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♥ & $: Compulsive Shopping or Retail Therapy? When Enough is Enough

Five of us stood grumbling in a check out line the other day. Our arms were filled with clothing and books and knick knacks soon to be wrapped up and hidden under the Christmas tree.

The woman in front of me complained about Christmas shopping. Or rather, she complained about how she kept blowing her holiday gift budget. She had no problem sticking to buying exactly what was on her planned gift list for others. It was just that every time she went out to the stores, she couldn’t help buying a little something extra for herself.

“I try to stick to a budget, but it’s like I have no self-control,” she said. She wasn’t alone. I polled the other people in line. They each admitted to having bought a gift for themselves while Christmas shopping. One said, “During the holidays, we all need a little retail therapy.” Everyone agreed.

Buying a gift for ourselves is almost a holiday tradition, where once it might have been seen as the height of indulgent. Today, advertisers tell us, “Reward yourself!” And around the holidays, the messages just get more intense.

You’ve probably seen the recent Target ad. A man and woman wearing Target bull’s eye scarves sing enthusiastically about gift buying: “One for you and one for meeee. You, you, you, you, you, and one for me.”

Why not make the holidays a little less stressful by rewarding yourself? A recent study in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing reported retail therapy has lasting effects on mood. In the study, respondents bought clothing (26.1%), food (20.3%), electronics (17.4%), entertainment products (17.4%), accessories (e.g., jewelry and shoes) (12%), and other (e.g., household items) (6.8%) as treats. On average, they spent on average $59.18. The result? 82% reported feeling happy post-purchase and, interestingly, none had buyer’s remorse.

In short, retail therapy works.

But it’s a fine line between the occasional pick-me-up and addiction. According to a 2006 Stanford University study, nearly 6 percent of women and 5.5 percent of men are compulsive buyers (no, this is not just a women’s issue). The study stated, “Compared with other respondents, compulsive buyers were younger and more likely to have reported incomes under $50,000. In addition, more of their credit cards were within a few hundred dollars of the credit limit, and compulsive buyers were more than four times as likely as other respondents to make only the minimum payment on credit card balances.”

We might complain about our personal “spend, spend, spend” holiday habits, but compulsive buying disorder (CBD) is a serious problem. While not officially recognized as a mental illness, it falls under impulse control disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Therapists treat it like they would any addiction problem.

The good news is that most of us don’t have CBD, but many of us struggle to keep to our budgets over the holidays. Here are some tips on how to keep the regret to a minimum:

  • Add yourself to the holiday gift list. Rather than impulse buy, shop for something you know you want. You could even wrap it up and put it under the Christmas tree. No reason you shouldn’t get exactly what you want.
  • Shop with a friend. If you know you can’t control yourself, ask a friend to help you.
  • Avoid the stores all together. Impulse buying is less likely to happen online where we typically have very specific items in mind to purchase. As much as online retailers would like it to be different, the browsing experience is just not the same.
  • Pay with cash. Using cash rather than a credit card will help you limit your spending to what is available in your account.
  • Return it. If you really didn’t get the retail therapy you had hoped from the item you bought, return it. The material good isn’t really good if you don’t feel good about it.

Do you gift yourself during the holidays? If yes, how do you stick to your budget?

Published or updated on December 19, 2012

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About Lisen Stromberg

Lisen wishes she had money under 30, but she didn't. She had credit card debt, a husband with nearly $200k in school loans, and a job that barely covered the rent. Today at 50, she's made some, lost some, and learned a lot along the way. She had a successful business career, started and ran a non-profit, opted out and then opted back in. Now, she's an award-winning writer who focuses on issues important to women, men, and families. Read her personal blog, follow her @LisenStromberg or become her friend. Email her at lisen (at) prismwork. com with your ♥ & $ questions and concerns.


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  1. Elena says:

    This is such an interesting article! I definitely have some compulsive shopping issues myself but I never realized how many people share that with me. I recently read another blog that had some really valuable information on compulsive behaviors, I highly recommend it!

  2. Drew says:

    I’ve never understood the obsession with buying a bunch of junk just to buy it. I’m more of a save up and buy big ticket items, such as luxury watches or high end guitars. I figure instead of having a bunch of cheap junk, I would rather have a few, high end, high quality things that I can and will keep forever and hold their value if I ever need to sell them. I’m not extremely rich, so these things take multiple years to save for. However these purchases are like the atomic bomb of satisfying that itch to buy.

  3. Ross says:

    I make a list of all the stuff I have the urge to buy for myself. Then, if I don’t get any of it for Christmas, I choose one or two things that will last and get what I really want. I think I developed this habit because as a kid from September through December, my mom would always tell me not to buy anything for myself since I might get it for Christmas.

  4. I guess during the holidays I shop for myself because I provide a wishlist to my family, but I don’t buy for myself. My husband and I travel for Christmas, so we already spend a ton of money on ourselves and we don’t add to that with self-gifting. And we shop online for others, not in stores, so it’s easy to avoid temptation.

  5. I do partake in retail therapy! BUT, I keep it to only about $1… after a long day of shopping, I pick out a favorite candy or drink to indulge in on the way home. May sound childish, but it keeps me chugging on my Christmas shopping!

  6. Natasha says:

    It’s a struggle to walk away from purchases for myself when I have my holiday bonus sitting in my bank account!

    That’s why I use my typical strategy that works for me throughout the rest of the year – immediately put most of my “extra” money into savings/investments. That way I have to wait a few days to transfer the money and make sure I really want the item. This has eliminated a ton of impulse purchases for me!

    Another strategy I use is faux shopping. This strategy wasn’t originally intentional, but I have done it so many times…. I put items into my online cart and then just close the window without purchasing, after talking myself out of it. This way I get my impulse shopping fix, while still letting my responsible side prevail!

    That said, I did gift myself a designer diaper bag & wallet on deep discount this year. Totally worth it!

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