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Shopping habits and wellbeing: a data-driven guide to emotional spending

You’ve probably heard of emotional eating – when we use food as a way to cope with how we’re feeling. But what about the other behaviours people may rely on as a way to feel better when they’re struggling with their emotions?

Emotional shopping and spending are surprisingly common, yet not that well understood. In this guide, we explore spending habits and why we may turn to shopping for comfort, as well as what can be done to improve on behaviours and maximise wellbeing in healthier ways.

An introduction to emotional spending

People sometimes refer to shopping as ‘retail therapy’. The nickname doesn’t come out of nowhere – shopping releases endorphins and dopamine, which are chemical signals that influence how we feel pleasure. We’ve all experienced the way buying something we want can improve our mood. And we’ve all treated ourselves from time to time.

However, shopping can become an issue when it becomes compulsive — for example, if your immediate reaction to feeling anxious or upset is to buy something. This can affect your financial wellbeing.

Who’s more likely to turn to emotional spending?

Data suggests that age plays a part. The 2023 Commerce Report interviewed 16-64-year-olds across multiple markets and found that UK millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) were 27% more likely than the average impulse buyer to make purchases to cope with stress.

The same report found that millennials and Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012) were 51% more likely than the average UK consumer to make impulse purchases online. Social media also plays a part, with these generations 83% more likely to impulse buy after seeing recommendations from people they follow, such as celebrities or influencers. They’re also more likely to click “buy” on social media ads.

Research has shown a correlation between shopping compulsively and characteristics such as being female, being younger, anxious attachment, and avoidant attachment. However, correlation isn’t the same as causation – further research is needed before conclusions can be made.

Attitudes towards spending

Annual sales volumes in Britain decreased by 2.8% in 2023 (the lowest levels since 2018). And the trend looks like it could continue. In a January 2024 survey, 62% of adults in Britain said they’re spending less on non-essential items because of the cost of living.

Other research also shows that people are cutting back. Mintel’s most recent Consumers and Cost of Living Market Report found that 42% of consumers were following a more strict shopping list, while 35% were buying more reduced items.

What can affect spending habits?

  • The economic climate. Rising costs lead to a reduction in spending on non-essential items.
  • The seasons. Cold weather means people are more likely to stay at home and shop from the comfort of their sofa, instead of heading to brick-and-mortar stores. For example, in March 2024 retail spending grew 0.7%, compared to 1.4% in February 2024, reflecting March’s wet weather. In January, people are more likely to cut back after the festive season.
  • Accessibility. For some people it’s much easier to order online than it is to shop in person. Online shopping means a range of convenient features, like next-day delivery, are at our fingertips. Likewise, someone who lives close to a high street or retail park may be more likely to go out when they need something.
  • Research. People want to make sure they’re choosing the best option for them before they spend their money. Data by Google showed that 74% of respondents searched online before buying, with searches for “which is best” and “where to buy” increasing over time, and around 33% said they spent time researching products for fun.
  • The amount of choice available. People are less likely to have brand loyalty when there are so many options available – 47% of Brits had tried a new brand, retailer or product when Google conducted their research.

What are people spending their money on?


Food and groceries were the number-one priority for consumers in the How They’ll Spend It 2024 report, with 80.2% of respondents listing this category as one of their top three priorities. And although spending at supermarkets increased by 2.8% in March 2024, 65% of consumers are looking for ways to reduce the cost of their shop or get the most value from it:

  • 57% are buying more discounted items
  • 38% are cutting back on impulse buys
  • 27% are stocking up on their regulars while they’re on offer

While consumers are paying close attention to their grocery shopping, they’re also cutting back on eating out (78% of respondents) and ordering takeaways (70%) in 2024.

However, entertainment and eating out still remained one of the top-three spending priorities for respondents to the How They’ll Spend It Report, with 21.4% choosing the category as one of their top three. The others were food & grocery, at 80.2%, and general merchandise, at 23.7%.

Sustainable products

A 2024 UK Consumer Trends report found that 58.5% of consumers are more likely to pay more for a “green” product or brand. This is higher than the previous year’s figures, when 46% said the same.


Despite reducing day-to-day spending, people are still saving for bigger purchases where they can. 34% of respondents to one survey planned to use their savings for holidaying.

Why do people turn to shopping for comfort?

  • It creates a sense of control. If you’re experiencing circumstances you can’t change, you may focus on things you can change. And while this can sometimes be positive, such as channelling your energy into exercise, it can also lead to riskier behaviours, like compulsive spending. Ironically, this can result in shopping habits becoming uncontrollable.
  • It can improve your mood. The act of buying something, or even just browsing, can release dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, which means it sends messages between nerve cells, and it has a significant impact on how we feel pleasure. Once your brain begins to associate feeling good with shopping, it’ll want to do more of it in order to keep the good feelings going.
  • It can distract you from uncomfortable feelings, like anxiety. If you’re shopping in person the displays, lighting, signs and music can draw your attention, while if you’re shopping online, the different sites and pages can do the same. If you buy something, you begin to associate these environments with a positive result.

Signs you might shop compulsively

There’s a difference between the occasional mood-boosting shopping trip and a compulsion to keep buying things. Signs of being a compulsive shopper are:

  • Being unable to stop thinking about the items you want to buy
  • Having trouble resisting buying things you don’t need
  • Spending lots of time researching items, even if you don’t need them
  • Shopping every time you experience something that makes you feel anxious or stressed
  • Getting into financial trouble because of your shopping habits
  • Having problems at work or home because of your shopping habits.

Dealing with emotional spending

Once you’ve identified emotional spending you can take steps to change your behaviour and create more healthy, positive habits around shopping. Here are some things you can try.

Think about why you turn to shopping

Is something stressful happening in your life? Does shopping help you experience positive feelings? You might not link the two together but, as we mentioned earlier, shopping can be a way to distract from more uncomfortable emotions. Knowing what these are means you’re one step closer to dealing with them head on – awareness is half the battle.

Reach out for help

Open up to a trusted friend or family member about your emotional spending. Simply having someone there to listen can lift a weight from your shoulders. You can also reach out for help from a therapist, who’ll work with you to identify the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that lead you to shop, then teach you how to regulate your emotions in a healthier way.

Set new goals

Emotional spending is a way for you to feel in control of something. Setting achievable goals is a way for you to feel in control over something that has a more positive outcome, like starting a hobby you’ve always wanted to try, or spending more time with friends or family.

Here’s how to set and achieve your goals:

  • Think about what you want to do, and whether it’s something you can control. If something is in your control then you’re more likely to achieve it.
  • Write your goals down (this makes them seem more real).
  • Consider using the SMART goals technique:
    • Specific – what exactly do you want to do?
    • Measurable – how will you know you’ve achieved your goal?
    • Attainable – your goal should be something you can do if you put the effort in.
    • Relevant – how does your goal fit in with your life?
    • Time-bound – when do you plan to achieve your goal?
  • Break your goals down into smaller steps. This can help them to feel within your reach and you’ll become more confident as you cross each step off.
  • Don’t forget to celebrate your progress. Working towards your goals is something to be proud of.

Make it harder to shop

The digital world has made it easier than ever for us to get what we want or need in mere seconds. 35.8% of consumers make purchases online and in store equally, while 28.3% shop online exclusively. Millennials are more likely to shop online than other generations, with 38% saying they mostly make purchases online. 

While online shopping is convenient when you’re busy, it can also make it more tempting to shop spontaneously, especially when you’re feeling emotional. Luckily there are ways you can make it harder for yourself:

  • Unsubscribe from newsletters and marketing emails. Who hasn’t been tempted by an unexpected discount appearing in their inbox? Unfortunately this can result in you spending money you hadn’t planned to part with, or buying something you don’t need. Unsubscribing removes the opportunity to do this.
  • Delete apps from your devices. Not only will you avoid notifications encouraging you to buy something, but navigating to a website gives you more time to consider a purchase.
  • Delete your card details from online stores. Entering them every time you plan to buy something will give you more time to think about whether you really want or need it.
  • Give yourself a cooling-off period before you buy something. Spotted something you’d like? Wait 24 hours before you go ahead with the purchase. Either you’ll decide you don’t want to after all, or you’ll know it’s something you really want.
  • Don’t buy something solely because it’s on sale or there’s a discount code. You’re not saving money if you wouldn’t have bought it at full price.

Create a budget

A budget will help you to figure out how much your monthly expenses cost and how much you have left over. Knowing these figures gives you greater control over your finances, allowing you to prioritise essentials like bills and rent or mortgage payments and identify any areas where you can cut back. For example, you might have subscriptions you no longer use that you can cancel.

It helps to set aside some money in your budget for non-essential spending, or for times when you’re likely to spend more money, like the festive season. That way you’ll be able to account for the odd treat without going over your limit.  You may also need to budget for larger expenses that require a loan, but this needs to be considered for monthly repayments, which will impact your spending ability going forward.

Plan when you shop

It’s much easier to spend when your shopping trips are spontaneous. When asked what makes them impulse buy:

  • 50% of consumers said they were drawn in by discounts and promotions
  • 40% said instant gratification
  • 19% said in-store advertising
  • 17% said brand familiarity
  • 9% said external advertising channels   

By planning what you need to buy and when, you can avoid unnecessary spending and save time for other things that are important to you. The tips below are tailored to supermarket shopping, but can be applied to other items in many cases.

  • Check what you already own before you shop. You might have what you need hidden away at the back of a cupboard.
  • Always shop with a list. You’ll be less likely to get distracted by impulse buys.
  • Plan your meals in advance. Using a meal plan will save you time deciding what to eat each day and you’re less likely to buy food you won’t eat.
  • Use subscription services for items you need to restock regularly. You won’t have to think about it once it’s set up and it also gives you fewer opportunities to browse if you don’t have to go online for every single order.

Adopt mindful spending

It’s easy to shop on autopilot, but being present and keeping your financial goals in mind can lead to more considered purchases, even when you’re presented with plenty of choice.

While it’s clear that shopping can cause a temporary uplift in our mood, it’s important to spend in moderation and deal with your emotions in healthy ways. Taking control of your feelings and finances can result in better wellbeing and a greater sense of fulfilment.