Sign up for the BETTER newsletter

You have been successfully added to our newsletter.

NBC News BETTER brings you wellness news and tips to make the most of your mind, your body and your life.

Why we stress-spend during the holidays — and how to stop

How to have a meaningful holiday and get out of the vicious cycle of stress and debt.

by Nicole Spector /
Savvy retailers know you might be stressed out while you’re shopping, and will be encouraging you to treat yourself.Stephanie Keith / Getty Images
Get the BETTER newsletter.

Ever bought something solely to lift your mood? According to a new survey by Credit Karma, more than half (52 percent) of U.S adults say they’ve made impulse buys to cope with feelings of stress, anxiety and depression. The holidays may be an especially triggering time for those of us prone to this type of spending — they certainly are for me. Just this past weekend while doing my holiday gift shopping, I was feeling overwhelmed and purchased stuff for myself. Immediately I felt better, but the relief was short-lived; when I got home I was worried about how much I’d spent, and annoyed that I’d brought more clutter into the house.

Why do we impulse buy when we’re stressed, and how can we change this behavior?

Sometimes We Spend to Avoid Feelings

“Stress spending is a bit like having coffee while you are stressed: it's an impulsive behavior that you think will calm you down, but all it does is make you feel even more jittery and anxious,” says Teodora Pavkovic, a psychologist and life coach. “We engage in [stress spending] when we feel unpleasant emotions such as anger, sadness, anticipation, etcetera.”

We may feel some gratification, but the crummy feelings almost always return, and they may be even worse once you’ve added a surprise credit card charge to the mix.

“It’s a vicious cycle because our excessive holiday spending plunges us deeper into debt, which then increase our feelings of fear, anxiety, guilt and shame,” says Kelli Saginak, a life coach and professor.

It’s A Socially Acceptable Coping Mechanism

We may also be stress spending around the holidays because we feel somewhat entitled to extra indulgences, aka “retail therapy” as the saying goes.

“Spending money on others makes it easier to spend money on ourselves,” says Christie Tcharkhoutian, a marriage and family therapist, adding that splurging has also become “a socially acceptable way to cope with stress over the holidays.” But it’s a pretty lousy coping mechanism, given that, as Tcharkhoutian points out, it’s often motivated by negative feelings and leads to “stressful feelings of guilt and shame.”

Here are five ways to stay strong against stress spending:

1. Make a list not just of gifts to buy, but a list of what you need to cope

We’re all familiar with the importance of making a list of what to buy when we’re on a budget. But what if we also itemized how to make the holidays less draining?

Saginak recommends writing down the ways we can create a meaningful holiday season “with minimal stress on you, your body, and your bank account. Ask yourself these three questions:

  • How do I really want to feel during the holidays?
  • What type of holiday do I really want to create and experience?
  • What conscious responsible actions will allow me to spread holiday cheer, lower my stress and not add to my money problems?”

2. Hit the gym before you shop

“Exercise is one powerful and economical way to relieve stress; it's good for your mind, your body and your pockets,” says Amber Berry, a certified money coach. Consider hitting the gym before you hit the mall.

3. Get a friend to review your cart

Shopping online may be easier than shopping in-store, but it can also be riskier as we don’t really feel the weight of a transaction the way we do when handing over cash. Dave Barr, an accountant who runs the personal finance site, Common Cents Millennial recommends enlisting a “purchasing buddy,” aka someone who has to review whatever you’ve added to your virtual cart within 24 hours before you commit. Not only can they help you determine whether it’s a wise purchase, they can offer support.

“If you have someone else review your purchase, chances are you will talk to them about whatever is happening emotionally that is causing you to shop as a coping method,” says Barr.

4. Shop during off times

Dealing with crowds and long lines can be agitating, so if possible, do your shopping during the calmer hours.

"If your holiday stress comes from being at the mall and dealing with crowds, I recommend hitting the stores on a weekday in the morning when kids are at school and the foot traffic is a bit lighter,” says Sara Skirboll, shopping and trends expert at RetailMeNot. “The shorter lines, quieter morning atmosphere and overall lack of chaos will contribute to a less stressful environment."

5. Don’t fall for retail ploys

Savvy retailers know you might be stressed out while you’re shopping, and will be encouraging you to treat yourself.

“Retailers tend to market to this stressed shopper who is vulnerable when it comes to messaging,” says Lindsay Sakraida, director of content marketing at DealNews. “Two overwhelming messages we see in promotions from retailers are those that encourage purchases as a way to improve your life, which can appeal to someone stressed out as they seek to solve some unpleasantness in their lives. Another messaging we see is the sense of urgency, the ‘get it before it's gone, and ‘one day only’ sales. That plays to emotional shoppers.”

Be mindful that retailers are trying to get you to cave, often with discounts that Sakraida notes are “mediocre.”

Get the BETTER newsletter.

There Are Better Ways To Self-Care

Nobody is saying you shouldn’t treat yourself, but if stress spending is a problem either during the holidays or any other time of year, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect. If you are in the position to spend, you may want to ask yourself, ‘Can this money be better used toward some real self-care?’ Perhaps it’s time to head out of the shoe store and into the spa.

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Get the BETTER newsletter.
MORE FROM better