We’ve all felt it – the feeling of happiness that comes when you purchase something new. Purchasing something – often when it’s not needed – can release feel-good endorphins that boost our mood and make us feel good. And that feeling is sometimes magnified when we’re feeling anxious or blue. But what happens when emotional spending (and the short-lived good vibes that follow) become a habit?

In a consumer culture, with opportunities to spend money coming from every direction (and right into your email inbox!), impulse spending is all too easy. Often called “retail therapy,” emotional spending is not a financial problem if you keep it within your budget, but it can quickly lead to debt or even slide into shopping addiction if you let it get out of hand. In this article, we will examine some common causes of emotional spending, and some ways to stop cold turkey.

What causes emotional spending?

Certain events or circumstances can act as spending triggers. The primary reward, regardless of the trigger, is instant gratification, and many of us even gain a feeling of power. Let’s examine the seven most common triggers.

1. Envy

Trying to keep up with your peers is one of the most common causes of impulse buying. Whether it’s an electronic gadget or a new pair of shoes, something you previously didn’t want can become a must-have when a friend or colleague has it. It’s important to note that this type of emotional spending might be fueled by social media. When an influencer is getting attention for the latest-and-greatest item, envy can make us want to join the crowd and have others admire us, too.

2. Achievement

When you’re successful in achieving a goal, a pat on the back often doesn’t always feel like enough – you may feel like you deserve a little reward, too. Spending money on ourselves is not necessarily a bad thing, but maybe we should ask in this case why that achievement can’t be its own reward. So many achievements come as the result of delayed gratification, so, let’s avoid another chance to reinforce emotional spending habits.

3. Stress

To avoid the negative feelings of anxiety and stress, people often turn to spending money to take their mind off of what’s bothering them. Studying the merits of one item over others takes up time and diverts attention from what might actually be bothering us. While retail therapy may temporarily alleviate stress or sadness, it could make it worse in the long run when the credit card bills are due.

4. Fear

People who are easily influenced by marketing that plays to fears—about safety, aging, illness, and the like—can be prone to emotional spending. Health and wellness items, like vitamins and supplements marketed with extraordinary claims, could lead people to make impulsive purchases with dubious returns on investment.

5. Sales buying

Some emotional spenders simply enjoy the hunt of shopping and can’t say no to a buy-one-get-one-free deal or a 25%-off sale. Online coupons tempt shoppers with rock-bottom prices for things that they probably don’t need. Not every sale is a win, especially when it’s something you don’t really need. Excessive buying of products on sale could lead to financial stress rather than financial savings.

6. Social pressure

The desire to fit in, especially among young people, is a common cause of unplanned purchases. Spending on trendy things like sneakers, jeans or the latest headphones is about blending in rather than standing out. And social pressure and low self-esteem don’t necessarily end in high school. For adults, the desire to fit in can lead to emotional spending for big-ticket items like cars and expensive vacations. That pressure could damage both our bank account and our mental health.

7. Boredom

It’s not uncommon for people to relieve boredom with online shopping. A few clicks provide immediate gratification and give us something to look forward to — receiving that package.

How do I stop emotional spending?

When you recognize that you are spending based purely on emotional triggers — and can identify those triggers — you can start to take action to control emotional spending.

Start by taking a hard look at your financial statements, examining all of the purchases you’ve made in the previous month, and asking yourself a few basic questions:

  • What purchases fall into the need category?
  • What purchases were based on an emotional trigger?
  • What was unnecessary?
  • What items were returned because they weren’t needed?

For the items you purchased because of an emotional trigger, ask yourself how long the “feel-good” feeling lasted? Did that moment pass quickly? Does the item still generate that feeling?  Understanding what triggers emotional shopping behaviors and how this type of behavior makes you feel in the long run is important to learning how to manage it.

Depending on your personal triggers, there are a number of steps people can take to avoid emotional spending.

Set a budget

Setting a budget is one of the first things you’ll learn in a financial literacy course, and it’s especially important if you want to reduce emotional spending. You can monitor your spending habits yourself or consider downloading a smartphone financial app that tracks spending and sends alerts when spending thresholds are approaching.

Unsubscribe from retailer emails

It’s nice to receive a 20% discount on your first order from a retailer by providing them with your email, but it might cost you more in the long-run. If you can’t resist temptation constantly arriving in your inbox, unsubscribe as soon as you receive that first email.

Delete shopping apps

Take away the temptation to pass time by window shopping on phone applications. If you really need something, it will be easy enough to go to the retailer’s website to make a purchase.

Take a breath

Establish a waiting period before buying something that isn’t a need. Make it a habit to take a breath – or maybe five – before adding something to your cart. Maybe even set a policy of taking a full 48 hours to think about it. There’s a good chance that when you resist the rewards of instant gratification, you’ll decide that you really don’t need shopping as a coping mechanism.

Replacement therapy

Experts recommend replacing emotional shopping with something positive. Activities like walking, biking, yoga, and other activities that get you moving may help to release those feel-good endorphins — without piling up on the bills.

Dial a friend

If you have identified triggers leading to emotional spending, such as anxiety or stress, turn to a friend for a chat rather than hitting the mall with your credit card in hand. Taking the time to touch base can strengthen your friendship and may help you save money.

Treat yourself

It’s true that achievements can trigger emotional spending. However, it’s possible to learn how to set aside a small portion of your budget for the occasional splurge. Designating money for a spa treatment or meal out provides something to look forward to and could help curb impulse purchases.

Learn more about personal finance and financial goals at Best Egg:

How to Set Up Financial Goals for Success

Track Expenses and Take Control of Your Money in 4 Easy Steps

How to Keep Your Mental, Physical, and Financial Health On Track