7 Ways to Resist Buying Things You Can’t Afford

Molly Triffin  |  September 5, 2018

You can have good intentions about making smart money decisions, but it still may be hard to resist buying things that will cause you to overspend.

Does this scenario sound familiar? You’re at Bloomingdale’s and fall in love with a sleek wrap dress that’s out of your price range. Still, on a whim, you try it on for fun — not intending to buy it, of course. Then the salesperson gushes about how great you look in it (she’s right, you know), and the next thing you know you’re heading to the register. Or, how about this? You log onto Amazon to order a sippy cup, click on one of their “Featured Recommendations” out of curiosity, and when you finally check out half an hour later, your cart is loaded with everything from fringed moccasins to a kid-sized vacuum.

You may have the best intentions about budgeting and making smart money decisions, but even the most careful planners can get swept up in the moment. Keep reading for seven easy, actionable steps you can take to shut down that urge to splurge.

Identify What You’re Feeling

Many people shop as an emotional response to a certain situation — for instance, to boost your mood after a fight with a friend or a stressful day at work. So before you whip out your credit card, ask yourself: How am I feeling? “Reflecting on your state of mind helps you step outside of yourself and identify how your emotions are influencing your purchasing decisions,” says Maggie Baker, author of “Crazy About Money: How Emotions Confuse Our Money Choices and What to Do About It.” “Ask yourself if you actually need this thing, or do you just want to feel better?”

Understanding the distinction can help put the brakes on overspending by diminishing the impact of your emotions. “Overspending is always tied to our emotional lives — people either work things out or act them out,” explains Julie Murphy Casserly, a certified financial planner and author of “The Emotion Behind Money.” “Look at what’s going on in your internal infrastructure that’s driving you to seek instant gratification.” Calling up a friend or meditating can help you sort through them more effectively than pulling out your wallet, and you won.

Snap Out of It

It might sound strange, but employing a physical cue when you’re tempted to spend — pinching yourself, say, or wearing a hair band around your wrist and snapping it — can help you break the buy-buy-buy cycle. “This technique acts as an internal monitor reminding you to stop and think before making a purchase,” says Baker. Over time, you can develop a neural association with the pinching or wrist-pinging that will automatically shut down the shopping desire in your brain.

The physical sensation also helps to jolt you back to your senses. “It creates pain in the face of the intense pleasure of buying,” explains Baker. “And the more senses you employ in the effort to resist spending, the stronger the effect will be because you’re getting more of your neural circuitry involved.”

To get even greater results, add additional senses into the mix. Casserly suggsts putting a picture that represents one of your financial goals (the dream home you’re saving for, a photo of your kid whose college fund you’re building up) as the background on your phone or computer, and giving it a glance when you’re craving instant shopping gratification. Say out loud, “Do I really need this?” mid-shopathon. Now you’ve gotten your physical, auditory, and visual senses on board to disrupt budget-busting thought patterns — which packs a powerful punch.

Do the Math

It’s easy to shell out a hundred bucks for a sweater without thinking much about it. But putting that sum into context can give you a whole new perspective on what it’ll cost you. “Pause for a moment and figure out how long it would take you to earn the money you’re about to spend,” says Baker. If you make $20 an hour, say, then that top equals five hours of work — more than half a day’s pay. So… is it really worth it?

Another trick is to write down everything that you spend. Before opening up your wallet, make a note of the amount you’re about to shell out. Seeing the expense in writing makes it feel more real. “You can exempt yourself from fiscal accountability if it’s just in your head,” explains Baker. “You’ll be better equipped to resist the shopping pull when the figure is printed right front of you, and you can visualize how quickly it adds up.”

Ask Yourself This Question Before Clicking Buy

“What are you grateful for?” Hone in on one amazing thing you have going for you — be it your kids, career or lovable golden retriever. Research from Northeastern University found that focusing on what you’re thankful for can help you exert more willpower.

In the study, participants were divided into three groups: One was asked to write about an experience from their past that made them feel happy, another about a time when they felt grateful, the third group about a neutral occasion. People were then asked to select between receiving $54 now or $80 in 30 days. Those asked to concentrate on gratitude exhibited more willpower to resist instant gratification and hold out for the more lucrative offer than did participants in the other two groups. Researchers suggest this may be because gratitude lends us a sense of fulfillment. “Showing that emotion can foster self-control and discovering a way to reduce impatience with a simple gratitude exercise opens up tremendous possibilities for reducing…impulse buying,” says study coauthor Ye Lin.

Disincentivize Spending

One of the strongest ways to change a negative behavior is to make the outcome of your actions extremely distasteful. Start by picking a cause you don’t believe in — like the opposing political party. Then, strike a tough deal with yourself: For every dollar that you spend over and above your monthly budget, you must give 50 cents to that organization. (Even better: Share the terms of the agreement with someone who’s close to you and will help keep you accountable.) “This shakes you up because it targets your sense of self,” explains Baker. It goes against some of your deepest values, which (can) be a persuasive reason to keep your wallet in your purse.

Try the 24-Hour Rule

Whenever I feel tempted to indulge in retail therapy, I use a self-imposed “24-Hour Rule.” I set the item aside or save it in my online shopping cart and wait until the next day. If I’m still lusting after the platform wedges/cropped jacket/casserole dish in the morning, I’ll spring for it…but 99 percent of the time I’ve completely forgotten about it. You can also install a time-delay add-on for certain websites that trigger impulse buying — try Crackbook on Google Chrome, or LetGo for Firefox. “Anything that interrupts the urge for instant gratification is valuable,” affirms Casserly.

Clean Your Office

The next time you feel like getting your Net-a-Porter on, first take a quick break and organize your desk — stack papers into neat piles, and toss any odds and ends into drawers. It sounds random, but there’s scientific evidence that tidying up can keep splurging at bay. Research published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that people were more likely to impulse buy if they were in a disorganized room compared to an orderly environment. In the study, participants were placed in a room that was either messy or organized, and asked how they felt about paying for items like a TV, air conditioner or ski trip. Those in the cluttered setting were more likely to purchase products compared to those in the neat room.

“We propose that people in a disorganized environment experience a threat to their sense of personal control,” say coauthors Boyoun (Grace) Chae and Rui (Juliet) Zhen. And of course, a lack of self-control is an inherent cause of an over-the-top shopping spree. “It’s easy to spend money,” says Baker. “It requires much more mental effort and focus to restrain yourself from going after something you really want.”

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