You’ve tried to curb your spending problem but somehow nothing helps. You blame it on your good mood, your bad mood, the sunny weather and the crummy weather, and even the sumptuous lives of Instagram celebrities you follow.
So let’s be honest — there’s no predictable pattern to your impulse spending, other than two consistent feelings:
- The uncontrollable urge to reach for your credit card once you decide life isn’t complete without that handbag/kitchen appliance/bike accessory.
- The sickening feeling in the pit of your stomach when the credit-card statement arrives.
Restraining the urge to spend is never easy. We live in a culture of consumption where our senses are constantly stimulated in ways that encourage us to spend. One recent U.S. survey found that the average American spends $450 (U.S.) a month — $5,400 (U.S.) a year — on unplanned purchases. As a behavioural economist, and someone who has previously helped retailers devise tactics to encourage you to open your wallet, I can assure you Canadians aren’t much different. I can, however, provide some advice on how to resist those tactics. But first let me shed a little light on why we spend impulsively.
I asked a few friends what they believed to be the cause of their last impulse purchase. Some said they shop when they’re stressed, others said they shop when they’re bored or when they see a great discount. Me? Almost all of my shopping happens online, when I am at home feeling tired or sick. I’ll order a bunch of stuff but then realize it’s nothing special by the time it arrives. I’ll usually keep it anyway, since it seems like more trouble to send it back.
The common thread is something known as ego depletion. This is the idea that our self control or willpower is drawn from a limited pool of mental resources. When we expend any kind of mental energy, we draw from that pool, reducing our capacity for self-control. Think about the last time you made an impulse purchase. Can you remember what else happened that day? Did you do a hard workout? Have a frustrating day at work? Eat a salad instead of a burger? All of these things — and less — can overexert our ability to self-regulate, leaving us in a depleted state and lacking the willpower to resist temptation or make rational decisions.
A 2007 experiment conducted at the University of British Columbia highlighted the effects of ego depletion on our spending decisions. In the study, a group of students were asked to perform a tedious task (in this case an oral presentation drawn from a book of biographies), while another group simply read aloud from a script. Each person was given $10, which they could take home or spend on a variety of snacks. Those who had performed the more mentally-demanding task reported stronger urges to spend their cash, and did in fact spend more money on unhealthy snacks.
In the same way, many of us find that after a long day, our self-control is too weak to restrain us from the immediate satisfaction of something new and shiny. The best way to replenish your self-control is to get some rest. If napping isn’t in the cards grab a snack and watch a few minutes of Seinfeld. It sounds suspiciously easy but studies found that a positive mood, induced by watching funny videos, can counteract ego depletion. Studies have also shown that our decision making is powered by glucose and when glucose levels are reduced, our self-control is subsequently impaired. One study found this can easily be reversed by drinking sugary lemonade.
There’s another common cause of impulse shopping: It’s called future discounting. Psychologists have long known that we significantly value “now” more than “later,” preferring immediate gratification over delayed rewards. It’s very difficult to make a decision in favour of our future selves, so instead we shop. Research has shown that the strongest predictor of smart financial decision making isn’t financial literacy, but rather how we think about the future.
Keith Chen, an associate professor of economics at UCLA Anderson School of Management, has found that people who speak certain non-English languages are better at saving money. That’s because the grammatical structure of some languages encourages people to think more or less about the future every time they speak. For instance, English speakers use different words to talk about the present and the future, allowing our brains to dissociate one from the other. Chinese and German speakers, on the other hand, do not use words that distinguish the present from the future. Mr. Chen correlates this propensity for future-oriented thinking with better savings rates (as well as eating habits, exercise and condom use).
So how does this help you on Friday at 3 p.m., when your brain tells you to browse for a new outfit for the wedding you’re attending on the weekend? The best way to make a better financial decision in the here and now is to get more acquainted with your future self. Spend time thinking about what you want for yourself in the future. Imagine where you’ll be living, who you’ll be with and how you’ll feel. This will help make that person feel less a distant stranger and more familiar — more like you.
Some research has even shown that smartphone apps that use your camera to reflect a comically aged version of yourself can have more value than just being funny. In one case, participants who were shown a picture of their face digitally altered to look 50 years older said they would contribute 30 per cent more to their retirement than those who saw an unchanged image of their face.
So before you make an impulsive purchase, stop to think of the trade-offs your future self might have to make to afford it. Repeatedly buying those new articles of clothing you’re only lukewarm on might be the difference in a new kitchen renovation down the road. And if you’re not so good at using your imagination? Consider setting your phone’s background to that wrinkled grey photo of yourself.