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3 Practical Ways to Overcome Compulsive Shopping

2. Don't buy. Just browse.

Key points

  • A study found that approximately 5 percent of Americans were compulsive buyers.
  • Dopamine may be released during pleasurable activities such as eating, sex, and shopping, increaing our desire for more.
  • Making purchases based on who you are as a person can increase your sense of control.
Cardmapr NL / Unsplash
Source: Cardmapr NL / Unsplash

Many people come to therapy worrying that they spend too much time and money on things that mean too little. They may ask questions like:

  • Why do I feel compelled to shop?
  • Why do I need to buy things to feel better about myself?
  • Why am I always feeling like I need more?

The answers to these questions are not straightforward. It often takes a good amount of time in psychotherapy to understand the root of the issue.

However, a quick way to assess whether you might have a shopping problem is to ask yourself if most of the statements shown below apply to you.

  • You shop compulsively.
  • You shop to alleviate feelings of emptiness.
  • You shop despite negative financial consequences.
  • You shop in secret to avoid judgment from others.
  • You feel ashamed or guilty about your inability to stop buying things.

If these statements describe you, you’re not alone. A 2015 meta-analysis showed that approximately 5 percent of Americans were compulsive buyers.

With social media marketing, targeted ads, and influencer culture coaxing more people to buy things to one-up each other, this percentage is likely to increase.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Here are three strategies to help you overcome compulsive shopping:

1. Follow the 24-hour rule

Let’s say you have your mind made up about buying expensive new shoes, and all that’s left to do is fork over the money and wear them home.

Here’s what you could do: Delay the purchase by exactly 24 hours.

Doing this will force you to go through a full day’s worth of challenges, joys, sorrows, and expenses without the new item. In other words, it no longer qualifies as an impulse buy. Once 24 hours have passed, you can use better judgment to decide whether or not the object is worth the cost.

2. Don’t buy. Just browse

Dopamine is the feel-good chemical released in our brains during pleasurable activities such as eating, sex, and shopping.

One classic paper published in Brain Research Reviews argued that dopamine has more to do with seeking rewards than the satisfaction that the reward brings.

Similarly, Robert Sapolsky, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, suggested that our brains get their dopamine hits from anticipating a reward more than the reward itself.

This could explain why window shopping always feels great and why actually owning the object of desire tends to lose its charm quite quickly.

Here’s how you can extend these findings to your shopping behavior: Set aside a few hours every week during which you can browse the things you want to own. This way, you can enjoy all the positive benefits of shopping while avoiding its negative consequences.

3. Buy things with which you connect.

When shopping, a good rule of thumb is to buy low-volume and high-quality.

Buying trendy things may seem necessary to keep up with the Joneses, but it is wiser to buy things you will not need to replace often, because they always stay in vogue, or to develop a personal bond with them. For instance, such items (high-end wristwatches) are generally built to last and retain their value much better than cheaper items.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that making purchases based on who you are as a person can increase your sense of control over your life. This can, in turn, decrease your reliance on buying more to feel more happiness.

Here’s a related bonus tip: Save up for your purchases and choose debit cards over credit cards. This will ensure you are more connected to the purchase due to the anticipation of owning it. It will also keep you from spending money you don’t yet have.


If you believe that your behaviors indicate compulsion, one way to determine this is to speak to a certified mental health practitioner. In the meantime, apply these simple strategies to reduce the adverse effects of your shopping behaviors.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.