Carte Blanche
June 24th, 2011

I remember the first time I heard the phrase “retail therapy.”  I was working at my first job out of college and a colleague – a few years older, very pretty, and very sophisticated (I had a bit of a girl crush on her) – mentioned that she was going shopping after work because it had been a long week and she needed some retail therapy.  “Ohhhhhh,” I thought, recognizing the sentiment, ”It has a name!”

Ever since then I’ve considered retail therapy a privileged person’s excuse for placating her materialism.  (Which certainly isn’t to say that I haven’t indulged in it myself.)  So I was surprised to learn this week that a study has proven that retail therapy is psychologically legit.  I made my way through the article waiting for the other shoe to drop.  As I neared the end I expected to read that the temporary mood boost afforded by shopping is short lived, and gives way to buyer’s remorse and feelings of guilt.  Conversely, while the article conceded that the negative moods that lead to retail therapy can spike impulsive behavior, the net effect is that ”…retail therapy has lasting positive impacts on mood. Feelings of regret and guilt are not associated with the unplanned purchases made to repair a bad mood.”

My mixed response to this news surprised me.  On one hand, I though, ”Hooray!  Affirmation!”  On the other hand I thought, “Really?  Is this how we want to encourage people to work through bum moods?”

I think my second response stems back to a particular moment of my adolescence when I experienced exactly the same feelings of guilt and remorse that the article said don’t correspond to retail therapy.  As a kid I was a huge penny pincher.  I collected my allowance for weeks and weeks in a hinged wooden piggy bank.  I remember that at one point in second grade I had accumulated $80 thanks to my miserly ways.  And while, for the most part, I enjoyed counting my pennies and congratulating my incredible fiscal restraint (yes, GAP, this is all true…), there were moments when I felt like a prisoner of my own piggy bank.  Eventually I snapped.  When I was 15 I decided to let my hair down for once and go on a bit of a shopping spree.  Wielding my Loony Toons checkbook with conviction I spent about $350 in the course of a few hours.  I experienced an incredible high in the process, but that happiness quickly gave way to the sense that I’d made a huge mistake.  Sitting in my bedroom surrounded by shopping bags I felt deflated (much like my checking account balance…).

In retrospect I think it was the extreme swing in my behavior that left me feeling like I’d gotten in over my head.  The article mentions that most people spend about $59 to perk up a bad mood, and $115 to celebrate an achievement.  And those figures are for adults, who, presumably, earn more than $15 per week doing household chores.  This context allows me to see that my $350 spending spree as a 15-year-old was far more impulsive than I realized.

As an adult I have settled into more moderate spending patterns.  Part of me is happy to learn that whatever emotional boost I get from a new blouse or trip to the cosmetics counter is psychological fact.  But I also worry that this study may lure people into the belief that they have carte blanche to solve their problems with spending.  I hear stories on the news about how many Americans have no savings accumulated, how much credit card debt we carry, and how our proclivity to spend money we don’t have has gotten us into trouble time and again.  Nevertheless, whether your splurge is a $500 handbag or a $5 cappucino, it’s still nice knowing that with some regard for our relative means, we can indulge ourselves without major regret.

Epilogue – My ill-advised shopping spree did help me stumble into my favorite retail therapy trick.  When I’m in the mood to shop, but don’t actually need anything, I go about it as I usually would, perusing clothing racks, trying things on etc.  Once I’ve settled on the collection of things I want to buy I take them to the counter and ask the salesperson to put them on hold for me.  If I really want them, I’ll continue thinking about them for a couple of days and be willing to go back for a planned purchase.  But nine times out of 10 I don’t.  I’ve sated my impulse desire to shop without actually spending anything.

6 Responses to “Carte Blanche”

  1. e Says:

    I say hooray for shopping…….for any reason……..but the idea of shopping then putting them on hold is an excellent one! I love looking for things for others more than myself – maybe because things look better on others any more (and now I sound like my mother – wow! She was smart.)

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    I admit, that when I was making a nice living (with disposable income), I enjoyed my occasional retail therapy – usually shoes.

    These days?

    Fortunately, I never had to have retail therapy – or many other things. Don’t even miss it. Okay… maybe occasionally. But in the grand scheme? Writing is far more therapeutic, and costs nothing.

  3. Ana Says:

    I guess the key here (as it is for pretty much everything) is moderation. Sometimes treating yourself to something really beautiful (or delicious) can truly lift your mood. But the danger is in overdoing it, of turning “impulsive” into “reckless” (and this line is different for everyone, I am a VERY frugal shopper, so spending $300 on myself in one go, even as a well-paid adult, would probably make me feel guilty). As a student, my retail therapy usually involved something on clearance at Target—something I didn’t NEED but just wanted to have, like costume jewelery or scented candles. These days I just have less time & freedom to spontaneously go shopping, so I do it online—using your method (place things in my “shopping bag” and come back to them later to see if I still want them).
    I found it fascinating that $59 was the average amount—that does seem about right for ME, but looking at the way my friends spend money, I would’ve thought it’d be a higher number.

  4. Cathy Says:

    For me it’s retail torture. I extremely dislike shopping!

  5. Jennifer Says:

    This is a really interesting topic and I’m glad that you brought it up.

    I’m new to your blog and thought I’d weight in a bit: I wouldn’t say I’m a big fan of retail therapy. I do occasionally find myself suffering from intense buyer’s remorse but that is usually because I spent WAY too much money. On some occasions a small little treat can perk me up. However, I know that I can’t depend on retail therapy to cure whatever might have put me into a funk in the first place.

  6. Gale Says:

    Jennifer – Thanks for stopping by and for commenting. It’s hard finding that line, isn’t it? Hard to determine what is the right amount to provide the pick-me-up now without the remorse later. Obviously it’s different for everyone, and the kind of thing that can only be learned by trial and error. And you’re right, a quick lift from shopping isn’t going to solve the root problem. That’s important to remember. But as long as we know our limits I think little treats can be harmless.