'Retail therapy' might make you feel good in the moment, but it can wreak havoc on your financial life. Here are ways to build healthier money habits to keep impulse spending at bay.

By Hiranmayi Srinivasan
May 04, 2021
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As fun and relaxing as Hollywood makes retail therapy look, the reality is not all that glamorous. A 2018 survey commissioned by discount shopping site Slickdeals found that Americans spend an average of $450 on impulse purchases per month—that adds up to $5,400 per year. The pandemic isn't helping either—Slickdeals' 2020 survey found that impulse spending increased 18 percent last year.

Impulse buying is mostly emotional, and usually the result of some form of emotional distress. This could be issues around self-esteem, anxiety, sadness, or even boredom. "Impulse buying gives us a little spike of dopamine, which is rewarding and motivating," says Alexandra Emery, licensed psychologist at Grit City Psychology in Seattle. Emery recommends checking in with yourself before making a spontaneous purchase to see if you're suppressing any negative emotions. Retail therapy might make you feel better in the moment, but the feeling can quickly wear off once you realize that you have gone over your budget. We tell ourselves that we deserve to buy something or that we've earned it, but make sure it's not self-care disguised as self-harm, says Marter. "It's not really self-care if they are accruing credit card debt, or putting themselves in financial stress by overspending."

And of course, unexpected cash (hi, stimulus checks) can increase those impulse purchases. People are "splurging a little bit more almost to overcompensate for the financial anxiety and conservatism of the past year," says Joyce Marter, licensed psychotherapist and author of The Financial Mindset Fix.

In a Finder.com survey on impulse buying, 44 percent of people reported feeling regretful after an impulse purchase. Here are ways to set up your lifestyle and budget to prevent impulse spending so you can build healthier money habits.

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1 Delay your purchases.

Give yourself 24 hours to think about something you want to buy. Leave the items in your cart, and physically get away from your phone or laptop. Marter recommends having a mental checklist you can go through to ask yourself if the item you want to buy is actually something you need, or if buying it will cause you more harm than good. 

"If you still want it and can see how it would fit into your life after 24 hours, then you can see how it would fit in your budget and consider making the
purchase," says Kimbree Redburn, an accredited financial counselor and coach at Illuminate Financial. "This will help you take some of the impulse out of it." 

2 Get clear about your budget and savings.

Have a clear budget and review it every month. Marter recommends Consumer Credit Counseling, which offers free budgeting help and debt consolidation. Creating a budget you will stick to will help hold you accountable when you have the urge to shop. 

Set up direct deposits so part of your paycheck goes straight to your savings account. "That way the money isn't even there for you to spend," says Marter. This will allow you to invest your money in ways that will secure your financial future, like building retirement savings

You can also set up a sinking fund that you can add some money to each month to help offset some of the costs from impulse buying. "You will have some money set aside when things
come up that you want to buy," says Redburn. This gives you some wiggle room for impulse buys without completely ruining your budget. 

3 Make it harder to shop.

We pretty much have access to shopping 24/7 and from the comfort of our own homes—this makes it even harder to control impulsive spending habits. Make it harder to impulse buy by setting up some obstacles or checkpoints for yourself so you can be more mindful when you do shop. Delete shopping apps from your phone so you actually have to go to the store website. Redburn suggests that, if your credit card information is stored automatically on some of the sites where you shop, you should delete that too. Taking these steps will give you more time to think about what you're buying. 

4 Allow for healthy spending.

Healthy budgeting is like healthy eating—you have to give yourself some sensible flexibility or you'll end up snapping one day and eating (or in this case, buying) everything in sight. "You can't expect yourself to be super militant and not buy anything for fun," says Marter. Create your budget in a way that allows flexibility for some splurges once in a while. Being too restrictive with yourself will end up discouraging you from sticking to a budget altogether, and might make you go back to unhealthy spending habits. "Allowing yourself some 'fun budget' will also help you to feel the benefits that come with purchasing something exciting, without all of the guilt," says Emery.

5 Find support.

Don't try to do it alone. Finding support and accountability can go a long way in preventing you from impulsively spending. Marter recommends having an accountability partner that you check in with once a month. This can be a spouse, partner, friend, or someone who is also working on their financial health. Have monthly check-ins where you share honestly about how you're doing and get feedback and support. 

Having a financial counselor or advisor can also help maintain a healthy financial lifestyle and help you manage impulse buying. "It's like going to the dentist or doctor," says Marter. "It's taking care of our financial health, and we need to be honest and accountable or we can get ourselves in trouble." 

Addictive and compulsive tendencies contribute to overspending, too. There are 12-step programs such as Debtors Anonymous and Spenders Anonymous that help support individuals who struggle with this. 

6 Do something else.

If you're feeling anxious, stressed, or sad, and you find yourself shopping, stop and do something else. Go for a walk, listen to music, or call a friend. Taking care of yourself in ways that don't involve money will keep you from making those impulse purchases to self-soothe. 

Before making a purchase, connect with your body and notice how that item makes you feel—if your gut is saying you probably shouldn't be buying something, listen to it. Pay attention to what you're feeling so that you're best able to deal with those feelings in a way that is emotionally and financially healthy. 

Above all, show yourself compassion—and know your worth. "We are not our bank account; we are not our debt," says Marter. "That's how we are, not who we are."

Although there is a lot of shame around overcoming impulse buying and building a healthier relationship with money, it's something many people deal with. With the right support system, information, and resources, you can create a lifestyle that helps you save for the important things—and still gives you room to have fun, too.