Earn/Save Money

Save Money With Brain Power: How to Trick Your Brain When Shopping

You know those days when you’re putting away clothes from a shopping trip and you think, “why the hell did I buy this?” It’s funny how we can get so caught up in the moment that we make crappy decisions with how we spend our money. I got curious as to why some people are able to set something down in a store, and why others just can’t help themselves (and end up crying over credit card bills later). What I found was that it all comes down to chemical reactions in your brain. So here’s how to trick your brain when shopping to save you from dreaded post-purchase remorse.

The study: Shopping releases feel-good chemicals in your brain

In a study done by Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford, when subjects thought about whether they wanted a particular product, a scanner showed that blood flow was increased to an area of the brain particularly receptive to the “feel-good” drug dopamine, a chemical that promotes desire.

Use this knowledge

Be careful with new stores: Dopamine is activated when we experience something new and exciting. This explains why we spend so much money when we’re on vacation, because we are in special circumstances experiencing new stores and novel products. Try going to the new stores first, and pledge to go back to them only if you really can’t stop thinking about the item you loved. It may not be as enticing the second time around.

pretty woman shopping

Don’t shop when you’re upset: Because shopping makes us happy, we tend to use it to save us from upsetting emotions. Researchers from Stanford published a paper in Psychological Science demonstrating that a sad mood can lead to impulse buying. Participants in their study who watched sad videos were willing to pay up to three times as much for the same items as a control group exposed to neutral stimuli. Shopping diminishes the amount of stress hormones in the brain, and induces a flood of the feel good chemicals dopamine, seretonin, oxytocin, and others. We associate these chemicals with happiness, relaxation, and a sense of security – therefore getting a shopping high that temporarily alleviates fear and anxiety.

The study: Our brain feels pain when we don’t buy something

Greater activity in an area called the insula, a region associated with unpleasant emotions and the anticipation of loss, was seen in the brains of subjects who decided not to make a purchase.

Use this knowledge

Beware the dressing room: As economist Dan Ariely explains in his book Predictably Irrational, we automatically become attached to things once we feel ownership over them, a phenomenon called the “endowment effect.” Something as simple as touching an object can produce this effect, as can trying it on or imagining yourself using it. For this reason, it’s best to not try on anything that’s outside of your budget, because you probably won’t be able to stop thinking about it if you leave empty handed. Humans are funny in that we actually hate pain and loss more than we love pleasure and gain – it’s just the way that we’re wired.

Don’t pay with your credit card: In fact, the evidence is overwhelming that when you buy items with a credit card, particularly things you enjoy, you spend 20-30% more. This is because cards give us a delay between the pleasure of buying that shiny new item and feeling the pain of having to pay for them (usually weeks later). This helps us understand why these payment methods that minimize instant buyer pain can really encourage overspending.

The study: Sales really mess with us

Sales shift our focus toward what we’re saving rather than what we’re spending. For this reason, sale shoppers ultimately spend more money than non-sale shoppers.

sales tricks

Use this knowledge

Pay with cash & ask yourself “would I buy this if it wasn’t on sale?”: When you have to physically hand over money, you bring back the focus to what you’re giving rather than what you’re getting. This will also stop you from continuing to shop once you’ve exceeded your budget. You see, sale shoppers end up purchasing things that aren’t truly satisfying, and because they aren’t satisfied they continue to shop. Additionally, the rush they get from snagging a bargain has an addictive quality, so the actual products don’t seem to matter as much as the excitement for getting it so cheap. This is why you should always ask yourself if you would still buy the item if it was full price – that’s the only way it’s worth the buy.

Don’t shop the regular priced stuff first: Compared to the regular priced stuff, the sale stuff is all going to seem much more affordable. This is why the sale stuff is almost always towards the back of the store. If there is something particular that you’re shopping for, check the sales racks first before you go off to the rest of the store to keep things in proper perspective. 


Hopefully now that you know how that noggin’ works, you’ll be more aware of how to trick your brain when shopping. Say bye-bye to all those future ugly sweaters that your evil brain could have tricked you into buying.



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