Last fall, I was standing in line in a J.Crew, clutching two pairs of socks.
Exhausted from my work day, I had driven to the store to find some comfort-a little pick-me-up, something to make me feel better after a stressful day. I had found those two pairs of socks, each adorned with a festive critter.
I got in line, excited by the prospect of this new purchase. I imagined how they’d enhance my outfits, how dapper I’d look in them.
The woman in front of me had a rather complicated return, and it took longer than usual for me to get to the check out. As I stood there, I felt that initial wave of pleasure drain away, and (perfectly reasonable) doubts take its place: Did I need any more “novelty” socks? I would probably just lose them in a few months, if not weeks. And they were men’s socks (the men’s department always has a better selection) and probably wouldn’t even fit my feet.
The joy I had felt just moments before was now replaced by preemptive disappointment: In my hands were too-big socks that would flop all over my feet before I eventually lost them in the laundry. Such terrible food, and in such small portions.
As discreetly as I could, I ducked out of line, deposited the socks back on their rack, and left the store. My disappointment was soon replaced by relief that I hadn’t spent money on something I didn’t need or even want.
Spending less-or even just spending smarter-is a key part of financial stability. In a recent survey, it was the most popular financial resolution for 2017. Yet many of us struggle to control our impulses, and end up frustrated when we spend more than we make, and end up in debt.
The science behind why we shop
Shopping makes us feel good because it triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical in the brain that creates feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Dopamine is triggered by new, exciting, and even challenging experiences. Think of the high you feel when your team wins the big game, or you nail an important presentation at work-that’s dopamine getting you all riled up.
But theses surges of euphoria (or terror, should the stimulus be exciting in a bad way) don’t last very long-sometimes just a few milliseconds.
An important thing about dopamine, however-especially when it comes to shopping-is that dopamine is triggered more by the anticipation of an event than by the event itself.
In a study, researchers trained monkeys to recognize a signal (a flashing light) and perform an action (press a button 10 times), knowing at the end they would receive a reward. They measured how much dopamine was released in the monkeys’ brains during the experiment, and, even more importantly, when it was released.
They found that the dopamine started as soon as the monkeys saw the signal, and ended just as they were pressing the button for the 10th time.
Dopamine is also activated by uncertainty. In the same study, scientists ran the experiment again but with a crucial change: Instead of always getting a treat, the monkeys were only rewarded 50 percent of the time.
The result? Their dopamine levels leading up to the big reveal doubled. This makes sense, in a way: After all, you wouldn’t be as pumped about the championship game if you knew for certain that the star player was definitely going to make that last-minute basket, would you?
Dopamine is described as a predicted rewards system. It gets us excited by the prospect of getting something, which motivates us to go out and get it. Once we’ve got that reward? Meh.
That’s perhaps why my joy in my new socks drained away once I had a few moments to consider it as I stood in line. I had been excited by getting them and, once I had them, that excitement faded and reality crept back in.
Delayed gratification and online shopping
If uncertainty adds to your dopamine high, then you can see how online shopping might really light up your nucleus accumbens.
After all, online shopping draws out that pleasurable anticipation and uncertainty for days after you’ve made the initial purchase (and gotten that little rush of dopamine). First, you excitedly check your email to see if your item’s been shipped. Then, you check the tracking to watch its progress as it makes its way across the country-or even the world-to get to your door. Finally, you race home to find the package sitting on your front porch. You cut open the box, rip open the packaging, and, voila! It’s a book or a sweater or a new laptop charger.
It’s easy to get into a habit of online purchases-once you’ve run through the anticipation cycle once, it’s only natural to want to hit that pleasure button again, just like the monkeys in the study.
So how do we fight against our dopamine-motivated instincts to buy and shop and make ourselves feel better? Here are a few ideas on how to curb your retail therapy:
Take a time out
It only took a few minutes for me to realize I didn’t need those socks at J.Crew. A little delay, and I decided I would be wasting my money.
A few weeks later, a delay in shipping got me to realize that, no, I didn’t really need that new laptop I had impulse-ordered the day after Thanksgiving.
These were happy accidents, little obstacles the universe put on my path towards wasteful spending. But you can’t count on the beneficence of the universe to keep you from buying stuff you don’t need. You’ve got to get in your own way.
That’s where a classic rule of personal finance comes into play: Force yourself to wait at least three days before making a big purchase.
This won’t necessarily be easy, as it’ll be hard for your dopamine-addled brain (AKA Jesse Spano on caffeine pills) to heed the warnings of your inner Zach Morris. But it’s worth a try.
Since dopamine is a motivator, try to derail that motivation by taking some kind of action-say, putting an item in your cart or on a wishlist, creating a category for it in your budget, or making a plan for when, exactly, you’ll buy it. That way, it won’t feel just like denial.
Different tactics will work for different people-the important thing is just giving your brain a little time to realize that, nope, you don’t need that.
Get rid of temptation in your inbox
Once upon a time, I got actual emails from real people. Now, I mostly get emails from corporations, telling me about one-time sales, or a special secret discount that will self-destruct in two hours, or some other offer intended to get me to give them my money.
These emails are effective-really effective-because they make you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t spend money right now. If you don’t spend it now, they shout, you’ll have to spend more later! Act now and save yourself!
As humans, we hate to lose more than we love to win (it’s called loss aversion), so this is a great tactic.
“Oh man,” we say to ourselves, “Maybe I should look and see if there’s anything I want. This might be the last sale for a while!” (Dear reader, it’s never the last sale.)
Pretty soon, we’ve talked ourselves into the idea that we actually need something. “I have been thinking about getting a new _____ for a while!”
Unless you have a will of steel, it’s hard to resist the daily onslaught of opportunities to acquire. And, it’ll be even harder to stick to your three-day rule. So, instead, take an hour out of your day and unsubscribe from all those sales emails.
But what if I need to buy something and have no way of knowing about sales?!?!
I promise you, they will find some way to tell you. (Go to the website, for instance.) Even if they don’t, however, I can almost guarantee that the money you’ll save by avoiding temptation will be greater than the “savings” you’ll miss out because you don’t get three emails every day from every store in the world.
Paying (possibly) full price for something you need is a better deal than buying stuff you don’t even want just because it’s on sale.
Institute a “no spending” day
Set aside one day a week where you don’t spend any money: You don’t buy a coffee in the morning (make your own at home), you don’t go out to lunch (brown bag it), and you don’t shop. It’s the like the opposite of “Treat Yo Self.”
A “no-spending” day can be a nice little reset, especially after a period of excess spending. I like to have a no-spending day on Monday, since I tend to spend more money on the weekends than I do during the week. I find that spending money only makes me want to spend more money, and thus it’s necessary to take a day and set myself back on track.
This is especially important after Christmas, or upon return from a nice vacation, where you got used to eating out in restaurants all the time, browsing shops in a faraway city, and generally indulging your whims.
Figure out non-commercial ways to make yourself feel better
The whole reason for “retail therapy” is real-life stress. Even if you recognize that shopping isn’t the best way to scratch this particular psychological itch, that doesn’t make the itch itself any less painful or urgent.
Try to come up with ways to make you feel better that don’t involve buying something, or that don’t involve buying a big something. Go take a walk, get a drink or a coffee with a friend, or watch your favorite show on Netflix. Focus on small joys that don’t cost anything, or that cost very little.
Stopping the endless cycle of excitement, anticipation, and disappointment that comes with impulse shopping and retail therapy can open up a lot of space in your budget-for saving, or for just more deliberate spending.
By recognizing when that predicted rewards system has kicked in, you can interrupt the cycle, and rein in those impulses that are busting your budget.