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Retail Therapy: A Psychologist Explains What Your Shopping Habits Actually Mean

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While we may think of shopping as a practical means to an end that keeps us clothed, clean and dry, it turns out that a lot of our shopping habits can be rooted in emotion. 
From the ubiquitous ‘retail therapy’ culture to buying a new dress to impress friends at a party, shopping can meet a therapeutic need. 
And let’s be real, it’s also fun. Platforms like Cashrewards can give you cashback when you shop on a number of items such as fashion, beauty, travel and fitness, and help you get a good deal – something we all could do with in this economy.
But, in our capitalistic society, shopping isn’t just a way to buy necessities and clothes. It’s a portal into the person we could be. 
‘If I just owned that handbag, that dress, that perfectly-fitting pair of trousers, then I’d be happy, worthy, loved.’
So, when can a shopping trip turn from simply buying seasonal staples into a serious issue? 
Psychologist Carly Dober, notes that there are a few psychological symptoms that shoppers can experience. 

Impulse buyers

Impulse buying occurs when you make a rash purchase without thinking twice about it. It can be influenced by marketing, a really great deal, or to satiate an emotion. 
“Impulse buyers might be encouraged to shop due to wanting to avoid feeling their feelings or to make themselves feel better,” says Dober. 
An impulse purchase isn’t incorporated into your budget and it’s usually a split-second decision. 
E-commerce writer, Bella Noyes can be partial to an impulse-shopping quick-fix when looking for deals at work. 
“I often convince myself to buy products while researching things for my round-ups, especially if I get the jump on a deal. I also think the 'treat yourself' mentality can be super harmful, because it tricks the decision-making part of your brain to give in to those temptations. And often, the guilt after clicking ‘Pay Now’ is immense.”
To combat this, Dober recommends taking a pause of 24 to 48 hours before buying anything.
“If you’re noticing it is a momentary and fleeting need, versus a legitimate want, that is a sign [of unhealthy habits].”


While we all love a bargain, sometimes constantly looking for deals and sales can become detrimental to our mental health. 
“People who only buy things on sale might do so for a variety of reasons such as modelled behaviour from their parents, being very financially disciplined or financially strained, and they might also enjoy the thrill of a bargain,” Dober tells Refinery29 Australia
Dober notes that if you’re unable to stop shopping, and it causes you distress when you can’t buy things, you should think about getting some professional help. 

Compulsive shopping

Compulsive shopping may be the most serious of the shopping habits. It’s a compulsion like any other addiction such as alcohol or gambling. 
“It can originate, like other addictions, from trauma, loss or abuse that expresses itself as an unmet emotional need. It can be a very difficult habit to break,” says Dober.  
Compulsive shopping is something that writer Farah*  has experienced first-hand. 
“Every time I'm feeling down or stressed I find myself browsing online shopping. It's a treat I convince myself I deserve because I'm upset and it'll cheer me up. I was doing well for so long and then broke last week and did a huge shop.” 
If you’re constantly browsing online stores, receiving packages on your doorstep every day or wondering where all of your money has gone, then it may be time to take a step back. 
Ask yourself why you’re shopping. If there’s no purpose, exit that tab as quickly as you opened it. 
“Compulsive shopping behaviours can cause much shame and embarrassment for people. I’d encourage people to share their concerns with their loved ones,” says Dober.  
“It’s likely that someone can emotionally support you, which can then help you change your behaviour.” 
Dober also recommends looking up general budgeting tips and trying to find one that manages your present income and helps you to save for your future.

Other signs to watch out for

Dober says that if you notice you’re living beyond your material needs frequently, are in significant debt and seeking other ways to gain money such as borrowing from friends or family to fund your shopping habit, it’s time to get some help. 
But, be gentle with yourself. 
“Change can take time, so please be compassionate and kind to yourself while trying to form new habits,” says Dober. 
“If you’re feeling like it is harder for you to do this on your own, or that you need some additional support because emotions are coming up, I always recommend getting some professional support.” 
The psychologist recommends heading to your GP and getting set up with a psychologist to build the skills that'll help you to have a healthy relationship with shopping once more.
Because buying yourself nice treats should be a fun part of life, not detrimental to your financial or mental health. 
* Name changed for privacy.
This article is general in nature and should not be taken as financial advice.

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