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The Cost of Self-Forgiveness

When people spend more after forgiving themselves for past overspending.

Key points

  • Two studies assessed spending after recalling a past overspending incident.
  • Researchers found that self-forgiveness affected people differently depending on their beliefs about character.
  • Making peace with negative actions may give a person who believes change is easy the go-ahead to keep transgressing.

Have you ever regretted a purchase? Sometimes the desire to buy something overrules budget concerns or other constraints. When asked, most people have stories about buying an expensive item of clothing they did not really need, going on a trip when money was already tight, or having a lavish dinner that wasn’t really in the budget.

Sometimes these purchases result in people feeling very guilty about their spending behavior, such that these overspending experiences can be seen as a transgression against the self.

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash
Source: Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

People might forgive themselves for past overspending to different degrees like any transgression. Some might still beat themselves up when they bought something unplanned that blew up their budget, whereas others might have long forgiven themselves for an unnecessary purchase.


Forgiveness for others and the self is generally a good thing. Forgiveness allows people to let go of negative feelings, stop rumination and support a positive future-focused self-view.

However, sometimes forgiving yourself for negative past behaviors can perpetuate this behavior. For example, in the field of addictive behaviors, Michael Wohl and colleagues have found that self-forgiveness for smoking undermined readiness to quit, and self-forgiveness for problematic gambling was linked to less readiness to change.

How does self-forgiveness for this past behavior affect subsequent spending when spending too much money? In two studies assessing spending after recalling a past overspending incident, we found that self-forgiveness affected people differently depending on their beliefs about character.

Beliefs About Character

One belief about human nature that people hold to varying degrees is growth versus fixed mindsets. People who believe in growth believe that people can change relatively easily. In contrast, people with a more fixed mindset tend to believe in an essential character that is difficult or impossible to change.

Believing in change is generally a good thing. Growth beliefs prevent people from being discouraged by setbacks and facilitate practice and resilience.

When believing that change is not only possible but also easy, negative past behavior may no longer serve as a guide or a cautionary tale for future behavior. Past overspending might seem irrelevant to subsequent spending decisions for people with a strong growth mindset, especially when they have forgiven themselves.

How did self-forgiveness and beliefs about character predict future spending?

Photo from Tara Clark on Unsplash
grocery shopping
Source: Photo from Tara Clark on Unsplash

Two Shopping Trips

In one study, we asked 111 shoppers about to enter a large grocery store to recall a past overspending incident and to rate their self-forgiveness and beliefs. When they left the grocery store, we took pictures of their receipts to determine how much they had spent during the shopping trip.

Photo by firmbee on Unsplash
online survey
Source: Photo by firmbee on Unsplash

In a second study, we asked 266 people planning a shopping trip on the weekend to complete an online survey on a Friday. They recalled a past overspending incident and rated their self-forgiveness and beliefs.

After the weekend, participants uploaded pictures of their shopping trip receipts and reported how much money they had spent on the shopping.

In both studies, those with high growth beliefs spent more money during the shopping trip the more they forgave themselves for past overspending. For every one-point participants scored higher on the self-forgiveness scale, they spent about $8 more during the shopping trip (26 percent and 12 percent of the average overall shopping expense in the two studies, respectively).

Self-forgiveness was not linked to spending among those who believed in the essentialism of character.

In other words, those who held both generally positive beliefs of growth and exhibited the generally positive attitude of self-forgiveness spent more money after being reminded of past overspending.

How did two good things make one (potentially) a bad thing?

The costs of self-forgiveness may be specific to people who do not see past actions as implicating character. In other words, making peace with negative actions may give a person who believes change is easy the go-ahead to keep transgressing. Sometimes, letting go of the past might doom us to repeat it.

However, it is important to note that self-forgiveness and growth beliefs both might have experienced emotional benefits – they might have enjoyed shopping more or felt less bothered by past failures to control spending. Reducing spending is not the only or even most important consideration when shopping.

If spending reduction is an important goal, however, keeping past overspending incidents in mind and treating them as cautionary tales about one’s personality might help people control their spending.


Peetz, J., Davydenko, M., & Wohl, M. J. (2021). The cost of self-forgiveness: Incremental theorists spent more money after forgiving the self for past overspending. Personality and Individual Differences, 179, 110902.