10 ways to shop healthfully, not compulsively
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger, PhD
Written byElise Burley
Last updated: 05/22/2023
Indulging in a little retail therapy can be a healthy way to relieve stress, as long as you’re clear on why and how you’re doing it.
Shopping addiction, also called compulsive shopping, is an impulsive behavior and a potentially serious problem. But you don’t have to be a compulsive shopper to feel the strain that excess spending puts on your budget. When you overspend, it’s not just your wallet that takes a hit—your mental health can be affected, too.
Research shows that financial stress is linked to higher levels of psychological distress, especially depression.1 In moments when the pressure to buy intensifies, like during the holidays, the negative emotions that follow each purchase can feel even stronger.
How can you make sure your shopping doesn’t get out of hand? Stay aware of your habits, and have a plan in place to dial back as needed. If you’re someone who struggles with overspending, follow these tips to shop healthfully during this retail-obsessed season and all year round.
1. Understand what triggers your urge to shop
Whether we realize it or not, most of us buy things due to emotions. In a 2020 report from the National Institute of Mental Health, 49% of survey respondents admitted to buying products they didn’t need because they thought it would make them happier, and about 43% said they liked to shop as a way to escape reality.2
If you ignore the emotions that drive you to shop, they’ll continue to control your spending habits. Everyone is different, but common shopping triggers include feeling sad, inadequate, afraid, anxious, or bored.
Before you head to the mall or start browsing Cyber Monday sales, take a moment to check in. Ask yourself why you’re feeling the urge to shop. Could another activity, like going for a walk or texting a friend, offer the same kind of relief?
2. Keep track of everything you buy
If you don’t already track your spending, now is the time to start. This can be as simple as writing down your purchases in a notebook or using a budgeting app like Mint, which is especially handy because it automates the tracking process for you.
The goal is to get an accurate picture of where your money is going and how much you’re spending on nonessential items. This isn’t about judgment—it’s about being aware of your patterns so you can make changes as needed.
One study found that while material items affect people’s lives positively, they also tend to affect financial satisfaction negatively.3 It also showed that people who monitor their finances and work to reduce spending tend to have a greater sense of well-being.
3. Set a budget—and stick to it
Without a budget, there’s nothing to stop you from overspending. Saving money has been shown to soothe feelings of anxiety even more than spending does, with the bonus of helping you feel more in control of your life.4
Creating a budget starts with knowing how much money you bring in each month and what your regular expenses look like. Once you have a better idea of your average monthly cash flow, you can start setting aside money for specific purposes—including a monthly shopping limit for both necessary items and luxury items.
If you’re not sure where to start, check out the Federal Trade Commission’s guide to creating a budget or other online resources that focus on managing personal finances.5
4. Stop using credit cards for everything
Credit cards make it too easy to spend money you don’t have, and they help delay the financial repercussions of your choices. Those debts will come due eventually, though, which can add to your stress level.
Guilt, shame, and regret are all commonly associated with credit card debt. You may avoid looking at your bills because it’s too upsetting—or make the problem worse by applying for new credit.
Paying with cash or a debit card forces you to be more mindful of your spending. When the money’s gone, it’s gone.
5. Pay your bills now to avoid stress later
About 79% of Americans don’t always pay their bills on time, according to a 2018 report from the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection.6 When you delay paying your bills, you’re laying the groundwork for unnecessary stress. Research shows that people with two or more late bills to pay are more than twice as likely to struggle with suicidal ideation than people with no late bills.7
Consider setting up automatic payments to process one day after payday, or set a reminder twice a month to pay all your bills at once. Systems like these will help you avoid late fees, improve your credit score, and reduce stress.
6. Work on developing a savings mindset
Budgeting, tracking, and establishing an automated savings plan are all great steps toward taking control of your spending habits. But these systems don’t appear to make a difference if your attitude and overall mindset aren’t aligned with saving money.8
This doesn’t mean you have to follow someone else’s rules on spending. People who come up with their own savings goals are likely to save more money than those who try to save based on someone else’s system or expectations.9
When it comes to spending and saving money wisely, focus on your personal goals and reasons. Aim for positive goals (such as saving for a vacation) rather than negative ones (trying to avoid more debt).
7. Prioritize shopping for necessities
You may be able to get your shopping fix by shifting your focus to buying things you actually need, rather than things you just want. People of different ages and lifestyles consider different items to be necessities, so there’s no definitive list of what everyone needs.10 But in general, think groceries, toiletries, and cleaning supplies.
Start by making a list of all the things you use regularly, then ask yourself how you’d do without each one. If you feel like you can’t live without it, it’s probably a necessity.
8. Ask yourself if you really need that luxury item
When you find yourself lusting after something you want but don’t really need, take a step back to consider why. Do you like the way it looks? Do you think it will make you happier? Are you trying to keep up with friends or family?
It turns out we tend to buy luxury items when we feel insecure.11 And even though that shiny new toy might make us feel good at first, we may struggle with imposter syndrome once we have what we were longing for.12
That’s not to say you should buy solely practical things. A luxury purchase every so often can be a great way to celebrate a milestone or pamper yourself—but if you think you need an object to compensate for something, it’ll never be as satisfying as you imagined.
9. Find other ways to reward yourself
Shopping can be a great way to celebrate successes or treat yourself, but excessive shopping has the potential to overstimulate the dopamine reward center in your brain.13 This can lead to addiction-like symptoms, such as strong urges and anxious thoughts about getting your next fix.
There are plenty of ways to reward yourself that don’t involve spending money. Instead you might spend an extra hour watching your favorite show, baking your favorite treat, or taking a relaxing bath.
If you have room in your budget to treat yourself to something special, consider making it an experience rather than an object. This could include a concert, a day trip, or a visit to the spa.
10. Reach out for support
Sometimes the only way to change a bad habit is to look to others for guidance and support. This could be as simple as talking to a loved one about your struggles with compulsive shopping and asking them to help hold you accountable.
You might also consider joining a support group for people with compulsive spending habits, such as Debtors Anonymous or SG Shopping Addiction Support Group. These groups offer a safe, nonjudgmental space to share your experiences and learn from others who are going through the same thing.
If it feels too hard to change your shopping habits on your own, it may be time to seek professional help. A therapist can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms for shopping triggers and urges.
It’s okay to admit you need help to overcome a compulsive shopping habit. With the right support, you can learn to shop healthfully and regain control of your life.
About the author
Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.
Compulsive shopping: Symptoms, causes, and treatment
Compulsive shopping is an impulsive behavior that can harm your finances and...