Psychological hacks that will stop you overspending

Eight Psychological Hacks To Stop You Overspending - woman with shopping bags looking happy

I love to shop. I know I shouldn’t – particularly given my job – but I love decorating my home, buying presents and treating myself to new clothes and beauty products every now and then.

But, while I admit this, (after all, I’m only human!), the key to not falling into debt is that I only ever spend what I can afford. I learnt this self-control when I was a post-grad journalism student in Brighton.

After moving to the UK from my home country of Canada, I couldn’t get a student loan as I had been gone too long to qualify at home, yet hadn’t been in England enough time to be eligible here. It was tough, but with a bit of help from my family, working at the Council Tax office on my days off and budgeting like a fiend, I did it – and without any debt to boot.

Though it was tough – when I started my first job in London, I was once so broke I cashed in my Oyster card just to get the £2 deposit back! – it will make a great “back in my day” story to regale my daughter when she gets older and complains of being hard up.

To get through the financial obstacles I had all those years ago, I mastered several psychological hacks to stop me from overspending. And while my money situation has improved greatly, more than a decade on, I still use them regularly.

Read on for my top eight tricks – and trust me when I say they work: I’ve included some real-life examples where they stopped me making an impulse purchase – so, give them a try and tell me how you get on.


1 Perform the “Stranger Test”

Say you are looking at a leather jacket in All Saints with a hefty £380 price tag, close your eyes and imagine a stranger holding the coat in one hand and £380 in cash in the other hand.

Which one would you choose? More than likely, I bet it’s the cash. Job done.


2 Imagine Donald Trump having the same thing

Research shows that previous ownership can affect our desire for an object: Instagram influencers, I’m looking at you.

You see that an “Instamum” with 500,000 followers has a Berber rug from La Redoute that would look great in your living room? Suddenly, it feels worth every penny. But what if the same rug was in the Oval Office? Ahhh, on second thought….

It might sound a bit random, but give it a try next time you are drawn to something that you can’t afford. Create a vivid mental picture  and imagine Donald Trump curling his toes into the soft wool-effect pile or whatever you are considering. Chances are that you will walk away without purchasing.

3 Calculate how long you have to work to pay for it

When trying to decide whether you should splurge on that £249 Sonos speaker at John Lewis, why not break down the price into the hours worked?

First, calculate your current hourly salary, then divide it by the price of the item that you have had your eye on. This will determine how many full working hours it will take to pay the item off.

So, if you make the national minimum wage, for instance, buying that Bluetooth speaker will mean that you had to work 33 hours to buy it. Does it seem worth it?

4 Pay in cash

When I got my first job out of journalism school, I had a meagre starter salary and a was spending a fortune on my daily commute to London from Brighton. It is not surprising that I often found myself broke at the end of the month. That is, until I started pay everything – myself included – in cash.

When I got paid, I would calculate how much I had left over after my rent and bills, then divide that across four weeks. I would pay myself each Thursday, withdrawing the money from a cash point in the office– and that was my spending money.

Paying in cash has been shown to reduce impulse purchases, as handing over paper money makes the “cost” of a purchase more real.

When you use a credit card, the spending is abstract but when you pay in cash, you see your wallet getting thinner, and it can help curb impulse buying.

5 Think of your credit card as a debt card

Until you pay your credit card off, you’re spending money that you haven’t yet earned. So, think of your credit card as a “debt card” and you might not be so hasty in paying on plastic. Talk about an “A Ha!” moment!


6  Leave the stock on the shelf

Have you ever had to put something back on the shelf and felt a twinge of remorse? When carry products around while we shop, psychologically, we can’t help but feel like we already own them.

So rather than feel “the pain” of losing something, we tend to buy the items we carry around the shop.

The solution is easy:  if you are eyeing something, keep it on the rack or shelf until you decide that you want it for certain.


7  Cut the chit-chat with the sales staff

Yes, sales people are quite friendly – I know because, as a student, I was one of them. (And for the record, I was pretty darn good!)

But the more you interact with the staff, the more likely you are to buy something from them. Sure, they have top skills when it comes to shifting products, but thanks to the Law of Reciprocity, when it comes to helpful sales staff, we feel compelled to do something nice for them in return, which often means handing over our hard-earned cash.

Be polite, but don’t get too chummy.

8 Take a breather

How many items do you have in your Amazon shopping basket? A quick look at mine and I can see that I have a staggering 26 products that I once thought I “needed”, yet never actually bought – nor missed. (There’s that Sonos speaker again….!)

Neuroscientists have found that having to wait even ten minutes for a reward dramatically reduces the brain’s response to it. So, before you make a purchase, walk out of the shop or switch to a different website, for just 10 minutes. After a break, chances are that you will see the “value” of that purchase more clearly. While you’re waiting, keep busying with something else. If you are like me, you might simply forget to go back –  or try some of the other hacks in this post.

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