How to Get the Psychological Boost of Retail Therapy, Without the Guilt

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Photo: Dougal Waters/Getty Images

We all have our own ways of working through a funk: Some people eat their feelings, others vent on Gchat, still others indulge in some good old-fashioned retail therapy.

The problem with each of these strategies, of course, is that the comfort they provide isn’t just temporary — it’s often a fleeting high followed by a crash, leaving you feeling worse than when you started. The grease coma sets in, along with the guilt; the workday somehow flies by, leaving you with all the still-undone work that the Gchat ranting replaced; the credit card bill arrives, and it’s not a pretty sight.

But in a recent post on Mental Floss, writer Shaunacy Ferro offered a way to make the last one, at least, sting a little less: Think of frugality like a diet, and make yourself a cheating plan.

Research has shown that planning in advance to have a “cheat day” can actually help dieters stick to their goals over the long term. Similarly, making some room in your budget for a little indulgent spending can help you stay on track, finance-wise, without putting a moratorium on spontaneous sprees: “Consider starting a splurge fund,” Ferro wrote. “You certainly shouldn’t spend your life savings trying to buy your way out of unhappiness, but tucking some money away so that you have a bank account buffer for the next particularly dark time in your personal life isn’t a bad idea.”

Having a so-called “splurge fund” can also enhance one of the reasons people turn to retail therapy in the first place: to regain a sense of power in a chaotic world. “It can give [people] a feeling of mastery,” psychologist April Benson, author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, told Ferro. “This is a situation you can control—‘I see it, I like it; I buy it; it’s mine.’” When there are already funds set aside for that very situation, what could otherwise feel like a lack of willpower instead becomes something entirely different: the fulfillment of a premade plan.

And when you do make your splurge, research has some suggestions for how to get the most bang for your buck. Some studies argue you’re better off spending your pick-me-up money on experiences rather than material things, but there’s a case to be made for the pleasures of stuff, too. Besides, one of the biggest draws of retail therapy, as Benson implied, is its immediacy: There’s a certain satisfaction in walking out of a store with a bag in hand, knowing you’ve just transformed something you like into something you own. Just make sure that whatever you buy won’t remind you of whatever got you down in the first place.

Get the Emotional Boost of Retail Therapy, Minus the Guilt