Anything you could desire is a click away, and social media apps like Instagram now have a “shopping” tab built right into their platforms.
It can be really easy to impulsively spend money in this type of environment. But what many people don’t realize is that there are lots of psychological issues and tricks that can cause us to swipe our cards too readily. In a consumerist world where it’s all too easy to shop, here’s how to become aware of your own mindset and create boundaries around spending.
First, Know That Shopping Won’t Fill the Void
Spending is mostly psychological. It can often be a distorted way to address a deeper need. Sometimes we overspend because we think a new material object will satisfy an emotion or help us to fill a void. It often results from a deep lack of fulfillment or satisfaction in life, so we should be aware of when and why we shop.
Advertising tricks our brains into thinking that a material object will satisfy a need that’s actually spiritual or emotional, not material, in nature — this is why ads so often connect their products to immaterial needs like friendship and community, sexual relationships, belonging, and family.
But the reality is a product isn’t ever going to fulfill our need for friendship, belonging, and relationships. While of course having some material goods is healthy, and we certainly don’t all need to become monastics or ascetics — giving up all our possessions to pursue a purely spiritual life — we should become aware when our spending is born from a desire to fill a spiritual void.
A product isn’t ever going to fulfill our need for friendship, belonging, and relationships.
For instance, years ago I moved 3,000 miles away from everyone I knew to a new city. I was often lonely. I met plenty of new people, but didn’t feel satisfied in my relationships. I would spend a lot of my time going out shopping to fill the time and space. It took a few years for me to realize that shopping wasn’t ever going to fulfill me, and the reason I felt an empty space inside was because the friends I was making didn’t actually share my values or moral framework. After I went out and found people who did, my spending seriously decreased.
Analyze your heart and mind to make sure the items you buy are satisfying a real physical or material need — hunger, shelter, health, protection, etc. — rather than just being a proxy for fulfilling what's actually a spiritual or emotional need.
Are You Buying a Product, or an Ideal?
It can be easy for us to buy new items when what we’re really after is the lifestyle promised in the advertising. Always ask yourself if you’re buying an item, or if you’re trying to buy an ideal life you’ve set up in your mind that’s largely fantasy.
It may be easy to picture yourself on a romantic date wearing those shiny earrings, or on a boat ride surrounded by friends in that new bikini. Sometimes when we make a purchase, it’s because we’re building up a fantasy in our minds, and that’s what we’re really after — not the product itself.
Women on Instagram are particularly good at tripping our “fantasy lifestyle” sensors and enticing us to buy. Women will post images of themselves in beautiful places, outdoors swimming in the ocean and dining at fancy hotels. Or maybe they’re strolling city streets and having coffee at cute cafés in Paris. Or they’re prancing through the forest, having tea parties wearing an adorable cottagecore dress.
Influencers sell the illusion that if you have the same items they do, then your life will magically start to look like theirs.
They’re all selling the illusion that if you have the same items as them, your life will magically start to look the same as theirs. By connecting the lifestyle to the items, our brains are tricked into thinking that if we just buy the items they have, the beautiful lifestyle they live will also manifest all around us. It’s not true.
Be aware when someone is selling an ideal, and get right with the fact that your life is your own, and it will never totally look like anyone else’s — and that’s okay. The dress or the earrings or whatever other item won’t guarantee that your lifestyle changes. Pay careful attention to advertising and marketing to ensure you’re not trying to buy a fantasy before you make a purchase.
Understand How You’re Spending Right Now
Become aware of how much you’re spending if you changed absolutely nothing about your current impulses and habits. Money is nearly invisible these days — you swipe your card and receive the goods — so it can be really hard to get a firm grasp of how much is really flying out of your pocket.
Create a spreadsheet or download an app that allows you to keep track of everything you buy. For a month or two, keep track of every expense and put it into categories: hardline essentials like rent, utilities, groceries, gas, etc., and then items that are less essential but are easy to blow cash on because they’re the fun stuff — clothing, makeup, dinner and drinks, concert tickets, coffee, etc.
Seeing the reality of your spending will allow you to get a clear picture of what your natural behavior is like right now if you changed nothing. Maybe you’re really good at not spending money on daily coffees, but you go overboard with fancy cocktails. Working from this baseline, you can identify your weak spots and adjust accordingly.
You can’t change your behavior if you don’t have a clear picture of your current behavior.
When I first started tracking my natural spending habits, I realized I was blowing over $200 a month on clothing, which was not feasible for my income level. Because I was purchasing in small intervals of $20 here and $20 there, I didn’t realize how much was really leaving my pocket until I started adding it all up. I set a $100 budget that was much more reasonable relative to my income at the time.
You can’t change your behavior if you don’t have a clear picture of your current behavior. Starting a budget and keeping track of your behavior is the first step to an awareness of where you need to set a boundary.
Controlling our impulses and taking a step back is an important muscle to strengthen when it comes to maintaining a budget and not going overboard. I find it especially helps with clothing, home décor, and other items that get us excited because they’re nice-to-haves, but not need-to-haves.
Bookmark it, then take a few days to step away, and don’t look at the listing.
When shopping online, if you see a cute top or other item that you feel drawn to, don’t buy it immediately. Bookmark it, then take a few days to step away, and don’t look at the listing. If you find you keep thinking about it and have room left in your budget, it might mean you really want it and it makes sense to buy it. But if you find that you totally forget about it, it probably was going to be an impulsive purchase anyway — something that got you excited, but that you don’t really need or want.
Shop with a Goal in Mind
It can be really easy to get distracted and fill our carts up with extra items even when we just went to the store for a carton of eggs. We end up in the makeup aisle or the snack aisle and come home with a bunch of extra things we weren’t really shopping for. It’s like this online, too — algorithms are designed to keep feeding you new items that may interest you, and they’re darn good at predicting what you’ll like based on your previous spending.
If you know there are stores or websites where you’re triggered to overspend, consider avoiding them. Or, set a firm boundary in your mind that you’re only going to spend X amount or buy one specific item. Challenge yourself to go into shopping with a goal in mind.
Spending is largely psychological in nature. When our boundaries are too loose, we can end up spending money when we’re feeling a void in our lives, hungering for a fantasy lifestyle, feeling impulsive, or failing to shop with a goal in mind. Being aware of these psychological tricks can help you to create appropriate boundaries around spending.
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