how much you have saved.

Limit impulse purchases and buy what you like

Shopping feels good when we’re unhappy because it makes us feel like we’re taking action, psychologists have found. But if you frequently use shopping to boost your morale, you might be more vulnerable to manipulative ads and website designs.

You can take steps to limit ads by unsubscribing from marketing emails (even from brands you love). You can also limit how social media sites follow you so that they don’t know your interests and offer you tempting offers. Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter and TikTok, have ways to opt out of interest-based advertising and reduce the data these sites collect about you as you browse the Internet. You can also ask your phone carrier to stop tracking and selling this data.

Remember to make similar changes to your phone settings. Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android operating systems let you tell apps not to track you or sell your data to advertisers. Apple’s privacy setting has drawn complaints from other tech companies that rely on advertising because it cuts them off from useful personal data. Google, however, says most apps don’t change their data collection when they receive a similar request (including Google’s own apps).

Psychology can be as helpful as technology when it comes to spending. If you find something you think you need, put it in your shopping cart and leave it there for 24 hours. After a day, you might have a new perspective. Be careful as you might receive a discount after waiting; Internet sites often encourage you to buy an abandoned object by offering to lower its price.

Another tip: ask yourself if you really like something or just like it. If it’s the latter, you might want to reconsider.

Outsmart dirty tricks

Fake flash sales, meaningless countdowns, and designs that trick you into clicking on more expensive options abound on retailer websites. The tricks are called “dark patterns” and researchers at Princeton University have found thousands of examples by scouring the code of e-commerce sites.

The Princeton team found pop-up messages containing product recommendations from fake customers that were generated from lists of random first names that researchers found in the websites’ code. The posts said that a made-up person had just saved money on an order from the same website, which calls for human bias to act when we know someone else has done the same thing. This practice violates consumer protection laws, the FTC reminded businesses in October.

Shoppers should “be more critical of the messages they see on these websites,” said Gunes Acar, one of the researchers.

Acar warns buyers to watch out for limited time offers or low stock warnings that urge you to buy immediately. Researchers monitored sites with discount countdowns and confirmed instances where the discount was still available after the timer expired.

Also, pay close attention to forms that sign you up for marketing emails. Sometimes the wording is confusing, making it hard to know whether a checked or unchecked box will prevent more of these messages from suffocating your inbox.

Ask yourself if it’s healthy

Impulse shopping is not necessarily a mental health issue in and of itself. But you might want to seek help if overbuying means you’re going into credit card debt, breaking budgets, or arguing with family members about your finances. This is especially serious if you’ve tried to stop overbuying but can’t.

Shopaholics may feel like they have to hide their purchases from loved ones, says Albers-Bowling, the psychologist.

Demographically, shopping addiction tends to afflict women over 40 who react to life’s challenges with pessimism and anxiety, says Susana Jimenez-Murcia, a psychologist specializing in behavioral addiction at the University of Barcelona. . Patients who shop compulsively are also often bored, she says.

“Before the shopping episode, most compulsive shoppers experience a sense of tension or excitement,” Jimenez-Murcia said. “Once the buying episode is over, they usually get immediate, short-term gratification.”

Unfortunately, guilt follows quickly, says Jimenez-Murcia.

Therapists often treat shopping addiction with cognitive behavioral therapy, a common technique for changing habits that have negative consequences in our lives, says Murcia-Jimenez. Some people also benefit from group therapy similar to those used by communities built around dealing with other addictions.

Such treatments can help strengthen budgeting and expense tracking, she says, giving people an edge in controlling their spending. She recommended anyone struggling with shopping to identify moods, such as anxiety or boredom, that trigger spending.