Does retail therapy work? That depends.


Maybe you’re feeling that the world is out of control and nothing is going according to plan. You may find yourself reaching for your phone and buying that 20-gallon aquarium kit that’s on sale. Feel-good dopamine levels may surge in your brain after purchasing and the stack of boxes at your door might make you feel like you’ve accomplished something.

Some call this “retail therapy” and, while it hardly qualifies as an actual therapy, shopping does make some people feel better. It can relieve stress, help you check a project or gift off a list or just give you the chance to do something nice for yourself.

Yet shopping comes at a cost—quite literally, and especially online, where shopping may feel more like a video game than an activity parting you from your hard-earned money. Before too long, you can find yourself with a lot of stuff and a lot of debt—and none of the happiness you were seeking.

If you find yourself seeking retail therapy, especially during the strange, stressful time of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have a few tips that can keep you from post-shopping regret.

  • Know what you’re spending. It can be hard to get a handle on how much you’re buying, so be sure to chart and track your purchases. Overspending will only add to your stress.
  • Be on the lookout for potentially dangerous behaviors. Are you staying up late? Choosing shopping over interacting with close others or getting your work done?
  • Don’t spend just because you’re bored. You may find it a pleasant distraction, but it’s also fleeting. What will you do when you’re bored again? It’s a slippery slope.
  • Find longer-lasting ways to boost your mood: Sleeping well, eating right and getting enough exercise are tried and true ways to help you feel better. If you’re trying to counter stress or boredom, reach out to a friend or family member, watch a movie or tackle a home project.
  • Shop wisely. With many of us stuck home during COVID-19, we’re learning how much stuff we’ve accumulated—and how much we actually don’t need. Don’t add to that pile. Use your purchases to make your home and workspace more comfortable, functional or enjoyable.

You don’t have to cut up your credit cards just because you might use them. If you have the budget for it, there’s no problem with an impulse purchase or shopping in moderation. Get those storage containers or the 1,000-piece puzzle you’ve been eyeing. Just keep in mind that while a purchase may give you a temporary boost, a bunch of stuff doesn’t add up to a bunch of joy.

Kristen Carpenter is director of Women’s Behavioral Health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and assistant professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, Psychology, Obstetrics and Gynecology at Ohio State’s College of Medicine.