Does retail therapy actually work?

Ohhhh the siren call of retail therapy. That “add to cart” button luring you in from the wild seas of despair. If you’re feeling down, feeling stressed, and suddenly it feels like if you buy that cat-shaped potholder (I mean, you need a potholder anyway), perhaps your problems will be solved. Why do we do this? Why does it work?

We talk about:

  • The sort of things that cause you to want retail therapy
  • When it can actually be good for you
  • Why if you go through life transitions or stressful periods you might do more of it
  • Free and cheap substitutes that get you the same benefits
  • Listener stories of retail therapy
  • How to fight impulse buying as retail therapy
All the stories from listeners for this episode came from the Oh My Dollar forums – come join us, we’re nice. Add your stories on this thread.

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Email us your financial worries or cat pictures or your retail therapy indulgences at questions@ohmydollar.com or tweet us at @anomalily or @ohmydollar

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Transcript (provided by our listener supporters on Patreon)

Does retail therapy actually work_.mp3 transcript powered by Sonix—the best audio to text transcription service

Does retail therapy actually work_.mp3 was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the latest audio-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors. Sonix is the best way to convert your audio to text in 2019.

Will Romey:
Welcome to Oh My Dollar!, a personal finance show with a dash of glitter dealing with money can be scary and stressful. But here we give practical, friendly advice about money that helps you tackle the financial overwhelm. Here’s your host, Lillian Karabaic.

Lillian Karabaic:
Ohhhh…retail therapy. The siren call of retail therapy – that add to cart button luring you in from the wild seas of despair.

Will Romey:
Oh, yeah, I’m right there.

Lillian Karabaic:
If you’re feeling down, feeling stressed, and suddenly it feels like if you buy that cat-shaped pot holder, I mean, you needed a pot holder anyway.

Will Romey:
And it’s cat shaped –

Lillian Karabaic:
Perhaps your problems will be solved. Or suddenly you find yourself buying three extra ketchups just in case perhaps you, “went online and bought nine sets of cat pajamas after looking at pictures of my ex’s new girlfriend on Facebook.”.

Lillian Karabaic:
Or maybe I was depressed and stressed after I broke my wrist so I ordered hundreds of dollars of clothing from Korea. (Not that that is a real example for my life at all.).

Lillian Karabaic:
Or my family member died, so I bought a plane ticket to the other side of the world. Do you engage in retail therapy?

Will Romey:
Yes,.

Lillian Karabaic:
You do, Will?

Will Romey:
Though it’s generally more physical than online. I really like browsing the many aisles of Powells books, which is a big old bookstore we have here in Portland.

Lillian Karabaic:
I am, when I go to like physical places for retail therapy- I end up almost never buying anything.

Will Romey:
I don’t always buy anything. There’s something I like about just kinda – I mean, I could probably get the same thing out of a library. I think there’s something nice about – I think bookstore ambiance appeals to me.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah. I actually think that the library is one of my favorite places to go, when I am feeling stressed out because I’ll just go check out a bunch of books and kind of get that retail therapy “feeling” –

Will Romey:
you’ve acquired objects.

Lillian Karabaic:
I’ve acquired a bunch of objects and like and and there’s a little bit of the randomness to it – because I think for me the like act of discovery is kind of one of the things that I like about retail therapy.

Browsing and perusing, I think it’s definitely part of it. I probably like gets at some like deep part of your medulla oblongata, where – it’s like you’re your monkey ancestors were like digging for grubs and were pleased when they found a grub.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah.

Will Romey:
I’m a scientist.

Lillian Karabaic:
I think one of the things for me is that retail therapy. I’m- I hate shopping normally. Like I don’t actually enjoy the act of shopping. And I noticed that when I turned to retail therapy, it’s because something has gotten really stressful in my life.

Lillian Karabaic:
And I usually need something that I’ve put off buying, and that then morphs in to me, get like wanting to shop for things I don’t need – because it’s sort of channeling the frustration of having to like buy something. Like, for example, I had to buy luggage. My my rolling bag at this point has flown like more than one hundred and fifty thousand miles, taken a lot of trains, a lot of places, and the wheels are falling apart.

Lillian Karabaic:
And I was like, I have to actually buy new luggage. That’s really stressful for me, because I don’t get luggage is one of those things where you have very specific requirements. And if you’re buying it online, you don’t really know if it’s going to work for you and you’re like shopping for something you’re hoping to use for like five or 10 or 20 years even.

Lillian Karabaic:
And so it’s just there’s like a lot of stress on that decision. So then I will want to escape a purchase that I know I need to make by making purchases. I don’t need to make that feel less stressful. I’m not where I’m like, oh, the stakes are so low by going to Trader Joe’s and buying like snacks and like somehow it’s like let out the escape valve in my brain that was stressed about how do I make another purchase. Yes. So there is actually like retail therapy is so common, it’s such a common kind of phrase and thing that people use.

Lillian Karabaic:
There’s actually been some interesting psychological studies on like why we do it. And it’s really commonly used in like easing transitions. So, you know, if your life is changing in a big way, often people find themselves wanting to do retail therapy.

Lillian Karabaic:
I think years ago we talked about when I suddenly like when I quit my political job, I just like woke up one morning and I hated all of my clothes and I ended up like spending several months, like replacing my clothes.

Will Romey:
And all that stuff is kind of linked to your identity, too, which is like also something I feel like jobs are a big part of.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah.

Will Romey:
Makes sense.

Lillian Karabaic:
So like I think a lot of people do retail preparation for like a new job or they’re moving and suddenly like they want to do retail therapy, like to decorate a new apartment or like move to a new city, more like a fresh relationship status. Like I know a lot of people who go through divorces or breakups and then suddenly they’re like, “oh, why did I buy all these tiny things?”.

Will Romey:
What am I going to with this boat?

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah. I like how you just jumped to boat. I’m like “nice snacks at Trader Joe’s.” And you’re like “a boat”.

Lillian Karabaic:
I also like – people will often use retail therapy. It’s very common as you retail therapy with clothing, and clothing is one of those frustrating things, right? Because we both need it and we don’t need it.

Lillian Karabaic:
It’s an essential that is also an indulgence because you can get enough clothes to have the basics in your life, much more easily than you can get- For example, what I am wearing today, which is none of it is practical.

Will Romey:
Your cast

Lillian Karabaic:
That’s practical. Yes. So-

Will Romey:
I suppose that will date this episode.

Lillian Karabaic:
Very exciting wrist brace. But like often you’ll want the confidence of new clothing, right? Like new clothing can kind of be used to boost confidence.

Lillian Karabaic:
And so sometimes I can come side by side with easing transitions like you start a new job and maybe you don’t actually need new clothes for that job, but you suddenly find yourself wanting to do that because you’re mentally like want the confidence of a new job and new clothing.

Lillian Karabaic:
I think this is the thing I use- And I’m actually pretty good at not actually buying things when I do this, but using it as a mental break or a feeling of reward for strenuous tasks. So often I’ll be like, oh, if I finish this thing, I can go buy that thing that I want for really big projects.

Lillian Karabaic:
Or, oh, I’ll just like mindlessly browse through like the online thrift store for vintage dresses because I’m frustrated by this other task and it feels like a very low energy task. Right?

Lillian Karabaic:
So it’s it’s something I can do that has pretty low barriers And that’s for me. I often don’t actually end up buying things, but I think that the final hit of that “Add to cart”.

Lillian Karabaic:
If you’re really stressed out in your life, the “add to the cart” or like the checking out, you feel like you’ve accomplished something, even if that is something is just like acquiring -.

It totally does like go into that hardwired brain chemistry thing where you’re like, “I have obtained an object.”

Lillian Karabaic:
Yup.

Will Romey:
I am a validated human being now that I have my my object.

Lillian Karabaic:
We asked around on the forums of like people’s examples of retail therapy and Galliver said one specific instance stands out.

Lillian Karabaic:
“I had a hard time my last year of grad school, but especially my last month of writing my thesis. I was stressed, burned out and felt like I’d been going on forever and it would never end. So while my document was compiling and my plots were generating, which took a boring minute or two, I started to browse clothes online, mostly thredup – an online thrift store.

Lillian Karabaic:
<Lillian aside> (Oh yes, I know Galliver).

Lillian Karabaic:
Each week or so, I’d end up with one hundred dollars of cute bargains in my cart and I’d check out. In retrospect, I was giving myself something to look forward to. I sort of hope for the future by doing this. I ended up returning at least half the stuff because it didn’t fit. But the other half I liked too much to let go of when I did graduate. And I am doing well now. I’m back to my typical but unusual retail therapy. Sometimes I go to a store, browse and happily buy nothing because there’s nothing I need at the moment.

Lillian Karabaic:
I do a lot of that. I actually like the like. Target is one of those places because I feel like it’s filled with infinite possibilities.

Will Romey:
Stuff.

Lillian Karabaic:
I’ll go get a bunch of stuff and then enjoy not actually buying any of it

Will Romey:
Pure stuff, too, target!

Lillian Karabaic:
It is very much in the stuff catergory.

Will Romey:
Objects – items, you know, like pillows with like letters on them.

Lillian Karabaic:
Who doesn’t need a pillow shaped like a cupcake? Obviously, this is an essential thing in my life.

Will Romey:
I never knew it existed and I need one.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yes, that’s a perfect example of Target. I never knew this existed, but now I need one. Yep.

Lillian Karabaic:
Kitty said “I did retail therapy for shopping two times. The first was a travel bag that took me two years to actually have a use for. And the second was an impractical dress. This was only last month and I’m guessing also a year before I have a chance to wear it. Both times I felt better buying it. Then I felt dumb for therapy shopping.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah, I get that.

Will Romey:
Daffodil says “my form of retail therapy is thrift shopping. I don’t particularly enjoy shopping a normal retail centers, especially for clothing, but thrift stores light up all the right reward centers of my brain. I enjoy finding like new or even occasionally actually new things Dirt cheap. And saving things from a landfill, while also supporting charities, makes me feel good about myself. I typically remember whether I got something new or thrifted, and I usually enjoy my thrift and things more than things I bought from a retail store.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah, that’s totally true for me too.

Will Romey:
Well, if you’re gonna be doing therapeutic shopping, it makes sense to do it like. Like Daffodil was saying both at a you know, somewhere cheaper, but also somewhere that supports a charity they like.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah, I like the browsing goodwill when I’m stressed out, because I will feel like, oh, I don’t have to get anything if I don’t find anything, whereas I think if I go like online shopping for. Kind of a specific thing. I’ll feel really stressed out if I don’t find the thing because the possibilities feel endless and I’ll be like, oh, I didn’t find the right thing. You know, like, oh, I need a black skirt. And in all of the black skirts online, I’m very stressed out that I can’t find the right one. The blackest. The skirt ist. Yeah. Exactly. With pockets really. The really the answer is with pockets. But but if I go to Goodwill I don’t find it kind of like because the set is smaller. I don’t feel angry at myself for not finding it. I’m just sort of like, oh I didn’t find a thing. The problem is not then getting, you know, socks because I found a new pack of socks at Goodwill for free or, you know, for really cheap. And I’m like, oh, I should get that,.

Will Romey:
[whispers] I need new sock

Lillian Karabaic:
I need new socks, too.

Will Romey:
This is.

Lillian Karabaic:
Retail therapy! Go Buy Some Socks!

Will Romey:
Another one of the episodes where we just talk about things we want to acquire.

Lillian Karabaic:
Things we want to acquire.

Lillian Karabaic:
One of the things that I recommend – if retail therapy is kind of a dangerous thing for you- is consider maintaining a list of things that you kind of need, that you can splurge on when you get the retail therapy urge or even that you really need. So like a black skirt is an example like that, something I kind of need? Like it would be helpful, but it’s not like I’m obviously it’s not an essential.

Will Romey:
You’re not dying for it.

Lillian Karabaic:
Right. Right. And like keeping that list, I’ve talked before about like waiting periods for buying things. But I find it can be very helpful to just have that list to go back to. So if you do get the retail therapy urge, go back and look at like the “things I want list” and be like, oh, that’s actually been on there for a long time.

Lillian Karabaic:
And I want that feeling of like buying something.

Will Romey:
Getting it. Yeah.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah. If you regularly. So here’s here’s where we get at the *ahem* The therapy part, if you regularly have a day or a situation where you find yourself wanting their retail therapy, but at the end it doesn’t make you feel good.

Lillian Karabaic:
Look at the root cause. So like maybe you always find yourself going and buying candy or like a fancy coffee after the staff meetings on Friday – because you’re stressed out and you need to get out of the office. So there’s a couple of things you can look at. One, maybe this purchase pattern is part of deeper unhappiness about your job.

Lillian Karabaic:
Oh, God, that sounds like we all need the real therapist now!

Lillian Karabaic:
but it’s worth looking at. Like if you’ve got some regular thing and you don’t feel better after doing that thing and you don’t like it in your budget. Maybe there’s a deeper thing going on there?

Lillian Karabaic:
But if it’s something we’re like, you’re not leaving your job, you’re gonna keep doing it. One, can you change your routine to avoid this? Can you- Maybe. You know, if if you’ve got the power- Can a staff meeting be at a different time? Maybe you’re just really drained from doing it on Fridays.

Will Romey:
The timing’s a big thing.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah. Like, can you walk a different route? Can you go on a short walk afterwards but not walk past the coffee shop, because maybe you just needed to get out of the office. Is there something free or cheap that you can do to take care of these emotions in a different way?

Lillian Karabaic:
So like if you end up going and buying? I had a co-worker who bought Kate Spade purses on eBay every time she got stressed out at work. Well, maybe walking and getting a coffee would be a cheaper way to get that same short high without, you know, spending two hundred dollars on a purse.

Lillian Karabaic:
And then maybe the other thing is just think about maybe this is a purchase is a thing you actually do want or need. Maybe. Yes. You look forward to that Friday fancy coffee after the stressful staff meeting every single Friday.

Lillian Karabaic:
Just build it into the budget. Right?

Will Romey:
So like expect.

Lillian Karabaic:
To expect it. Like maybe you need to up your Kate Spade bag purchases like in your budget, just figuring out a way to do that.

Lillian Karabaic:
If you’re going through a tough time, but it’s temporary. So like an example I had was I broke my wrist a week before my birthday. So in addition to being someone who tends to – I always have a line item in my annual budget.

Lillian Karabaic:
My annual budget for getting a treat for my birthday for myself.

Will Romey:
Yeah it’s your birthday.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah. And I build it into my budget. And every year I think about like, OK, I’ve got two hundred dollars budgeted for my birthday. Like, what am I going to do with it?

Lillian Karabaic:
In addition to that, I broke my wrist and I had to find a way to build in other things that I was going to need to do. But I ended up buying like a bunch of – because one of the things I decided to do for my birthday was to just eat a bunch of fancy cheese all day.

Lillian Karabaic:
So like I got like every type of vegan fancy cheese that week and I like slowly taste tested them over the course of the week.

Will Romey:
What was your favorite?

Lillian Karabaic:
I mean, I knew what my favorite was going to be.

Will Romey:
Confirmed though!

Lillian Karabaic:
It’s just fourteen dollars for a tiny, tiny bit.

Will Romey:
Jesus!

Lillian Karabaic:
I know it’s really good. I mean, it lasted me like ten days, but – That’s because I was using it in the tiniest slivers possible.

Will Romey:
A little transparent slices.

Lillian Karabaic:
Ahhhh It’s so good. It’s a local local one here that makes like actual like vegan cheeses that they ferment and everything. I don’t know anything about cheese because I like- so I don’t know how like realistic it is, but it’s just good.

Will Romey:
I never realized that vegan cheese could have been fermented the same way – that makes senses if you’re using cashew milk or something, it has the same proteins.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah, exactly. It’s so good. It’s so good.

Will Romey:
I’ll save this for my fermentation chemistry podcast.

Lillian Karabaic:
Oh, nice.

Lillian Karabaic:
I don’t really have one, but it’ll air at the same time as “lily rants about health care podcast”.

Will Romey:
Our hypothetical podcasts.

Lillian Karabaic:
But look, so if you’re going through a tough time, but it’s temporary and you just know 0- that you’re going to spend more money as a result of like retail therapy or just needs – like one of my examples was like I am spending more money right now because I have to take the train and the bus everywhere and biking is free and TriMet is not.

Lillian Karabaic:
And so like I just had to budget for that. Like it’s a thing that I now have to do. But I also totally engaged in retail therapy, because I was like bummed and sitting on the couch after my surgery and I was like, “I’m going to now buy a bunch of cheap clothes from Korea, because it’s my birthday and I want to get stuff.”

Lillian Karabaic:
And like, I just sort of was like, OK, this is one of those things. One of the things that I’ve seen a lot of people talk about is like, you know, I had a friend who got who had cancer and she was going through chemo. And she’s like, I bought a really nice couch.

Lillian Karabaic:
And I bought a really nice couch partially as a form of retail therapy. But also I was gonna be spending a lot of time on the couch. And so it ended up being one of those things where you just budget for it. And sometimes, if you know that it’s gonna be a temporary thing, you can even dial back on other goals if you want.

Lillian Karabaic:
Like I put a little less of my retirement savings last month because it was like – I know I’m going have one month of just spending a lot of money on stuff that I probably don’t need, but is gonna make me feel temporarily better.

Lillian Karabaic:
And it’s one month. In the end, it’s not going to slow down my retirement savings that much. So, you know, I dial back a little bit and put a little more money in my other categories.

Lillian Karabaic:
One thing I thought was really interesting was – quite a few people mentioned stocking up on things as a way to, like, deal with anxiety.

Lillian Karabaic:
So Bracken Joy said said “Can’t run out of ketchup, make sure we have a spare. Luckily, this doesn’t go too out of control as long as I keep track of stuff appropriately. And it’s nice to never run out. But yeah, I definitely purchase mental security, through food storage. Apparently my brain thinks my safety is directly correlated to how many backup tubes of toothpaste or cans of diced tomatoes I have.”.

Will Romey:
Yeah, I agree.

Lillian Karabaic:
I don’t. I wish I was like that because I’m very bad at having backups because I hate spending money on like things that I might not use –

Will Romey:
Especially perishable goods, though – ketchup doesn’t go bad.

Lillian Karabaic:
We also don’t have a lot of storage in my house, so I use that as an excuse. But you know, I could probably have *ahem* less clothes and store more food.

Lillian Karabaic:
Buckets of rain says. “I definitely engage a retail therapy when I’m in areas of transition, my response is to buy things so I don’t – So I feel like I have control over whatever is happening in my life. This has happened before I went to college, before I went to grad school, before I left grad school, etc.

Lillian Karabaic:
It usually does not help if I’m being honest, but I often tell myself, well, at least I’ll look perfect when I move to X. I will say it worked one time, which is when I broke up with a longtime boyfriend and I got a new wardrobe. I feel I felt way more cute and confident after that.”

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah. I didn’t buy clothes for a year and then I had that like freak out when I quit my job and became self-employed and bought a new wardrobe over the course of the next four months. And I gave myself a budget for it. But it actually, like, really helped. It turned out I did want a new budget – or a new wardrobe.

Will Romey:
That makes sense.

Will Romey:
RDaneel0 – or R Daniel 0

Lillian Karabaic:
We still don’t know. We want to find out.

Will Romey:
R Daniel Zero or R Daniel O. Please email us and correct my pronunciation!

Lillian Karabaic:
“I don’t do retail therapy, but I love to shop when I’m feeling really bad. The prospect of shopping just seems like more work to me. More decision making, spending, choosing, etc. I actually went to saver mode more when I’m unhappy and stressed and got a thrill out of checking my accounts and watching my net worth go up. I find that that calms me, where shopping just seems like another big thing to think about.”.

Will Romey:
That’s a good attitude.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah, I do. Like I think that I probably, in the end feel better about savings than I do about retail. So one of the things for me is like figuring out, oh, is that like can I remind myself of that in some way?

Lillian Karabaic:
I’m super visual. Like I like I have to have stuff like in front of me. And for a long time, I had a “do you really want to buy this?” Sticker wrapped around my card.

Will Romey:
Yeah, I remember you talking about that.

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah. And I think that’s been very helpful. And you can kind of like use that as a check in for yourself about where you’re emotional. We did a whole episode about like, you know, waiting periods.

Lillian Karabaic:
So if you if you’re struggling with figuring out how to overcome impulse spending, I’ll linked the episode in the show notes, because I think that’s really helpful if you do retail therapy kind of impulsively, it doesn’t work that well if you’re like me and you plot out your retail therapy in like forever in advance.

Lillian Karabaic:
I think the thing with retail therapy is – it’s really just a problem if it’s a problem. It’s not necessarily the worst thing to do. A lot of people do it.

Lillian Karabaic:
And I think as long as it, you know, fits within your overall plans and you can adjust the budget for it, especially if you’re going through a hard time, that’s OK. But, you know, it’s a problem, really- Some of the warning signs are if you’re avoiding credit card or bank statements.

Lillian Karabaic:
Like refusing to log into your account, because you’re worried about the damage that you did.

Lillian Karabaic:
If you’re lying or hiding purchases, even if maybe just from yourself, but definitely like from a significant other.

Lillian Karabaic:
If you’re missing work, school, any other obligations to go shopping, that could be a sign that maybe this is not healthy.

Lillian Karabaic:
Or if you’re just constantly feeling shame or guilt or irritability associated with doing like retail therapy, then it’s you know, then it’s maybe a chance for you to do some real therapy to work on the retail therapy,.

Will Romey:
Real tale therapy.

Lillian Karabaic:
Real – I don’t even know. I don’t even know how to feel about that.

Will Romey:
Well, tell us more about your retail therapy successes and failures. Any cool things you got?

Lillian Karabaic:
Yeah. Did you get something? Did you? Did anybody buy- I want to know what the biggest thing someone’s bought as Retail therapy. Has anybody bought a house or a boat?

Will Romey:
Sounds nice – a houseboat.

Lillian Karabaic:
A Tesla?

Lillian Karabaic:
But we love hearing from you so you can e-mail us your financial worries or successes. And, of course, your splurges and retail therapies. To questions@ohmydollar.com. Or you can tweet us at @anomalily or @ohmydollar

Lillian Karabaic:
Our producer is Will Romey. Our intro Music is by Aaron Parecki. And your host and personal finance educator is Lillian Karabaic. Thanks for listening. Until next time, remember to manage your money so it doesn’t manage you.

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