How to quell urge to splurge at a time of high materialism

Your Money

March 25, 2007|By Gregory Karp | Gregory Karp,Morning Call

Folks from earlier generations sometimes shake their heads at the lack of control some young people exhibit when it comes to impulse buying. But that's a bit unfair because the opportunities to spend impulsively are far greater than ever before.

In previous generations, consumers who saw an enticing advertisement at home often had to wait at least until the next day when they could withdraw money and get to the store. That provided a built-in cooling-off period that allowed the urge to pass. Or if they had no cash, they simply couldn't buy it.

Today, the availability of ATMs, easy credit, online shopping and home-shopping TV networks provides the potential to be round-the-clock consumers who can satisfy buying urges immediately.

That lends itself to impulse spending that can derail the best of household financial plans.

A better understanding of impulse spending might help. Impulse spending was the topic of a recent academic study in the March issue of the Journal of Consumer Research. Researchers Kathleen Vohs and Ronald Faber at the University of Minnesota conducted experiments that supported an interesting theory.

They say we only have a limited amount of willpower to tell ourselves no. This limited reservoir of self-control is regularly depleted and replenished. So if we resist our impulses early in the day, for example, we are less likely to be able to resist something else later that day.

"We know that people get depleted when they engage in self-control, and that's been found now in about 80 published experiments," Vohs said in an interview.

Experiments show that people forced to exert self-control were later willing to spend more money for a product, buy more items and spend more money than when their regulatory resources were intact.

Here are some ways to resist impulse spending:

Rest your "just say no" muscle. Don't expect that you can adhere to a strict diet and avoid impulse purchases at the same time. If you're going shopping in the afternoon and will be tempted by impulse buys, spend the morning doing enjoyable activities that come easily to you.

"Try to rest that regulatory muscle as much you can," Vohs said. "When you know that it's a limited resource, you know you shouldn't go talk to your boss about a raise or talk to your spouse about a difficult topic if you'll need a lot of emotional control later. It's learning how to choose your battles, really."

Once depleted, your self-control becomes like a dried-up well. You'll have to dig deep to find more.

Avoid temptation. Different people require different amounts of self-control, depending on how intense the urge is. Someone might require a lot of self-control to avoid impulse buys in an electronics store but may have little trouble rejecting the offer of an ice cream cone. Find your impulse-buying triggers and steer clear. That way, you don't need to exert self-control.

For example, if television advertising tempts you, consider recording your favorite TV shows and skipping commercials. If you Internet shop when you're bored, find a hobby instead.

Don't touch merchandise or try on clothes. Research shows physical contact with an item intensifies the temptation.

Keep an eye on the prize. Setting detailed financial goals can help avoid impulse spending. That way, you have very specific reasons not to spend.

"When people think about what's important to them, they seem to do better with a self-control task," Vohs said. "It helps to [mentally] free themselves from their surroundings. When you can remind yourself at a very high level of why you're pursuing those goals, it helps replenish some of this resource."

For a specific shopping trip, such as the supermarket, adhere to a shopping list, which represents your goals. An unrelated tip is to use the self-checkout. For some reason, retailers report much lower sales for impulse buys such as candy, batteries and celebrity tabloid newspapers at self-checkout aisles, presumably because shoppers are busy scanning and bagging their groceries.

Monitor your mood. Research shows that your mood can affect your ability to resist temptation. Oddly, both extremely good moods and bad moods can encourage impulse buying.

More helpful is realizing when you've had to bottle up your high or low emotions. That requires self-control, which depletes your reservoir and makes you vulnerable to your impulses.

Use cooling-off tricks. Put some time and space between you and a would-be impulse buy. Place the item back on the shelf and wait 48 hours to determine if you really want it, or at least put it back and take a trip around the store.

Alternatively, avoid immediately buying the item but promise yourself to go home, get on the Internet and research the product's quality and compare prices. That could at least lead to spending less for the item.

At the minimum, force your intellectual self to challenge the emotional self, with the questions, "Do I really need this?" and "Will I even want this item tomorrow?" Or try to substitute. Instead of buying a $300 handbag, treat yourself to an unplanned $4 fancy coffee to alleviate the urge to splurge.

Some of these suggestions require a high level of self-awareness and might seem a bit hokey. But they have practical applications and might just help you spend your money smarter.

Gregory Karp writes for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.

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