"It's not just shopping, it's retail therapy."
As a bumper sticker or a joke between friends, this may be amusing. For those who shop to relieve stress, it's not nearly so funny. Medicating or soothing painful feelings with money is no healthier a behavior than medicating with alcohol or food. When stressed or in difficult circumstances, some people drink, some people eat, and some people shop.
As a financial adviser, I've worked with several clients with extreme forms of this behavior, who described their spending clearly as an addiction. It gave them a physical "high" similar to that experienced by an alcoholic or drug addict. Like other addictions, it had destructive consequences, such as overwhelming debt, loss of life savings, ruined relationships, and even theft from family members or employers.
Using spending as a medicator does not always show up in such dramatic ways, however. Even people who seem to live moderately and manage money responsibly can be "therapy shoppers" who spend in order to make themselves feel better.
When I met Alexandra, for example, she was single, in her 40s, with a well-paying job and a substantial net worth. She was investing part of her income, was current on all her financial obligations, and had only a modest amount of debt. She was certainly not spending beyond her means or jeopardizing her future security. She didn't appear to be in any financial difficulty.
When we looked at her budget, however, Alexandra was clearly uncomfortable with some of her spending habits. Instead of simply reassuring her that she was managing her money well and not overspending, I explored this issue with her. Eventually I brought up the possibility that she might be medicating her difficult emotions with spending. It was an "aha!" moment for her. She told me, "I've been doing that for years."
Alexandra's problem wasn't the amount she spent. It was the reasons behind her spending. If she had a stressful day at work, she would go to the mall, in much the same way another person might stop at a bar for a couple of drinks on the way home. Shopping, finding bargains, and buying herself gifts were unthinking actions she used to soothe herself when she was upset.
She never stopped to ask herself whether she needed or even wanted the things she bought. She didn't spend more than she could afford, but she was spending time as well as money unproductively. She was also cluttering her house and her life with clothes she didn't wear, knickknacks she didn't care about, and gadgets she didn't use.
Once she realized the emotional reason for her shopping, Alexandra was able to find more constructive ways to deal with stress. She learned healthier responses to difficult days. Talking with a friend, writing in her journal, meditating, or taking a walk could serve the same purpose as a trip to the mall.
For Alexandra, simply recognizing that she was using shopping to soothe her emotions was enough to help her change. People with more deeply ingrained behavior might find change more difficult. In such cases, clients could benefit greatly from working with a financial therapist with the expertise to help them look at the emotions underlying their spending patterns.
The important point for a financial planner is to look beyond the numbers. The main issue isn't whether a client's "retail therapy" is affordable or whether it is causing serious financial difficulties. If a behavior is creating discomfort for clients, as it was for Alexandra, helping them explore what lies behind it can be a valuable service.