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7 Reasons We Overspend (and How to Overcome Them)

Sandy M. Fernández  |  September 8, 2018

The first step is to get a plan so that you no longer buy on impulse or underestimate the true cost of what we buy. Here's how to overcome overspending.

It’s a common scenario. We walk into a store to get one simple thing — hamburger buns, a bottle of shampoo, a new charger for our phone — and end up leaving with two bags bulging full of, oh, whatever caught our eye. Sure, one little splurge won’t kill us (or our budget). But we Americans do it with frightening regularity: 80 percent of Americans are in debt. But it does beg the question: Why do some many of us consistently overspend?

Here are seven common reasons, and what we can do to stop.

We Buy On Impulse

A full 76% of the average shopper’s spending decisions are made in store aisles, according to a study by retail marketing group POPAI. And, no surprise here, 57% of shoppers end up shelling out more cash than they’d planned.

In-store decisions are vulnerable to in-the-moment variables — if you’re hungry, for example, you’re more likely to splurge at the grocery store—and have magical thinking like, Of course I’ll have time to whip up that dish this week.

To combat the urge to fill your cart, plan ahead. Write down what you’ll buy and how much you’ll spend. Want to be sure you’ll stick to your spending limit? Use cash. And only carry the amount you’ve decided to spend ahead of time into the store.

We Don’t Have a Budget

A recent survey from U.S. found only 41 percent of Americans track their expenses against a household budget every month—meaning they might have little idea how much they should be spending on categories like food, entertainment and clothing. Without that number, it’s easy to get lured into this dinner out or that cute pair of pants—on sale!—and not even realize you’re in the hole until too late.


We Use Credit Too Often

When you count out dollar bills while making a purchase, you tend to be very aware of how much money you’re letting go — scientists who study consumer behavior call this “the pain of payment.” Not so when you slap down the plastic: it’s so easy, you don’t even have to look at the figures before signing your name. This might be why relying on credit cards leads to overspending. When scientists asked 30 people to predict that month’s credit card balance, all 30 got it wrong — on average underestimating by 30 percent.

You should: Pay off your balance every month, and never use more than a third of your credit card limit.

We Underestimate Little Expenses

Most people know off hand the amount they pay for rent, car payments, utilities and other big expenses per month. But it’s those not-a-big-deal amounts like dinners, take-out, gas, coffee, etc. that can really sneak up on your wallet.

You should: To limit their effect, have everyone in the family write down all expenditures for a month. Then have a family meeting to disclose your spending.

We Don’t Have Enough Savings

A recent Bankrate survey found 20 percent of Americans have no savings and another 21 percent save less than 5 percent of their checks.

That means that when the car breaks down or the roof needs a sudden repair, they’re left scrambling for a loan, reaching for a credit card or taking away from higher priority needs like food or utility bills.

You should: Put 10 percent of take-home pay into savings each month. At the end of a year, you’ll have a little more than one month’s salary socked away, which should be enough to sustain you through most short-term events.

We Like To Be Part of the Gang

Because humans are social creatures, it’s hard to say no when your coworkers are going out for drinks after work, or friends come over and want to spring for a pizza. It’s also easy to fall into the habit of judging your spending by that of those around you. If the woman who shares your cubicle (and your work title) has a pair of Tory Burch flats, or the mom next door has a mini-van, you should be able to afford them too, right?

You should: Make a point of sharing your financial goals with like-minded friends, you can help each other achieve them. It’s much easier with friends to cheer you on.

We Think We’re Supposed to Have Debt

If you carry a credit card balance each month, or are saddled with seemingly endless student loan debt, adding here and there might not feel like a big deal. It might even feel like a valuable investment: A study found that, among young people ages 18 to 27, credit card and college loan debt correlated with higher self-esteem and a greater sense of control over one’s life.

But here’s the kicker: That feeling faded as respondents got older — and likely realized how much and how long they’d be paying that money off.

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