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Why we overspend (and how to avoid it)

Why we overspend (and how to avoid it)

Want to buy less? Start by understanding the psychological mechanisms that cause overspending. And continue with our tips to avoid it.

Why we overspend (and how to avoid it)

A practical guide into the psychology of shopping behaviour

We all sometimes spend more than we should on things we need less than we think. If you feel the need to take back control over your shopping behaviour, you’re in the right place. In this practical guide, we’ll go through the psychological mechanism of overspending. We'll also give you some practical tips to avoid it.

Psychological reasons we overspend

There are three main types of psychological mechanisms that lead to excessive spending. These include: biases that push us towards short-term thinking; preferences for mental accounting over actual budgeting; and lack of awareness of our personal spending triggers. Let’s look at these individually.

  • Present bias

Present bias occurs when you focus too much on immediate gratification, often at the expense of future rewards. For example, you may want to buy an apartment in the future, but splurging on a luxury item right now is more gratifying than saving up, so you’re easily tempted to do it. This same mechanism is often at work when you pick a payment method. For example, when paying via a credit card, it lets you focus on the immediate gratification of the purchase, and delay the pain of paying. We often give into present bias because we don’t have a plan for achieving our long-term goals. Without a plan to get us there, goals can seem so far away in the future that they’re almost beyond the power of our present selves. This makes us vulnerable to short-term thinking and impulsive buying.

  • Mental accounting

Often, we don’t keep track of our income and expenses. As a result, we may not be fully aware of our spending ability, which puts us at risk of spending more than we can actually afford. Even when we are aware of our budget, we often keep track of it only mentally, rather than in a systematic or traceable way. This can cause us to lose the big picture. For example, we may mentally divide our budget into accounts for food, clothes, rent, etc. When we buy something - e.g. an expensive piece of clothing - we only justify the expense based on the amount left in the respective mental account. However, we often fail to look at the opportunity costs of each individual purchase. In other words, by spending a lot on clothing, we may not have exceeded our mental clothing budget, but we have lost the opportunity to cover a bit of credit card debt we also have. This is the type of big-picture blindness that comes as a natural consequence of doing your budgeting only in your head.

  • Lack of awareness of buying triggers

Shopping behaviour is similar to other habitual behaviours in that it has its individual triggers. Perhaps for you being with a particular friend is a shopping trigger. For others, it can be something else - a mood, an environment, a time of day. Not being aware of what causes you to shop more leaves you vulnerable to repeating that behaviour.

why we overspend

Tips to avoid overspending

Here are some ideas to help you control your spending, which are easy to try right away.

Tip #1: Set milestones for your long-term goals

The best way to make long-term goals seem less distant is to create milestones for getting there. For example, if you want to buy a house in 10 years, set yourself a savings goal for each year until then. That will give you a tangible reason to say no to impulsive shopping temptations. And, equally importantly, achieving your milestone each year will give you pride and gratification that will last longer than any impulsive purchase.

Tip #2: Keep actual track of your budget and spending

This one is easy - if you want to manage your budget better, stop doing it in your head. Instead, make a simple spreadsheet (e.g. using this monthly budget template). Or, better yet, use an expense management app. Some of the most popular ones in Ireland include Spendee, You Need a Budget (YNAB), and Spend Tracker, but there’s a whole lot of choice out there. An app is better than a spreadsheet because your phone is with you all the time. You’re more likely to stick to your budget tracking if it’s effort-free (and if it comes with handy reminders and notifications).

Tip #3: Keep a shopping diary

No, not like in high school. A shopping diary would require you to take some notes when you feel the impulse to buy something. Write down the time of day, who you’re with, where you are, what music is playing in the shop, and anything else that seems relevant. After a few days or weeks of doing that, you’ll discover the patterns that make you more likely to overspend. Then, you can start eliminating the triggers for your shopping behaviour. For example, you might notice that every time you have your credit card on you, you feel emboldened to spend more than you would in cash. If that’s your trigger, you can consider leaving your credit card at home, or switching to a prepaid credit card. You can’t accumulate debt on a prepaid credit card, and you can only spend what you have already prepaid.