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Skip Retailer Therapy: How to Improve Your Mood Without Spending a Dime


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You’ve had a terrible day. You got in trouble with your boss, unfairly blew up at a colleague, and missed your son’s baseball game because you were stuck in rush hour traffic. That evening, as you’re lying in bed still fuming about the day, you hop on Amazon just to “look around.” Before you know it, you’ve put a pair of shoes, a new jacket, and a book into your shopping cart and hit the “Buy Now” button. Feeling better after this dose of retail therapy, you drift off to sleep, happily anticipating the arrival of your new things.

A lot of people use shopping to boost their mood when they’re feeling down. And in small doses, retail therapy can help you get over a stressful day. The problem is that many people turn to shopping continuously when they don’t know how to cope with negative emotions. That can lead to all sorts of trouble: high credit card bills, excess clutter, buyer’s remorse, and the feeling, deep down, that spending money isn’t really the best way to deal with a bad day.

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to boost your mood without spending a dime. Here’s a look at why retail therapy is so prevalent – and how you can feel better without reaching for your wallet.

Why Retail Therapy Works

It should come as no surprise that shopping is a popular choice for people when they’re feeling down. A study conducted by TNS Global on behalf of Ebates found that over half of Americans say they shop to improve their mood. According to the study, 58% of women buy clothes to make themselves feel better, while 28% of men buy food.

People often feel sad when they feel like outside forces are controlling their lives and there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s one of the most common reasons why people shop to make themselves feel better. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that shopping can help restore people’s sense of personal control. Another study, this one conducted by the University of Michigan, found that shopping was up to 40 times more effective at restoring a person’s sense of control than merely browsing.

Other emotions that frequently lead to retail therapy include stress, disappointment, anger, dejection, low self-esteem, fear, loneliness, and betrayal.

In small doses, shopping to improve your mood can and does work. It can be fun to go out, either alone or with friends, and pick out something nice for yourself. It’s almost like taking a short vacation: looking at beautiful objects, imagining what your life would be like using them, being treated nicely by salespeople, and making a choice you have full control over. The purchase is only the end result – people often enjoy the entire process of shopping, from the moment they leave for the store to the moment they return home with their items.

The Problem With Retail Therapy

It’s important to realize that retail therapy is a short-term solution. A study published in the Journal of Global Fashion Marketing found that while consumers who shopped to alleviate a bad mood felt better during and after their shopping experience, the therapeutic value of their purchases diminished shortly after that.

Retail therapy isn’t inherently bad. Now and then, it can be a great way to have fun. The problems start when shopping becomes your de facto method for getting over a bad day or dealing with long-term stress.

One of the biggest downsides to retail therapy is that it’s expensive, causing you to make purchases you don’t really need. This can wreck your budget if you’re not careful. Even small purchases made frequently will add up. And all that shopping could prevent you from enjoying purchases or experiences that might be more meaningful, such as buying a house, paying off student loan debt, or taking a family vacation.

It can also lead to shopping addiction and compulsive buying disorder. According to the journal Psychiatric Times, 1 in 20 adults nationwide suffers from compulsive buying. Not only does shopping addiction and compulsive buying create financial distress, but it can also result in abnormally high levels of depression and anxiety and lead to other negative consequences, such as bankruptcy, family conflict, divorce, illegal activities, and suicide attempts.

How to Boost Your Mood for Free

The good news is that there are plenty of ways to boost your mood without spending any extra money. These self-care strategies and practices can help you recharge, recenter yourself, connect with others, and provide a deeper sense of well-being.

While spending money can sometimes replicate these feelings, all too often, it acts as a Band-Aid. You’ll feel better, in both the short and long term, if you use strategies that help you care for your whole self.

1. Know Your Triggers

Money Spending Trigger Cash Bullet Gun

Only you know the situations and emotions that make you want to spend money. Perhaps it’s when you get into an argument with your spouse or partner, when you snap at your kids, or when you’re spending long days at work and missing time with your family. Knowing what makes you want to spend money unnecessarily is an important first step in stopping the behavior. When you know your emotional triggers, you can come up with a customized plan for making yourself feel better when they occur.

Sit down and think about the last few times you spent money to perk yourself up. What were you feeling during those times? Were you sad? Upset? Angry?

Also look at the ebb and flow of your week. For example, sometimes, people are more likely to go out and spend money on Fridays when they’re tired out by the workweek, or on Wednesdays to give them a boost to make it until Friday.

Once you figure out what triggers you to spend, read the suggestions below and make a list of ideas that might help you combat these emotions when you experience them.

2. Go Window Shopping

Window Shopping Woman Glass Store Front

According to a study conducted by the Journal of Consumer Psychology and cited by Forbes, going window shopping can be just as effective at alleviating a bad mood as actually making a purchase.

You can boost your mood further by window shopping with a friend. Talking about your day with someone else while going from shop to shop can be soothing. Just make sure you don’t get caught up in the rush if your friend decides to purchase something. Leave your wallet in the car to make sure you don’t make an impulse buy.

3. Go Outside

Woman Blogger Smiling Selfie Outdoors Happy

A study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that spending just five minutes in nature can help improve your mood. So instead of going to the mall, go to your local park and take a walk. Sit out in your yard and study the bugs in the grass. Walk, breathe deeply, and observe the sights and sounds around you.

4. Meditate

Meditate Outdoors Woman Mountains

According to Forbes, new studies about the benefits of meditation are published almost every week. And countless research studies have all come to the same conclusion: meditation reduces stress, boosts your mood, helps you focus, helps you live mindfully and be more self-aware, increases your patience and tolerance, and reduces anxiety and depression. If you have an underlying health condition, especially one that’s worsened by stress, regular meditation can help you manage your symptoms.

According to findings by researchers at UCLA, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, regular meditation can even change your brain’s structure by altering the volume of grey matter and activity in the “me” centers of the brain. In other words, regular meditation will help you avoid grey matter loss as you age and help you think less about yourself and more about others.

If you’ve never meditated before, there are plenty of apps to help guide you through it. Try Headspace or Calm to get started.

5. Call a Friend

Talking To Friend Outdoors Active Women River

Talking about your troubles can be incredibly therapeutic. They key word is “talking” – not texting. When you verbalize your feelings, it helps you process them and cope with the emotions you’re experiencing. The next time you’re feeling down, resist the urge to hop on Amazon and instead call a trusted friend or family member to talk.

6. Volunteer or Do a Random Act of Kindness

Volunteer Group Planting Nature

Helping others makes you feel good, both physically and mentally. According to a report by the Corporation for National and Community Service, research shows that volunteering contributes to better health and helps reduce depression.

It also provides an instant pick-me-up. Humans are social creatures, and we always feel better when we do something to help someone out or better our community. If you’re having trouble coming up with ideas, don’t worry. There are plenty of places to volunteer, including:

  • A local animal shelter
  • Habitat for Humanity
  • The YMCA
  • A local rescue mission or soup kitchen
  • Big Brothers Big Sisters of America
  • Your local library
  • A local school

You can also visit VolunteerMatch to find a volunteer opportunity that matches your interests.

7. Make a Gratitude List

Gratitude List Notebook Words Letters

Another way to boost your mood is to make a list of all the things you’re grateful for in your life. Focusing on the things you’re grateful for, versus the things that are making you feel sad or stressed, creates a powerful change in perspective. It forces you to focus on the good things you already have, instead of the negative things.

For example, imagine you’re feeling sad that your boss was mean to you. Instead of dwelling on their bad behavior, you can choose to feel grateful for it. How? Because they reminded you of how you don’t want to act toward others.

Sit down and make a list of all the things you feel grateful for. No matter how down you’re feeling, chances are there’s something you’re thankful for. For example, you could feel grateful that you woke up breathing this morning. You could feel grateful that you’re able to see, or that the sun came up today, or that you have a family that loves you.

Try to make this a practice you do every morning. A daily gratitude list can help you feel a deeper sense of connection and appreciation for all the good already in your life, and it’s a wonderful way to start the day.

You’ll also experience a mood boost by telling someone else why you’re grateful for them. For example, imagine that one of your colleagues always has a kind word for someone else, and you really admire that about her. Don’t keep it to yourself; tell her in person or write her a note. Expressing thanks and gratitude to other people will make you feel great.

Doing this regularly can also lead to another shift in perspective. You might find that you start looking for the good in people more often, rather than focusing on their faults, and that you’re happier as a result.

8. Shop for Something You Already Need

Grocery Shopping Vegetables Aisle Cart

Make retail therapy work for you by going shopping for something you already planned to purchase. For example, perhaps you need to pick up a present for your son’s birthday or a retirement gift for a colleague. Whenever possible, save these planned purchases for days when you need an emotional boost. This type of shopping can help you feel more in control of your spending, and it’s fun to look for just the right gift. Plus, don’t forget to use the Ibotta app on these purchases so you can save a little money.

9. Exercise

Exercise Woman Stretching Outdoors

Any exercise will help you feel better, usually within minutes after you begin. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), there’s a strong link between exercise and mood enhancement. Exercise can also help alleviate conditions like depression over the long term.

You don’t have to belong to a gym to get an emotional boost from exercise. There are plenty of exercises you can do at home. If you need new workout routines to keep yourself motivated, check out Aaptiv. You can take a brisk walk, practice yoga, try T’ai Chi, or run around the yard with your kids or dogs. No matter how you do it, just get moving. You’ll feel better, and you won’t spend a dime.

10. Read a Book You Love

Reading Book Coffee Woman Tea

Reading a book you know well and love can help boost your mood because it’s comforting, like stepping into the home of a familiar friend. If you don’t have a book waiting in the wings, go to the library and ask the librarian to recommend a popular title.

11. Experience Awe

Star Gaze Outdoors In Awe Silhouette

Gazing up at the night sky often inspires a sense of awe, of magic and mystery that you’re one small part of something that’s infinitely bigger than you. Many people rarely experience awe these days, but it can help boost your mood and change your perspective to one that’s more positive and inclusive.

According to a study published in the Association of Psychological Science, people who experience awe have more life satisfaction, feel that they have more time, and have a greater tendency to experience life “in the moment.” In another study, reported by UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine, people who experienced awe were more likely to describe themselves in collectivist terms – that is, as a member of a culture or moral cause. It can also help stimulate your curiosity and inspire you to be more kind.

Stargazing is just one way to experience awe. You can also experience awe with these activities:

  • Go out in nature and look at waterfalls, mountains, beaches, forests, or canyons.
  • Read about someone who overcame great odds or who spends their life helping others.
  • Go to a zoo, aquarium, planetarium, or botanical garden.
  • Watch a sunrise or sunset.
  • See a live performance of a popular play or orchestral arrangement. If you can’t attend live, watch it online.
  • Watch Jason Silva’s “Shots of Awe” channel on YouTube, which explores humanity’s creativity and ability to love.
  • Visit a beautiful cathedral.
  • Go to an art or history museum.
  • Watch a nature documentary, such as BBC’s “Planet Earth.”

You can experience awe anywhere once you open your eyes. A blind person navigating a crowded city street can fill you with awe, as can an obviously novice runner who’s out on a cold morning doing her best to get fit.

You can find awe everywhere. All you have to do is start looking for it.

12. Look Through Old Photos

Man Looking Through Photo Album

When you’re feeling down, dig out an old photo album or spend a few minutes looking at old photos on your phone. According to research cited by Prevention magazine, looking at old pictures can help you feel better 11% better.

It can also help to hang up one of your favorite pictures wherever you spend the most time, whether that’s your kitchen or your cubicle. Looking at a favorite photograph of your kids or your family cabin in the woods can lift your spirits and help relieve stress.

13. Watch Something Funny

Babies Watching Movie 3d Glasses Popcorn

A genuine smile or laugh can be an instant pick-me-up. But how do you make yourself laugh when you’re feeling sad or stressed? The answer: YouTube.

Go online and look up some videos to watch. It could be old skits from “Saturday Night Live” or Monty Python – I recommend “The Ministry of Silly Walks” – or Comedy Central’s “Drunk History.” Of course, what’s funny to one person will be asinine to someone else, so find what makes you laugh and bookmark it for a bad day.

Final Word

Let’s face it: Bad days, even bad months, happen to every single one of us. And there’s no doubt that occasionally buying something for yourself to boost your mood can be an effective way to turn things around.

However, there are plenty of other ways to feel good without spending money. Daily practices such as meditation, expressing gratitude, spending time outdoors, and exercising will boost your mood in the short term and also lead to long-term benefits such as a greater sense of well-being and better health.

What do you do to feel better without reaching for your wallet?


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