How to enjoy retail therapy and still save money

Get tips for successful shopping and saving.

Retail therapy. You’ve heard of it. You’ve said it. You probably have your own rituals when it comes to practicing it. Whether for necessity or pleasure, shopping can be a very personal experience.

Sometimes we even go window shopping—shopping with no intention of actually buying anything. Or we end up impulse shopping—spending money when we had no intention of doing so. And we all have that friend who doesn’t know how to stop shopping. We sit back and watch the compulsive spending, sometimes in awe, wondering how they do it.

What is retail therapy?

Retail therapy can mean different things to different people. Viviana Oyola of Washington, D.C., loves to shop. “It’s a natural high when you’re feeling low. You feel good when you look good and a new dress or accessory can help you feel and look refreshed.” But it’s not always about self-indulgence. Viviana also loves to shop for her friends. She continues, “…it makes me feel good when I can brighten someone else’s day with a gift.”

Nicole Eldredge from South Florida considers “shopping” to include even more than buying what’s on the shelf. “Retail therapy can even be getting a manicure,” she explains. Orlando native, Jennifer Evans, agrees that no matter what she’s spending money on, retail therapy is “shopping that makes you feel better.”

Why do people like shopping?

Studies in consumer psychology are targeted at discovering exactly why we love to shop. The study of why people buy things begins with cognitive psychology and trying to explain consumer choices. This is where psychologists study how people respond to marketing, external stimuli and other outside influences that affect our buying behavior.

A variety of different factors come in to play when deciphering why people like to shop. Sometimes it’s simply out of necessity, like grocery shopping. Sometimes we buy things we don’t need just because they’re on sale.

Ms. Evans admits, “I will definitely buy things I don't need that are on sale, just because.” And she’s not alone. In Los Angeles, California, Tara Breihan confessed, “I buy a ton of stuff I don’t need.”

But what drives her purchase decisions? “If I like it? The price.” That isn’t to say that being price conscious steers shoppers away from quality purchases. Breihan, Evans, Eldredge and Oyola all agree that quality is always of concern. Getting a good price on a quality item is a deal they’ll almost never walk away from.

Sales techniques

No matter how hard you try not to spend, retailers are still in the business of making money. While they might have done their homework on techniques in retail psychology, tricks played by our own brains could be even more persuasive when it comes to making the sell.

Here a few common things to keep in mind the next time you go shopping:

  • Huge sale signs to attract attention
  • High-profit items placed near the entrance
  • Essentials items are placed in the back
  • Most profitable items always at eye level
  • Sample stations in place to slow you down
  • Mood music plays to keeps you happy
  • Event sales make it feel like a big deal
  • Customer rewards cards feed on loyalty

How to stop impulse shopping

If you’re worried about falling prey to compulsive shopping, intentional spending can help you budget and monitor your financial output. Here are some techniques to help you practice intentional spending and hopefully save some cash in the process:

Remember your responsibilities

Intentional spending is a great way to differentiate what you need to spend on and what you want to spend on. Just because a purchase will make you happy doesn’t mean you need it. Focus on your financial responsibilities first, like housing, food and utilities.

Decide why you’re spending 

This is the easiest way to avoid buyer’s remorse. No one likes to feel guilty after spending money. After you’ve remembered your responsibilities and identified a purchase as an option, remember why you’re spending. Spend on things you’re passionate about and you’ll be happy you did.

Save in other areas

If you’re going to spend in one area, save in another. This is especially true with big ticket items. No one said you can’t buy a new boat, but you might have to cut back on eating out a bit to feel more comfortable about making the big purchase.

Shop for your lifestyle

Your spending habits, budget, wants and needs are unique to you and your family. Don’t compare them to those of your friends or extended family. What one friend might be comfortable with might not be suitable for your budget. Set guidelines that fit your lifestyle and include purchases that make you happy.

The psychology of online shopping

There’s no doubt that the internet has completely changed the way we shop. Onsite retail therapy comes with the added bonus of social interaction and instant gratification. But the convenience of clicking through to your heart’s content and having everything delivered sometimes can’t be beat.

When asked how much of their shopping they did online, Eldredge, Oyola, Evans and Breihan all stated that at least 50% of their shopping is done online. Eldredge explains, “it’s an easy way to get things done…and I like simple.”

Psychology Today claims that delayed gratification is “the most lucrative psychological principle at play” when it comes to online shopping. Often defined as putting off an early initial reward for a greater reward in the future can be a trade worth waiting for. It could also mean saving some cash in the process. And let’s not forget the obvious, online shopping is a great way to avoid crowds.

Just go shopping

Whether you’re in store or online, it’s always nice to buy yourself a present every once in a while. As long as your financial priorities are in order, you know why you’re buying and you won’t regret it in the future, go for it. A little retail therapy shouldn’t hurt. And if you play your credit cards right, you could either spend less by cashing in your rewards for gift cards or using a rewards credit card to earn even more.

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