The Why Behind the Buy

Understanding consumerism and why we buy

5 Mental Mistakes that Sabotage Spending Resolutions

Five commonly used spending control tactics that consistently backfire

When Bridget decided to get her shopping and spending under control she started with a tearful declaration to her boyfriend. "I told him that I was a problem spender and asked him to help me get it under control." Together they decided that she wouldn't buy anything at all except for groceries. Four weeks later she clicked on an email link for a three-hour blowout sale and impulsively purchased a pair of shoes. This started a spending binge that resulted in even greater debt than what she had when she started her campaign.

Despite her best intentions, Bridget made several decisions that nearly guaranteed she'd stumble at some point.

1. She labeled herself a "problem spender." A better method is for a person to identify with the strength and resolve they have in other parts of their lives and to label previous over-spending as a mistake they will choose not to make in the future. It's a powerful mental shift away from defensiveness and reactivity toward personal power and control.

2. She shared responsibility and control with her boyfriend. Because of this, satisfying her boyfriend became the goal, rather than altering her spending. We see this in dieters who sneak treats when their spouses aren't looking. A better method is to state your intentions and ask that supporters simply respect your new boundaries - the kinds of things you need to do to avoid spending like skipping coffee runs or avoiding malls.

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3. Her goal was a negative one - to stopping spending. It's easier to accomplish positive goals that involve getting something rather than stopping something. An easier goal to accomplish might have been a monthly reduction in her credit card bill. Of course she'd have to stop spending to get there but her focus would have been on what she was getting, not just what she was giving up.

4. She went cold turkey. The fact is that people need to buy things. While drastic reductions in spending are certainly possible, forgoing all spending often results in a slip-up. Once that happens people view themselves as failures, and once that happens they often give in completely.

5. She exposed herself to temptation. Retail email campaigns and deal-a-day programs put people in the position of making purchase decisions on a regular basis. They're more insidious than visiting a mall because time pressure elevates the need to act. Anyone serious about limiting their spending will cancel every single retail email subscription.

Kit Yarrow is a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco.

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