The Psychology of "Treat Yourself:" How to Manage the Urge to Splurge

Updated: July 3, 2024

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You may associate "treating yourself" with getting pampered at a spa, going on a spending spree, attending a sporting event or concert or taking an exotic trip. In one of the most popular episodes of “Parks and Recreation,” for example, characters Tom and Donna decide to dedicate one day a year to engage in massive amounts of “retail therapy.”

But you don’t need to break the bank to feel better. Instead, you can obtain the positive psychological benefits of treating yourself by simply acknowledging that you deserve something special, managing your spending habits and learning about healthy and unhealthy ways to splurge.

An illustration of a young woman who is enjoying the new items she bought at the store.

What’s the Psychology Behind Treating Yourself?

There are psychological reasons for overspending while treating yourself. But why does it happen? It has a lot to do with power. Going shopping puts you back in the driver’s seat when something happens beyond your control. Research also shows spending can ease feelings of sadness. A study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that the act of making purchase decisions eased lingering sadness.

Sadness is associated with feeling helpless — not being able to control what is happening around you. Simply engaging in shopping-related choices, such as purchasing or rejecting an item, positively impacted the psyche. The downside is that a buyer’s mental state can blind them to price. One study published in Psychological Science found that people feeling sad were willing to pay up to 30% more on a product.

Staying aware of your behavior can help you examine the impact that specific emotions have on your financial decisions. If you do feel as if you have unhealthy habits with shopping, there are ways to help you recover.

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Self-Care Is Not Selfish

Your finances can impact your mental health. Recently, Capital One released survey results showing matters related to money are the number-one cause of stress (73%), ahead of politics (59%), work (49%) and family (46%).

Treating yourself can help. But you don’t have to spend money to achieve a greater sense of self-worth and self-love. True self-care involves cultivating plenitude in the following areas:

Ways to Self-Worth and Self-Love

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Psychological care consist of having self-compassion, saying positive affirmations, allowing yourself to have forgiveness, finding ways to grow and learning new skills.

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Physical care includes establishing the right nutrition, hydration, exercise and sleep routine, maintaining good health and making sure substance use in moderation.

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Lifestyle habits are good time management, work-life balance, having leisure and hobbies, time for solitude and reflection, breaks from technology, connecting with nature and a positive home environment.

In our consumer-based culture, it is common for people to look outside of themselves to find things to make them feel better — including food, drugs and alcohol, relationships and material possessions. However, the way to have the most meaningful self-care is by improving your relationship with yourself. This involves prioritizing your health and well-being, letting go of undue guilt, maintaining a sense of forgiveness toward yourself and others and acting as your own loving parent, best friend and compassionate advocate.

True self-worth stems from treating yourself with loving kindness and realizing a deeper connection to your value rather than your possessions. As a bonus, cultivating self-worth through healthy practices actually leads to more money, not less.

An illustration of a young woman on her laptop looking for ways to sell items she doesn't use.

How to Treat Yourself and Manage Splurges

Treating yourself doesn’t have to leave you in the poor house. The following tips can help you manage spending habits and the urge to splurge.

Employ the 50-30-20 rule

There is a good rule of thumb when it comes to the so-called “save-spend-splurge” cycle. Simply track and divide your expenses into needs, wants and savings or debt. Allocate 50% of your income to rent, bills and groceries. Take 30% for more frivolous items like dining out and buying things that are not necessary. And keep the remaining 20% for your savings or debt. The 50-30-20 practice is a simple way to see where your money is going.

Splurge with intention

You can’t buy everything, but you can splurge occasionally. For example, you may enjoy going out with friends, going to concerts and taking vacations. To compensate for making purchases that you most love, determine whether you’d be comfortable making sacrifices like driving an older vehicle.

Take a good look at what you’ve got

Review your possessions because it’s likely you don’t need everything you have. Try to sell what you don’t use or wear on eBay or at a consignment store. Return items that gave you a thrill when you ordered them but quickly lost their luster. Then, look at your monthly bills. Are there areas where you could cut back? Maybe you can get rid of cable television or monthly subscriptions you no longer use. Setting financial goals can help.

Shift to a mindset of self-care, balance and holistic wellness

Many people are raised and socialized with a “work hard, play hard” mindset that can lead to clinical burnout and other mental, physical and relational health problems. Excessive drinking, late nights out and calorie-laden meals can actually lead to self-harm rather than self-care. Shift negative habits to ones that align with a truer practice of moderation and work-life balance. When you take time to replenish your mind, body and spirit in a healthy manner, you set yourself on a path to improve your life — and your finances.

Redefine success

Some people place their worth on their breadwinning capabilities or think success is about their career and financial achievements. Maintaining a holistic definition of success that includes positive mental and physical health, connected relationships and work-life balance can help you find a deeper sense of happiness. Complete and sustainable success comes from striking a balance between attention to yourself, your career, your family and your health.

Be mindful

Mindfulness can help you clarify your values and recognize what is meaningful, thereby reducing impulsive financial behavior, such as charging frivolous items on credit. Mindfulness practices also provide a reboot for the mind, body and spirit, helping you achieve higher productivity, creative thinking, improved problem-solving skills, higher emotional intelligence and a better work-life balance.

Keep adding to that piggy bank

Since credit cards are common and relatively easy to obtain, consumers can often overspend. Time some time to learn more about how credit cards work if you're not familiar with them.

There are psychological perks to saving money rather than buying something immediately with plastic. Saving up for your reward gives you something to look forward to, which creates excitement and dopamine release over time if you have reward credits cards. Consider your credit card as a short-term loan that is given to you as a courtesy. And keep yourself in check by making a renewed effort to add to your piggy bank.

Keep the Momentum Going

Remember that it’s always possible to learn how to treat yourself responsibly. Just like a healthy diet allows for the occasional cheat day (which actually keeps you satisfied and sticking to the overall plan), taking a break from your routine and treating yourself can give you a renewed sense of purpose. Self-care should always be your top priority. The more we restore and refuel our energy, the greater positive impact we can make on the world, both personally and professionally.

When splurging, simply remember to engage in sustainable financial practices such as:

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    Promoting your financial health and wellness through financial literacy

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    Owning your worth

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    Setting healthy financial boundaries at home and work

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    Keeping yourself in check

When you maintain a healthy balance between saving and spending, you will be able to assume better control over your life — and your finances.

Experts' Advice on the Psychology Behind Treating Yourself

In our fast-paced, achievement-driven society, self-care is often overshadowed by constant striving and productivity. However, experts agree that treating yourself is not just a frivolous indulgence but a necessary component of psychological well-being. Here's what the experts say about the importance and benefits of treating yourself.

  1. How can consumers manage their urges to splurge without completely denying themselves what they enjoy?
  2. What are the primary differences between self-care and indulgence that consumers often confuse?
Madhavi Menon, Ph.D.
Madhavi Menon, Ph.D.Professor of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University

About Joyce Marter

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Joyce Marter is a licensed psychotherapist with 25 years of experience and entrepreneur who founded and successfully sold Urban Balance, a national outpatient mental health company in the U.S. Marter is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University, international speaker, blogger for Psychology Today and mental health thought-leader specializing in the psychology of money.

Joyce Marter is routinely consulted as a mental health expert in the media, featured in such outlets as U.S. News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and MTV. Her book, The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life, was published by Sounds True in July of 2021 and has been featured in Business Insider, MoneyGeek, US Weekly, Thrive Global, Forbes and more.