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

Shopping lifts your mood, but impulse buying and even addiction can hurt your wallet.

Laura Hautala Former Senior Writer
Laura wrote about e-commerce and Amazon, and she occasionally covered cool science topics. Previously, she broke down cybersecurity and privacy issues for CNET readers. Laura is based in Tacoma, Washington, and was into sourdough before the pandemic.
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  • 2022 Eddie Award for a single article in consumer technology
Laura Hautala
5 min read
An illustration showing multiple shopping carts against a yellow background.

Whether you're spending just a little too much or going deep into debt, there are ways to curb an online shopping spree.

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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 perilously easy. The stores don't close, and you can shop day or night, even in your pajamas. The barriers to impulse purchases have shrunk away. 

Retail websites know that, and many are doing whatever they can to win 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 use deliberately tricking wording and design choices to get you to make a purchase you probably wouldn't have otherwise made. 

Excessive shopping, particularly of pointless or unwanted items, can be emotionally and financially unhealthy. Some people wind up straining relationships and digging out of 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 struggle with anxiety, OCD and other mental health issues. 

Of course, occasionally making an impulse purchase to boost your mood isn't a disorder. It also isn't surprising. Psychologists can measure the improvement in people's mood when they buy something new. 

"It releases some of that dopamine in our brains," Susan Albers-Bowling, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, said in reference to a neurotransmitter that induces pleasure. "So it feels good."

Everyone has to shop at some point, so cold turkey usually isn't an option, even for people with severe problems. Here are four ways you can stay in control of your spending.

Keep an eye on your expenses

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

An easy way to track your purchases is to find the breakdown of your credit card spending. Most credit cards provide an online pie chart that details your expenditures on food, clothes, restaurants and other items. (You may have to click 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 each month's spending and then helps you track where your money is going. It will also help you set financial goals and show you how much you've saved. 

Limit impulse shopping and buy what you love

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 improve your spirits, you might be more vulnerable to manipulative ads and website designs. 

You can take action to limit ads by unsubscribing from marketing emails (even from the brands you like). You can also limit the way social media sites track you so they don't also know your interests and push tempting offers to your feed. Facebook and Instagram, as well as Twitter and TikTok, have ways to turn off interest-based advertising and curtailing the data these sites collect on you when you browse the internet. You can also ask your phone carrier to stop tracking and selling this data.

Don't forget to make similar changes to your phone settings. Both 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 prompted 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 to have, put it in your shopping cart and leave it there for 24 hours. After a day goes by, you might have a new perspective. Be careful because you might receive a discount after waiting; websites often encourage you to buy an abandoned item by offering to cut its price. 

Another trick: Ask yourself if you really love something or simply like it. If it's the latter, you might want to reconsider.

Outsmart dirty tricks

Faux flash sales, meaningless countdown timers and designs that lead you to click more expensive options all abound on retailers' websites. The tricks are called "dark patterns," and researchers at Princeton University found thousands of examples by crawling through the code of e-commerce sites. 

The Princeton team found popup messages featuring product endorsements from fake customers that were generated from lists of random first names the researchers found in the websites' code. The messages said that a made-up person just saved money on an order from the same website, which appeals to a human bias toward acting when we know someone else has done the same thing. The practice violates consumer protection laws, the FTC reminded businesses in October.

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

Acar cautions shoppers to watch out for limited-time offers or low-stock warnings that make you feel pressured to buy right away. The researchers monitored sites with countdown clocks for discounts and confirmed cases where the discount was still available after the clock ran out. 

Also pay close attention to forms that enroll you in marketing emails. Sometimes the wording is confusing, making it unclear whether a checked or unchecked box will prevent more of these messages from choking your inbox. 

Ask yourself if it feels healthy

Shopping impulsively isn't necessarily a mental health problem by itself. But you might want to seek help if excessive shopping means you're going into credit card debt, busting budgets or getting into fights with family members over finances. It's particularly bad if you've tried to stop excessive shopping but found you couldn't. 

Shopping addicts may feel they have to hide purchases from loved ones, says Albers-Bowling, the psychologist.

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

"Prior to the shopping episode, most compulsive shoppers experience a sense of tension or excitement," Jimenez-Murcia said. "After the shopping episode is completed, they usually obtain immediate short-term gratification." 

Unfortunately, guilt follows quickly, Jimenez-Murcia says.

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

Such treatments can help reinforce budgeting and expense tracking, she says, giving people an edge in keeping on top of their spending. She recommended that everyone struggling with shopping identify moods, such as anxiety or boredom, that trigger spending.