Retail Therapy Therapy

Retail Therapy Therapy -- Black Friday Shopping Crowd
America’s Favorite Pastime

Today is Black Friday, so I’m out at the stores to report on all of the great shopping deals, traffic snarls and interesting crowd behavior for your amusement.


Actually, I thought today would be a good day to write about “Retail Therapy,” and some out there might appreciate a little Retail Therapy Therapy.

It’s been several years since I actually went out on Black Friday to shop. Even then, it was (I reasoned) just an opportunistic chance to grab some deals. But I learned pretty quickly that the deals for most items weren’t worth the hassle of wading through a sea of people and waiting in long lines. Now, to be honest, I would still purchase something on Black Friday if it’s a great deal. But I would do so on-line. If a trip to the store is necessary, I would wait out (instead of wading out) the crowds and hope it doesn’t sell out by that time.

But it would only be for a needed item or two, or for something a little more expensive that’s deeply discounted. In other words, I use it sparingly to my advantage, but not to actually “go shopping” for gifts or for things I don’t really need or want. So, in some sense it does serve as Retail Therapy for me, because I’m saving money on something the only time a good deal is available.

Of course, Retail Therapy doesn’t just happen on Black Friday, it’s episodic year-round. There are lots of articles on the internet about it, many of which are pretty … restorative … to read. And it is an actual phenomenon. Spending or getting something new is like a drug or high. It’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s dopeamine, man! Comfort-buying (like comfort food) is a mood booster, no doubt. And there can be benefits to it in the right context, in moderation. Some would call it investing in their mental well-being.

It’s commonly said that it’s more rewarding to spend money on memorable experiences than it is to buy stuff, and that’s generally true. But there’s a point where that’s beside the point! There is an experience in buying new things, otherwise, there would be no such thing as Retail Therapy. Buying new stuff makes us happy. It’s just plain fun to bask in the “newness” of something to replace all of the regular, monotonous, everyday stuff. The problem is that it wears off. We become familiar with what we have and get bored with it. Familiarity breeds contempt, especially once we see something else newer and better. That’s why the pursuit of things doesn’t ultimately bring happiness and satisfaction. We revert or regress to the mean, back to the normal, until we buy something else to grab our next dopamine fix.

On the other hand, if we invest in memorable experiences, we’ll typically enjoy them while they last, but they’re usually not long enough to become mundane unless we repeat the same experience too often. For example, we typically do something a little different for each vacation in order to appreciate varied experiences, rather than the same old thing time and again. Then, when you look back at the videos and photos, they pique your memory about what a great time you had. You might not want to go back necessarily, because you’ve already been there, done that. (That’s such a played-out phrase, but it illustrates the gist nicely.)

But, seeing this is a money-savings blog, not a shopping-craze blog, we have to return to earth if our Retail Therapy is chronic, causing us problems like … not being able to save money. To the extent that we are spending and not saving, there’s an inverse relationship that affects our current and future satisfaction in life. Retailers aren’t going to tell you that, they’re just going to say, “Spend more on these awesome items. And hey! You’ll save even more the more you spend!” That way they can make money off of us and engage in their own, higher-level cycle of consumption while we maintain a meager savings.

Another common mantra is, “New and improved!” Last year’s model not only lost it’s newness-luster months ago, it’s also inferior to this year’s improved version. There’s always something new that does the job better and quicker — or upgraded versions to render the previous ones obsolete.

So the one you have now is, well, just not so great anymore. And you’d better get the new one now because the sale is only good for today until 1 PM. You don’t want to overthink it or you might miss out for another whole year! So, out we go to get the updated model that will (hopefully) last until the next one comes out in a year, to enjoy that awesome experience of the new one. And we pay a lot of money for these dopamine experiences. We’ll join the crowd and follow the Piper’s flute at our own expense because it makes us feel good.

Now, if you have money to burn and simultaneously save a lot, that’s great. This really doesn’t apply to you and congratulations for reaching that level. You win and you’re awesome! If the ability to buy stuff is your prime motivator to work hard, so be it. I can’t tell anyone what to do with their money unless you need savings ideas to break free from the hamster wheel. But keep in mind that even some with a lot of money overextend themselves because they are irresponsible with it. Or they are as unhappy as anyone else because the goods don’t deliver lasting fulfillment.

So if you’re one of those whose spending is out of touch with your savings reality, you need a little Retail Therapy Therapy to get back on track. And that may mean making severe sacrifices and compromises. Withdrawal is always unpleasant, even if it’s just dopamine withdrawal. You may need to recondition your thinking to be content with less, or with something else, to reduce your reliance on the “fix” and to find gratification in something more meaningful.

That’s easier to do if you can look back on your present situation and regret purchases you’ve made previously. If you can identify these regrets for wasted money, it’s simpler to move forward and make correction. If you look around and see a bunch of junk you bought that you wish you hadn’t, it definitely helps. Or, if you dislike your job but can’t afford to retire for 300 more years. Or maybe you have too little to live on (but could have had more). All of that helps. But you have to come to terms with your excesses and not make excuses for them. With freedom and money come responsibility, and if you can’t take responsibility you’ll never exit the Highway Of Indulgence.

Take stock of what you have and designate what you really need vs what you don’t. Then immediately stop making unnecessary purchases and become active in something else in place of Retail Therapy. Don’t window-shop in stores or on-line if that causes you to blow through your wallet or run up your credit card. Find something meaningful to do with your time and keep busy at it. Keep your attention occupied and focus on saving and how you can save even more. When the urge to buy something unnecessary inevitably comes, don’t spend the energy to get it. Think about how much you save will be worth in the future if you put it in an investment account. And think of the money you’re saving on a monthly basis as you forgo spending.

Yes, for some, $10 here, $5 there, $10 somewhere else per month makes a difference in how much they save. When you see something that costs X dollars per month, it lulls you into buying because “it doesn’t seem like a lot of money” when viewed on a monthly basis. But the small amounts add up to large amounts if you don’t put a lid on it. You have to live in the present and refuse all impulse purchases for things you don’t need. Then engage in free or low-cost activities that bring you personal satisfaction in place of spending.

What about you? What do you do for Retail Therapy Therapy?

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