Science has now confirmed what many people — particularly many women — could have told you long ago. Shopping makes you feel good. Maybe even (as the Yoplait commercial might say) foot-massage good or first-kiss good. In other words, happy.
That's because the act of shopping, particularly the act of buying something you really want, brings on a rush of dopamine, what scientists call the brain's pleasure chemical. "It's a little like falling in love," says New York psychotherapist April Lane Benson, editor of "I Shop Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self" (Jason Aronson, 2000). Now scientists are trying to measure exactly how happy a little retail therapy can actual make us. One London-based research firm is using EEGs to measure shoppers' reactions, Benson notes.
Unfortunately, what's good for your psyche might not be so good for your wallet. Besides, other scientific research — this batch from Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert — shows that those feelings of happiness tend to be fleeting. Why? Because we, as humans, are not particularly good at knowing what purchases will and won't make us happy longer term. Which is all the more reason to try to keep your shopping jones at bay.
The question is: How? Benson and Olivia Mellan, a Washington, D.C., psychotherapist and author of "Overcoming Overspending: A Winning Plan for Spenders and their Partners" (Walker & Company, 1997), helped me come up with five great ways to start.
Monitor your moods. It's easier to go overboard with the plastic and the cash when your resources are lacking. In other words, while you may on a normal day be able to walk past the beautiful black boots in the window of a department store, you might not be able to resist if you've just had a fight with your husband, a bad meeting with your boss or a glass of wine with a girlfriend. Those are the times to steer clear of stores entirely.
Notice which environments get you going. Pull out your most recent credit card bill and take a look at when you did the most damage. Was it at lunchtime in the stores surrounding your office tower? Was it rushing like a madwoman at the mall because it was an hour before closing? Was it at your home computer in the middle of the night? Once you know your shopping weaknesses, you can make every attempt to avoid them. Schedule actual lunches with friends or colleagues so that you won't have time to shop. Unsubscribe from e-mail lists from your favorite retail Web sites so their constant offers of "15 percent off handbags" or "free shipping" won't be overly tempting.
Focus on the long term. Let's say you didn't spend that $90 on a cashmere sweater, $45 on dinner or $300 on a weekend away ... what reward awaits you a year or two down the road? Might it be a new car? A fabulous two-week vacation? A down payment on a new house? Having larger financial goals and knowing what it will take for you to reach them is key in convincing yourself not to nickel-and-dime your way through life. "Put a picture in your wallet of what you're wishing for," Mellan suggests. "That way every time you go to pay for something it will be staring you in the face."
Swap in a cheaper substitute. There are times, and I know this from personal experience, when you just have to buy something. So just make it something small. You may be tempted to resuscitate your entire makeup case. Instead buy a fabulous lipstick. You're eyeing a new dress to wear out Saturday night? Buy a great belt and put it around an old one. And you don't really need a new MP3 player, do you? Perhaps a few downloaded songs for your old one would do the trick.
Find little tricks to play on yourself. The small purchase instead of the large one is just one example of a little game you can play to avoid overspending. There are others, too. Go into a store, try on everything you want and then — if you're still not sated — take the items up to the counter and put them on hold. A day or two later, most will likely have slipped your mind. Rally your girlfriends to shop with you, telling them the object today is to see how much money you can not spend. Or head to the stores with enough to pay for bus fare — and nothing else.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today" show and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including 2004's "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio). To find out more, visit her Web site, .