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Retail therapy: How to stop spending to make yourself feel better

52 percent of Americans engage in Retail Therapy, according to a Credit Karma study. (Image: Pxhere)

This $1,000 Challenge about retail therapy is Presented by Zip Mortgage powered by Zions Bank. Visit zionsbank.com. *Loans subject to credit approval; terms and conditions apply. A division of Zions Bancorporation, N.A. Member FDIC.  Equal Housing Lender. NMLS# 467014.


Odds are you’ve done this yourself. You go through a tough day at work, or a brutal bout of bad news, or maybe a painful end to what had once been a beautiful relationship, and suddenly you find yourself inside a shopping mall, picking out a brand new dress.

Or maybe, for you, it’s a new TV, or a video game system, or splurging on a pile of gifts for everyone in your life.

Either way, it all has the same name: retail therapy.

It’s the way we try to fill the voids in our lives by buying new stuff – and according to a Credit Karma study, it’s something more than half of Americans admit to doing, usually on at least a monthly basis.

It’s also part of the reason we’re saddled with so much credit card debt.

That’s why we invited clinical psychologist Matt Woolley onto KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic to talk about why retail therapy is so common and what you can do to break the habit.

Debbie Dujanovic’s retail therapy nightmare

Debbie Dujanovic

KSL Newsradio’s Debbie Dujanovic shares her experience with retail therapy. (Photo: KSL Newsradio)

Host Debbie Dujanovic admits that she, like most of us, has succumbed to retail therapy before. Her worst moment, she says, came in 2016; a year she called “the darkest year of my life.”

Struggling with crises that threatened to tear the life she’d built apart, Dujanovic headed to the mall and bought $1,400 worth of clothes in a single trip.

“I kept justifying it in my brain,” she says. “’Well, this is just $400.’ Then, ‘This is just $500.’” Soon, she’d bought so much stuff, she couldn’t even get it all to fit into the trunk of her car.

For a few minutes, she says, retail therapy worked; she felt exhilaration over everything she’d bought and, at least for a while, wasn’t thinking about all the troubles in her life.

But by the next morning, reality suck in. She was going to find a way to pay that $1,400 bill on her credit card, and all that was left of that thrill was guilt and shame.

A pattern of behavior

Dr. Matt Woolley

Dr. Matt Woolley shares his advice to break the retail therapy habit. (Photo: KSL Newsradio)

Dujanovic’s story, Woolley says, is an “extremely common” pattern of behavior.

When people struggle with emotional difficulties and start to feel overwhelmed, he says, many of us will side-step the real problem and do whatever they can to feel good in the here and now.

“We’re all prone to wanting to feel good right now, and with the ease we have today with credit cards and online shopping, in-person shopping, most anybody can go out and spend really quickly,” Woolley says. “The problem with that is it actually does act like a drug in our brain.”

When we splurge on something we don’t need, dopamine is released into our brains, giving us a quick rush not entirely unlike taking a mood-altering drug.

Like an addict, Woolley says, people who use retail therapy will justify their own behavior in the money.

“We want to keep that good feeling going,” he says; and so, we’ll tell ourselves we’ve earned it, or that other people have these things and that we deserve them, too.

But just like a drug, that rush is followed by a crash – and like Dujanovic did the morning after her splurge, many will find themselves waking up the next day feeling let down.

Whether it’s you or a loved one struggling with retail therapy, Woolley says that it can be beaten – but it’s going to take support to get there.

He shared a few tips to help you break retail therapy.

Tip #1: Ask yourself why

Retail therapy, Woolley says, it a type of self-medication. Something is wrong in your life that’s making you do this, and you’re going to have confront whatever it is head-on.

Habits like these, he says, are usually a response to not knowing how to address your problems. If you’re going break free of that cycle, he says, you won’t be able to avoid them any longer.

Tip #2: Retrain your thinking

When Woolley helps patients fight addiction, he uses something called “cognitive behavioral therapy.” He helps retrain the way their brains think to help them break out of those habits that cause the problem. The same idea, he says, works for retail therapy.

A professional, he says, can help full retrain your brain patterns, but there a few tips you can do right away.

Track your weak moments, he says, and journal them. Try to figure out what sets you off and how you overspend, then try to replace those reactions with other behaviors, like visiting the gym.

Also, consider carrying nothing but cash. If you don’t have your credit cards on hand, you can’t spend any more than what’s in your pocket.

Tip #3: Get support

If your spouse is the one struggling with retail therapy problems, they’re going to need your support – even if their habits are negatively affecting your life.

“Don’t take it personally,” Woolley says. “It’s not about the love for [you] or the finances in the family account.”

Instead of treating your spouse’s retail therapy habits as their problem, look at it as a couples issue that you can work through together.

Tip #4: Get an accountability partner

If you do your shopping at the mall, Woolley says, consider getting an accountability partner: somebody you can call at any time to talk you through it any time you feel tempted to overspend.

When that temptation hits you, call up your partner and be honest about what you’re going through.

“When you have someone you can call and say: ‘I’m feeling weak. Help me through it,’” Woolley says, “that’s really helpful.”

More to the story

Join the $1,000 Challenge Facebook group to see other brilliant ideas on how to get your budget in check and to be a part of a tribe that’ll encourage you every step along the way.

And tune into Dave & Dujanovic every day from 9 a.m to noon on KSL Newsradio 102.7 FM / 1160 AM for financial tips and tricks Monday through Thursday.

Dave & Dujanovic can be heard weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon on KSL Newsradio. Users can find the show on the KSL Newsradio website and app, as well as Apple Podcasts and Google Play.

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