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Why we love that giddy high of a good card splurge

John Lund/Blend Images/Getty Images

John Lund/Blend Images/Getty Images

That rush you feel when proffering your card to finance a good splurge is so common that researchers have a name for it: “buy high.” That giddy buzz people describe feeling after they’ve indulged can be surprisingly effective in boosting your mood – at least until your bill arrives.

“There’s a rewards system in the brain that’s activated as soon as you buy things,” says Ryan Howell, a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University and co-founder of the site, BeyondThePurchase.org. “You might not necessarily think you need a new pair of shoes, but there’s a lot of pride and a lot of emotional highs that come from finding a good deal.”

Carolyn Alroy, a psychologist in New York City, likens the thrill of shopping to addictive mobile phone games, such as Candy Crush. “It keeps the pleasure center charged,” she says. “It’s a shortcut to feeling good.”

In fact, retail therapy is so effective for some shoppers that research has suggested that buying things to make yourself feel better can be genuinely therapeutic – as long as you limit how much you spend. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, for example, found shopping helps some people cope with unhappy experiences by making them feel as if they have more control over their circumstances.

“Shopping that is motivated by distress – ‘retail therapy’ – is often lamented as ineffective, wasteful and a dark side of consumer behavior,” wrote study authors Scott I. Rick, Beatriz Periera and Katherine A. Burson in the report. “We propose that retail therapy has been viewed too negatively. Shopping may be an effective way to minimize sadness.”

Just be sure you don’t overdo it. Occasionally clicking "buy" to give yourself a boost may help you in the short term. But if repeat shopping gets out of hand or slips into compulsion, it could lead to devastating side effects – especially if you fuel your shopping binges with high-interest credit or dip into your savings to support your habit.

Lauren Greutman, author of the blog, Iamthatlady.com, knows firsthand what can happen when you use your card too often to get a short-term boost. When she was in her early 20s, she enjoyed shopping so much that she lost her car and could barely pay her mortgage.

“I would spend money anywhere, anytime I wanted,” says Greutman. Eventually, her spending got so out of control, she and her husband wound up with $40,000 worth of debt. “I was really embarrassed and ashamed of how much debt I had gotten into.”

A common impulse
Not everyone loves to shop until they drop, but most people will admit to buying on a whim every once in a while. According to a January 2016 survey by CreditCards.com, for example, 5 in 6 Americans confess that they’ve indulged in impulse spending.

Psychologists think part of the reason impulse spending is so common is because the very act of buying can feel deeply satisfying – even if you’re only buying mundane necessities, such as detergent, or are splurging on clothes you’ll never wear.

“In a very fundamental way, shopping, buying new things, even replenishing groceries can be psychologically gratifying,” says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University and author of the book, “Decoding the New Consumer Mind.” As a result, some people will keep returning to a store just to recapture that good feeling.

According to Yarrow, retailers help fuel people’s urge to buy by inventing creative ways to hawk their products. For example, some retailers help manufacture the thrill you feel when you purchase something by holding special event sales or decreasing the number of products they offer so that purchases feel particularly noteworthy. Others use subtle tricks to prime your brain for spending, such as lighting scented candles or playing music to set a mood.

Psychologists think that easy access to credit and online shopping has also helped fuel emotional shopping by distancing people from the reality of their purchases. “That’s why credit cards work so well,” says Howell. “If I spend something on my credit card now, I don’t have to worry about it for 30 days.”

“We are in such an instant gratification culture,” adds New York City psychologist April Lane Benson, author of the book, “To Buy or Not to Buy.” We’ve become so used to getting what we want through our smartphones and other devices. Now, instant "buy" buttons online and frictionless payments make shopping without guilt easier than ever.

The cost of emotional shopping
Occasionally indulging in a little retail therapy can be perfectly normal and healthy, but when out-of-control spending leads to embarrassment or shame, psychologists say that deeper emotional issues are frequently to blame.

For example, some people struggle to control their spending because the emotions that are driving them to spend – such as anger, fear or longing – keep coming back to haunt them.

According to Mousumi Bose Godbole, a professor of marketing at Fairfield University, people who frequently shop to deal with uncomfortable feelings often suffer from compulsive disorders or have trouble exercising self-control. For these shoppers, what they’re buying doesn’t matter; she says they often return their purchases. “The buying process is what brings happiness or satisfaction rather than the product itself.”

Other people engage in overshopping because they find comfort and security in acquiring more things, says Sally Palaian, a psychologist in Bingham Farms, Michigan, and author of the book, “Spent.” “We all have the very primitive childhood memory of stuff bringing us comfort,” she says. Shopping as adults works similarly. “It’s like an attachment issue to stuff as a security object. We’re holding onto stuff as security.”

Many people also misuse shopping to fill a void or validate themselves in the eyes of others, say psychologists. If you’re not finding fulfillment through other means, “you end up trying to build your life by buying things,” says Michelle Summerfield, author of the blog, BudgetBloggess. Summerfield says she spent years trying to combat her credit card debt, only to find herself repeatedly overspending. Once, she says, “I sat down and did the math and actually spent $19,000 on clothing.”

Retailers make this type of shopping especially dangerous, says Carolyn Alroy, because they explicitly market their products as a way to feel cooler, smarter, sexier or more special. “Advertisers say, ‘Buy this dress and, hey, you’ll have this great lifestyle.’”

The writer Kate Abbott says she found herself routinely shopping online after becoming a stay-at-home mom and feeling uncomfortable with no longer earning money. “I felt a little bit out of control and dependent on my husband, says Abbott, who wrote about her experience in the Billfold. “Shopping was a way to exercise control over something.” It also became an easy way, she says, to temporarily escape from the day.

Similarly, Avis Cardella, author of the book, “Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict,” says she began overshopping shortly after her mom died, in part because shopping was an experience she and her mother used to share. “I think I turned to shopping as an anchor. It was a pleasant experience. It was something that I found soothing. It was a way to avoid my grief. Whenever I was feeling emotionally overwhelmed, I found that shopping took the edge off,” she says. “It was for me like a psychological safety net.”

How to curb overspending
If you, too, find yourself routinely overspending, psychologists say the first step to curbing your urge to splurge is to recognize there’s a problem and commit yourself to figuring out the roots of your behavior. “All change starts with awareness,” says Palaian.

“That’s how we build the neuropathways to do and behave differently,” says Angela Wurtzel, a clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, California. “We have to figure out why we’re repeating it, what’s underneath that and find other ways to manage our emotions.”

It’s also a good idea to build more structure into your life so that it’s easier to resist the urge to spend. For example, write down what you’re buying in order to dampen its appeal, says Howell.

Set up a budget and visualize it as a fence you need to stay inside, says Greutman. “You can still have some fun and play with it, you just need to have a boundary around it.”

In addition, add notes or trinkets to your wallet that remind you how you really want to spend your money, says Palaian. “Put a sticker right on the credit card that has a note on it that says this is what I really want.”

You may also want to add more friction to your payments, either by only using cash or by deactivating one-step online payments.

Finally, consider the long-term costs of what you’re buying, says Benson, and remember that the feel-good buzz you get from shopping isn’t going to last. When you’re feeling tempted to soothe yourself with stuff, she says to remind yourself of this mantra: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really need.

See related: Antidepressant use can spur spending sprees, YOLO: When is it OK to splurge?