You have your shopping list. Your cart is full. Just as you get to the register, it catches your eye. Maybe it’s a bag of chips in a fun new flavor or a travel-sized eyeshadow compact. It’s just an extra $5, $10 or $15. It’s no big deal.
The truth is, those little purchases — the throwaways, the add-ons — add up. Americans spend up to $5,400 on impulse buys each year, according to a 2018 study by the coupon website Slickdeals. The site, which polled 2,000 consumers about their spending habits, found they make around three impulsive purchases a week, adding up to $450 a month.
That’s a lot of money for things that you didn’t really think you needed before you saw them.
So why do we fall into the trap of impulse buying? Shopping gives us a buzz. The act of spending money, especially on a gift for someone else, activates serotonin levels in our brains. But just as we try to be judicious with life’s other pleasures, such as drinking or gambling, there are ways to keep our impulsive spending in check.
Jeff Kreisler, the co-author of the behavioral science book “Dollars and Sense,” offered some ways to reframe our buying practices so that we can shop with our brains (and not with our brain’s chemicals).
Rethink shopping on sale
There’s nothing wrong with a good sale — if it’s an item that’s already on your shopping list. If you need paper towels and there’s a two-for-one sale on your favorite brand, it makes sense to go for it. But if it’s something that catches your eye in a store window or in a brand’s email alert for a Fall Fashion Clearance, you may want to think about whether you’re “saving” or just plain spending.
“People will see a shirt marked down from $100 to $60, and they imagine they’re saving,” Kreisler says. “But they’re saving imaginary money. That’s $60 leaving your wallet that you wouldn’t have spent otherwise.”
Increase the pain of paying
Swipe it, tap it, one-click, and it’s yours. When spending is effortless, you don’t feel the impact on your wallet. That is, until your credit card statement comes and you wonder where all your money went.
Credit cards and mobile payment services “make spending very easy,” Kreisler says.
Yes, it’s becoming more and more of a cashless world. But keeping cash in your wallet gives you physical evidence that you’ve spent it. You can see the loss and feel it. You’re probably more likely to keep swiping your credit or debit card than make another trip to the ATM to take out more money.
Keeping cash on hand and paying with it when you can helps you feel the “pain of paying” — and can go a long way to help you spend more thoughtfully.
Don’t pay for “effort”
Certain words or actions can make buying ordinary goods and services seem special. A $2 bag of plain old tortilla chips may be easy to resist. But paying $4.50 for “Gourmet Artisan” tortilla chips somehow feels like a better and more satisfying purchase.
But what does artisan even mean? That is has “hand-cut” edges? Different spices? Really, it’s mostly a nebulous term to trick you into thinking you’re paying more for a product that has more effort put into it.
“Think about websites that make a big deal of showing progress bars and sound effects that make you think they’re thoughtfully crunching numbers and data,” said Kreisler. “These calculations can be done fairly instantaneously. But you’re paying for the effort they seem to be doing on your behalf.”
Maybe the manufacturer wants you to believe that elves are hand-dusting your chips with flakes of cheddar, but really, I doubt it. Ask yourself if a product’s “effort” is worth it to you.
Think about your repeat purchases
Think about your fixed costs each month. Maybe there’s a gym membership, a cable bill, magazine subscriptions, a streaming service. If you’ve been paying for them month in and month out, you may want to examine why. Ask yourself whether it’s a need or a habit?
Personal finance experts are always yelling at us to cut out that $5 latte every day. There’s some wisdom in that, but not in the way that you think. It’s always good to ask yourself if you’re buying that latte every morning because it’s just what you do every morning.
Hide money from yourself
You can’t spend what isn’t readily available. Kreisler recommends setting up another savings account other than the one you where keep your emergency fund.
Here’s an example: Say you receive a paycheck each week for $700. Immediately (or automatically, if you can) transfer a portion of that money to your Secret Savings account. That way, you only have so much money to spend on discretionary purchases each week.
Back to tortilla chips. “People are more likely to eat an entire bag of chips if it’s in front of them,” Kreisler says. “But they’re less likely to eat six small bags of chips. Every time you have to open a new bag, you’re presented with the choice (and maybe the guilt) of eating the next serving.”
Sure, you can transfer money from your Secret Savings account to your checking account if you want. But the effort of doing that will give you pause. You’ll actually think about what you’re dipping into your Secret Savings account for. A surprise doctor’s office copay? That totally makes sense. Another round of drinks at the bar? Well, it’s up to you whether it’s worth logging into your banking app and manually making that transfer.
There’s no need to put yourself on a strict no-spend diet. Instead, consider employing a thoughtful strategy around your finances to get what you really want, and not what you’re being told you need.
Lindsay Goldwert is a journalist and host of Spent podcast. She is the author of Bow Down: Lessons from Dominatrixes on How to Get Everything You Want. Opinions are her own.