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7 Psychological Triggers That Cause Spending

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Several years ago, I decided to go on a shopping diet, so for an entire month, I didn’t buy a stitch of clothing. While that might seem like a cinch for some of you, for shopaholics like me, it was a huge wake-up call. 

Not only did I save a ton of money, but I was also able to see how often I shopped as a reaction to outside stimulus. Bad day at work? I had the urge to shop. Worried I might miss a sale? I had the urge to shop. Bored? Oh yeah, I definitely got the urge to shop.

Let’s face it: When you’re a psychological spender, you know you’ll buy something before you even enter a store. Spending to fill a void or achieve certain feelings can seriously bust your personal budget and cause you to buy things you don’t even need.

Shopping can be a deeply psychological experience, and you probably have shopping triggers that give you that itchy credit card finger long before you ever step into a store. 

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Psychological Triggers of Spending

After my month without shopping, I had a lighter closet but a greater awareness of my own shopping triggers. Knowing what drives me to spend means I’m more mindful of the phenomenon occurring in the future and can combat boredom with something other than a trip to the shoe store. 

Some of the most common psychological triggers for shopping may ring true with your own spending style.

1. Shopper’s High

They say that after running, you get a runner’s high. I’m definitely not a runner, so I’ve never experienced one. But it’s attributed to the release of dopamine that occurs after you’re done with your run. And those who love to shop can attain the same high through the act of buying.

A 2014 research study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that “retail therapy” not only makes people happier immediately, but it can also reduce lingering sadness. And another 2014 study from the University of Michigan found that buying things you personally enjoy can make you three times happier than simply browsing.

It’s clear that shopping is associated with good feelings. But it comes at a cost.

Solution: If you find yourself reaching for your credit card to feel good, take part in other activities that give you the same feelings instead. 

You don’t have to run for a runner’s high — even staunch non-runners like myself can score those happy endorphins through other types of exercise, such as yoga or kickboxing. Spending time with your pet can also make you feel good and reduce your need to shop to be happy.

One thing I do when I get the urge to shop is to head to the drugstore for a smaller purchase, such as new lip gloss. It helps satisfy the urge and gives me the same satisfaction as a bigger purchase. But you can find free or low-cost things that give you satisfaction, such as reading a book, going for a walk, or grabbing appetizers with friends, and you’ll get the same good feelings without the high price.

2. Competition

There’s a reason Black Friday is the biggest shopping day of the year, and it definitely isn’t because people love waking up early to fight off crowds. Black Friday preys on your competitive human nature. 

When big sales come up or a sale states that there are only a limited number of items available, your brain tells you that you need to be there and you need to win. 

When you beat other shoppers to score a deal on that doorbuster, it makes you feel better about yourself, just as though you won a board game or sporting event.

You might also allow competition to cause you to buy things you can’t afford, especially if a family member, friend, or neighbor already has it. It’s the classic keeping up with the Joneses.

Solution: Shopping isn’t a game, and there aren’t winners and losers. Stores know that telling you about limited quantities will get people in the store, so think about whether you’re buying something because you really need it or because you want to “win at shopping.” 

Let’s be honest — the biggest winners are those who buy only what they need and keep the rest of their money in their wallets.

3. The Idea of Saving

Your brain does a funny thing when perusing sales: When you see a sign that says “Save 50%!” it begins focusing on the savings rather than the spending. 

In fact, it’s a common sentiment you’ll hear at any grocery or department store. As you check out, the sales associate might say, “You saved $43.78 today!” You might have even used coupons or added discounts from a store loyalty card to increase that savings number.

You feel good about being a savvy shopper, right? Unfortunately, your brain has fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book. The store made you focus on what you’re saving rather than what you’re spending.

But they’re unlikely to stop anytime soon.

Consider the experience of mega-retailer JCPenney. In 2012, CEO Ron Johnson decided to try something new. He revamped the store’s image by putting an end to what he called “fake pricing,” which referred to psychological pricing that ended in $0.99, clearance buys, and pricing that was discounted from a clearly inflated number.

In theory, it sounded nice. In practice, customers weren’t buying it — literally. Sales plummeted, and a few months later, sales were back and so were the clearance racks. By 2013, Johnson had lost his job, and JCPenney completely returned to its old pricing system.

Solution: You never save money by spending it. Sure, promotions, sales, and coupons can give you a lower total, but you’re still spending money to purchase goods. 

Don’t fall into the trap of spending just because you want to save a certain amount. One thing I use to combat clearance fever is to step back and ask myself, “Would I buy this if it weren’t on sale?” If the answer is no, I put it back and move on. 
The best way to save is with a savings account, not a store receipt. If you wouldn’t have bought it without the discount, put it back.

4. Retail Therapy

While on my shopping fast, I realized just how often shopping acted as a coping tool for various emotions. Happy, sad, annoyed, tired, mad, bored — it all culminated in shopping. Buying things feels good, so it can combat a bevy of feelings. 

According to a 2016 shopping survey conducted on behalf of Rakuten (formerly Ebates), 96% of adults participate in retail therapy, and 85% admitted it makes them feel better. 

Solution: Honestly, hitting the mall when you’re in a bad mood might not be a life-or-death situation, but it still affects your budget and doesn’t allow you to completely deal with your emotions. 

You’re relying on dopamine to help you feel better when you buy, but it’s only a short-term fix. Rather than heading to the mall, find other ways to cope — writing in a journal, talking to a friend, starting a blog, or even seeing a therapist can all be more beneficial than spending to feel better.

If you feel like a trip to the mall is going to help put a bad day behind you, open your budget. If you don’t have a budget set up yet, create one using a budgeting app like Personal Capital or Mint. 

Once you’ve looked over your budget, you should remember what you really want your money to do for you: create long-term happiness by helping to work toward your financial goals.

5. Perceived Value

Perceived value is all about what you think you’re getting for the money. In other words, how much do you value one product in a category over another, and what are you willing to pay for it? There are many ways you decide what products are worth, and it’s not always through using the product. 

Companies tell you what to think of their products through advertising. Bloggers tell you what to think of products through reviews and blog posts. You learn which products are “best” from friends and society (especially celebrities). You may be an adult who has or hasn’t watched Saturday morning cartoons in a decade or more, but it’s the same old story: advertising and peer pressure.

In this case, you may be buying something you technically need, such as food or clothing. But you’re lured into buying when you don’t need to or spending more than you intended by the siren song of perceived value.

It can be particularly intoxicating when the good stuff is on sale, even if the competitor is still cheaper. You reason you’re getting something “better” for less that it’s worth. Meanwhile, a similar or identical product with a different brand name is sitting right there for 25% less.

Consider grocery shopping. Many store-brand groceries contain exactly the same or similar ingredients and taste as good as (or better than) comparable name-brand products. For example, some consumers think Kroger’s peanut butter tastes better than most store brands and comparable to Jif. And Costco’s Kirkland pecans and walnuts are just as good if not superior to most of what you can find in the average supermarket.

Some store brands are even often manufactured by name brands. General Mills makes Aldi’s Millville cereals, and the Millville Cinnamon Crunch Squares taste just like Cinnamon Toast Crunch for half the price. Similarly, Sara Lee makes Great Value (Walmart) bread and Huggies makes Kirkland’s diapers. And these are just a few examples. 

And it isn’t just an issue with lower-end merchandise like groceries. We revere diamonds and pay a premium for them because they tell us how special they are on TV, and since the rest of society buys into it, people echo the myth, creating a vicious cycle of overspending. Yet diamonds aren’t actually all that rare. Rather, we believe they are thanks to deceptive marketing by the De Beers company on behalf of the diamond cartel. They even invented the diamond engagement ring out of thin air in the 1930s. 

Solution: How we value something really is all a matter of perception. And retailers know how to play on our perceptions through elaborate marketing campaigns. In fact, the primary reason store-brand groceries are so much cheaper than the name brands is because they don’t need extensive advertising budgets. 

But you don’t need to financially support their marketing campaigns, nor do you need to buy the products your friends or celebrities buy — they don’t get to spend your money. 

Instead, the next time you’re comparing two similar products — and their prices — compare them on their merits. If the less expensive smartphone or cereal has everything you want or need, it’s just as valuable to you as the pricier product. 

Or try a store brand that’s similar to a name-brand product you regularly buy. If you hate it, you only have to buy it once. If not, you can save yourself a lot of money over the year.

If there is a difference, consider how you’ll be using the product and whether the superior brand matters. For example, you can buy quality olive oil for dipping bread and olive oil-forward recipes like dressings or oil-based sauces. But buy the cheap stuff if you only use it for sauteing. Or buy both and save the good stuff for the right time.

Also, don’t buy diamond engagement rings. They’re not a real thing.

6. Leisure & Boredom

One of the psychological spending traps I’m most guilty of is spending out of boredom. During my shopping fast, my in-laws took my kids for the weekend with the rest of the family, and I had two glorious free days to myself. My first inclination? Go shopping.

Hey, I had free time and I was bored, so naturally, spending money was my first-choice activity. Shopping is a pleasant endeavor that keeps you busy, so it’s often substituted for other more fulfilling activities.

Solution: Because I was on my shopping diet, I tried something new instead: catching up on my DVR list. I had tons of content saved, so I used my quiet time to catch up on TV shows and watch some saved movies. It was free and just as enjoyable as shopping.

If you’re a leisure shopper, think of other activities you can sub for shopping and have them ready to go. That way, when you feel like a free afternoon automatically means a trip to the shoe store, you’re ready with a better alternative.

7. Panic Buys

Flash sales like Woot, Meh, Groupon, or even Amazon’s Lightning or Prime Day deals use your sense of panic to make you buy, especially because deals are often short-lived. 

When you nab a special deal on a watch or buy into a group restaurant coupon, you feel a sense of relief because you’re one of the lucky few to score the deal. But buying into flash sales can make you spend needlessly, especially when you’re buying stuff you didn’t even want before it was on sale.

Solution: As a reformed flash sale user myself, the best thing I ever did was unsubscribe to all the daily emails. Seeing them pop up every day led me to browsing, which usually led me to buying. 

Now, if I’m looking for a specific deal, I can check in with each site individually rather than having the deals delivered to me each day. Targeted spending means I save money and am no longer tempted by the panic I’d feel when I see a flash deal.

Final Word

We’re all guilty of psychological spending. The problem is that retailers know it and find ways to play mind games to get you to spend. 

It’s all about knowing your triggers. If you know what drives you to spend, you can put safeguards in place to curb that spending. Then you can replace it with something more rewarding and easier on your wallet that lets you improve your mood without spending a dime.

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