An angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other

We received a Costco coupon book in the mail today. Costco — a membership warehouse store — has very low prices and generally does not take coupons. A few times a year, though, they send out flyers with special discounts.

Kris flipped through the book first, clipping coupons for kleenex, cat litter, and ziploc bags. When she was finished, I picked it up to look for things she'd missed.

  • On the first page, I nearly tore out a coupon for $6 off a ten-pack of toothbrushes.
  • On the next page, I was drawn to a coupon for four pounds of jelly beans.
  • Later in the book, I was tempted by a stainless steel slow cooker. (“We already have a slow cooker!” Kris muttered in exasperation when she edited this entry.)

“I've got to stop looking at this,” I said, tossing the coupon book aside.

“What's wrong?” asked Kris.

“It's making want things I don't need. It makes me want to buy junk food and DVDs,” I said.

I thought for a moment. “How can you look at that book and just clip coupons for the things you need? How come when I look through it, I'm tempted to buy things that I know I shouldn't. I don't need jelly beans.”

“I don't know,” Kris said. “I must have a filter that you don't have. You come up with reasons to buy things. I come up with reasons not to buy them.”

She's right. That's exactly how my thought process works. (That's how I think with food, too, but that's a subject for another web site.) When I see something appealing — like a four-pound tub of jelly beans — I subconsciously try to talk myself into it. I don't think of the reasons I shouldn't buy it; I think of the reasons I should. It's like those cartoons where our hero has a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, except my angel speaks too softly.

Over the last two years, I've become better at ignoring the devil and listening to the angel. In fact, most of the time I don't even let them begin to argue. When something tempts me, I move on: I leave the store, I close the web site, I set down the coupon book. When I sense myself slipping into old thought patterns, I try to remove myself from the situation so that I'm never actually forced to make a choice.

The best part of this isn't that it prevents me from spending money. The best part is that I'm no longer burdened with the guilt that comes with compulsive spending. If you've ever been a spendaholic, you're probably familiar with the knot in the stomach that comes from buying something you shouldn't. You want it on an emotional level, even though your brain is telling you it's a poor decision. I don't have that any more. For the most part, I avoid irrational purchases. And because I'm not spending money, I'm not beating myself up over stupid choices.

Now when I buy something for myself, it's a planned purchase. I know I can afford it. Even when I indulge myself, it feels good because I don't have to feel guilty. And that, my friends, is why I won't be bringing home a four-pound container of jelly beans.

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plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

I love how you don’t even know what appliances you have.

This sounds like a successful technique. I think it’s one of those things that’s easier to do if you have a real reason to. I’ve never had a big problem with overspending, so I haven’t really been motivated to learn to overcome my small problem (currently involving magazines).

brad
brad
12 years ago

This is the reason I never even look at coupons. I know I could have saved a lot of money over the years by using coupons, but I also probably would have spent a lot more than necessary by buying things I didn’t need. The only coupons I ever use are the ones that give me a discount off my next purchase with a store that I shop at frequently, such as amazon.com, but are not tied to a particular product. All the other coupon books and flyers that come to my house go straight to the recycling bin.

Denise
Denise
12 years ago

Maybe you should try to train yourself to have a filter like kris has.

Laura
Laura
12 years ago

I employed a similar psychological trick, learning to feel a little thrill about *not* spending and anticipating the having of the money instead of the item (as a grown-up latchkey kid, I’m afraid I paid more attention to the commercials than the wise and loving notes my parents left me with my breakfasts and afterschool snacks and chore schedules, and I tend to be a little more conditioned to spend than to save).

My best friend has dubbed me a “buck tease.”

Cornelius
Cornelius
12 years ago

Wants or needs?. What is the coupon book SELLING you?

Focussing on the needs will make the flipping process easier.

Ron@TheWisdomJournal
12 years ago

I think this just shows us the incredible value of having a life partner who balances us.

One trick I love to use is to try to go three days at a time spending NOTHING. It’s harder than you think 😉

KC
KC
12 years ago

An unneeded 4 lb bag of jellybeans is a lot easier to live with then an unneeded digital camera, flat screen tv, car, etc. So keep your urges small. Also if you do end up with that bag of jellybeans and you are too embarrassed to take them to your house…bring them over to mine 🙂

Laur
Laur
12 years ago

When it comes to household items, the big black marker really works. Just take it and put a big X across whatever you don’t want, and then hand the book and the marker to your significant other. If there’s anything left afterwards… well, go buy it 😉 The great part: no undo available, and that big X should be enough as far as deterrents go.

Working Dollar
Working Dollar
12 years ago

“If you’ve ever been a spendaholic, you’re probably familiar with the knot in the stomach that comes from buying something you shouldn’t. You want it on an emotional level, even though your brain is telling you it’s a poor decision.” The exact same thing happens to me. It has taken me five years to break this pattern, but now I save more than I spend, I am able to talk myself out of purchasing things I know I do not need. I can now combat that desire to run back to the item, grab it, and make a mad dash… Read more »

elisabeth
elisabeth
12 years ago

Good going BUT maybe those toothbrushes are a good idea and not quite in the jelly bean category. Every year I order one dozen of the extra-soft toothbrushes I use directly from the company who makes them. Then I change my toothbrush on the first day of the month. This is cheaper than buying an electric gadget brush/es. I think this small investment in good dental hygiene could pay off in fewer dental problems and help me keep all my teeth for all of my life, as well as other health benefis associated with a healthy mouth…

FFB
FFB
12 years ago

My wife and I are the same way. We go to BJ’s and she goes straight to the items we need. I on the other hand get big eyes like a kid in a candy store. I can use three 1GB thumb drives, right? I gotta get them, they’re cheap! Luckily my wife keeps me on track.

Betsy Teutsch
Betsy Teutsch
12 years ago

Since you know you have this tendency, instead of beating yourself up for it, you might try to recognize that it’s just human. You coud give yourself a Stupid Impulse Buy Budget, for example, like $20 a week. It’s a lot of money if you add it up, but it doesn’t seem like a lot when you spend it once. I bet if you say to yourself, “Do I want to spend my $20 SIBB mad money on this? I can if I want!” the impulse would often pass. You could further bribe yourself by putting the $20 into a… Read more »

Justin
Justin
12 years ago

JD, it’s not something to beat yourself up too much about. I mean, that is the purpose to coupons anyway! To make you buy something that you wouldn’t have bought otherwise, under the pretension that you’re saving money. Otherwise there would be no incentive for them to be offered and they wouldn’t exist. It took years to get the idea through to my mother, that if she buys something with a coupon that she would not have bought without it, she is spending money, not saving it!

Jeffeb3
Jeffeb3
12 years ago

“When something tempts me, I move on” Awesome. Just great. I don’t think your filter is broken. You aren’t avoiding the decision, you’ve made it. The difference between the new you and the old you is that once you make the decision, you don’t ask the question again. I think a lot of people make the right decision the first time, and the second time, maybe even the third time. But if you ask “should I buy these jelly beans?” enough, you will eventually find the answer will be yes, at least once. The thing is, that you don’t often… Read more »

E
E
12 years ago

JD,

One thought…maybe you picked out the unnecessary coupons because Kris had already picked out all the necessary ones. If you had looked at the coupon book first, it might have been a different story. (not trying to take away from Kris’ shine) I know that when I go through coupon books, I want to find a deal and if there is nothing there, I make some stretches in my reasoning to justify a coupon.

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

my husband is the same way… always looking for reasons to buy things. i’m like your wife, always coming up with reasons why not. that’s why i do the regular shopping myself 🙂

(well, that and he used to work 16+ hour days at work so we got used to it that way!)

@Ron… we almost always do all our shopping on weekends only. it’s not easy to get there, though.

Peachy
Peachy
12 years ago

I agree with Elisabeth-a toothbrush is something you will always need. I change mine every three months, so a pack of ten will last and they never go bad. I say buy the toothbrushes, but don’t buy the other stuff. As long as I’m alive, I’ll need toilet paper, so if it’s on sale, I’m stocking up.

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

Just a clarification: I’m not actually beating myself up over this little incident. I find it both amusing and enlightening at the same time. It’s obvious to me that my spending urges are still there, and they have the potential to resurface if I don’t continue to maintain control.

But I do have control, and that’s a good thing. It makes me happy!

Carol
Carol
12 years ago

Occasionally I struggle with spendy urges – yesterday it was really wanting a yearly subscription to MAD magazine – but I’m going back to school with a student’s part-time income. Money is tight!

I put a “still want that MAD subscription?” in my yahoo calendar reminders to pop up 24 hours later. When that note popped up later, I could answer “Nope” nd I felt no anxiety or disappointment.

I occasionally also put spending for extras off a full month by slipping an ad or note in the next month in my planner.

finance girl
finance girl
12 years ago

Careful with Costco for even things you DO need.

The 2 1/2 gallon of Tide is $20 at Costco.

At Fred Meyer it’s only $17 every day (not on sale).

Costco….definitely check prices, they aren’t by default cheaper than what you could get elsewhere.

The Bad Penny
The Bad Penny
12 years ago

I just have to say…that’s a lot of Jelly Beans!

But thank you for reminding me I have to go to Sam’s Club – but don’t worry, they are things we actually need, and are cheaper at Sam’s!

I do the same as you – I’m constantly having to turn “off” my thoughts towards items in order to not buy them.

echris
echris
12 years ago

Ha! This post really resonates with me. Costco is the store that thrives on impulse buying! Have you ever noticed that they stock a lot of seasonal items and that you cannot really know what they will stock ahead of time? In other words, if you really need an item XXX that is seasonal, they might have it and they might not. So I hate making that trip to Costco for these kinds of items because I strike out a lot of time. So why do they have these seasonal items? I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s mostly for… Read more »

Susana
Susana
12 years ago

Reframing our thoughts to plan purchases is so liberating, isn’t it?!

In your defence: you were an innocent ‘drawn’ to the jelly beans because they’re a staple food for your former devil 😉

Katrina R.
Katrina R.
12 years ago

I really like your statement: You want it on an emotional level, even though your brain is telling you it’s a poor decision. I recently stepped away from buying a great used VW convertible, my weakness, because I followed this train of thought. I have an affinity for this car and have owned a few, but my brain told me this one needed new tires, possibly brakes, and sinking money into a car right now doesn’t work when you are trying to get out of debt. It was hard, but not that hard, because my brain is stronger than my… Read more »

liz
liz
12 years ago

I love this post! What it gets at is something that most of us who are trying to save money can relate to at such a fundamental level. I think what makes you a good writer and blogger is this level of honesty coupled with a little self-deprecation. Personally, I’m much more inspired by personal finance blogs where the writer shares the ups and downs (psychological as well as financial)of trying to save and resist those devils on the shoulder versus those in which the writer is trying to tell me what to do. (because, like many of us, I… Read more »

Rachael
Rachael
12 years ago

My Costco-coupon hack: when the coveted booklet arrives (everyone I know LOVES those things!), I go through it and cut out everything that I think I might like to buy. Then I let the stack of coupons sit on the microwave for a week or so (they usually send the books out before the coupons are actually valid). Then, when Costco day finally arrives, I sort through my pile and make 2 more piles – essentials (toilet paper, toothpaste, etc… i.e. boring stuff) and fun stuff (100 packs of DVD-R’s, a pair of jeans, etc.) Most of the time I… Read more »

Anna
Anna
12 years ago

I never actually buy toothbrushes. My dentist gives me one every time I get my teeth cleaned- twice a year. And Walgreens and CVS always have deals where you can get free toothbrushes. Granted, the teeth cleaning costs money which is covered by my dental insurance, which more than pays for itself when I need some sort of dental work. At Walgreens the toothbrush deals are usually the free after rebate type, where you have to mail in your receipt. I have this pretty much down to a science- I buy only their free after rebate items when their coupon… Read more »

dickey45
dickey45
12 years ago

I live in a small house so we did get a flat screen that we mounted on the wall to save us a ton of space. Seeing as it was our only Christmas present (for the family) and we planned it for a year it wasn’t so bad. It also doesn’t attract dust so we save time not vacuuming around it every week. Technically we’ve saved a ton of time.

The TV was available with a coupon (Costco). We instead bought the smaller LCD but saved $250. So sometimes coupons give you an urge to buy bigger and more expensive…

Daniel
Daniel
12 years ago

JD,

Great article! I’ve found that my wife and I have shifting roles over need vs. want, because we rarely want the same thing. So when I want something she’s there to tell me I don’t need it, and if she wants something, I’m there to tell her she doesn’t need it. Although we both still want to fall into our old spending habits!

-Daniel
http;//youngandfrugal.wordpress.com

db
db
12 years ago

My big tip for avoiding the Costco coupon dilemma is that I don’t shop at Costco. 😉

Actually, I don’t shop with coupons either. I know they work for others, but they just suck my time and energy away.

I’m learning that bulk buying doesn’t work for me — I can justify buying binges easier thinking I’m “stocking up”. So I’m teaching myself the knack of “just-in-time” buying instead. I may pay more per unit, but I’m spending less and spending more thoughtfully too.

fontraid
fontraid
12 years ago

Here’s a trick I use with all coupons (from coupon books, or from those mailings sent to your house, or from the Sunday paper): I go ahead and cut out all the coupons of things I want to buy. Then I go and place each coupon in its appropriate category (all my coupons are separated into ziplocs by categories such as “baby”, “food”, “bathroom”, “laundry”, etc). Once they’re all put away, out of sight, I wait 2-3 days. If I can still remember any of the items on the coupons I clipped, then that must mean I want it badly… Read more »

Dividends4Life
Dividends4Life
12 years ago

Coupon books are quite effective, especially if you perceive they are saving you money.

Best Wishes,
D4L

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

The thing to remember is that people go to school and study for many years to learn exactly how to best manipulate people to buy whatever they get hired to market/sell. The very best get hired for large amounts of money and benefits and go on to spend their entire careers continuing to learn how to manipulate that desire we all have to be something we’re not. Their job is to convince us that buying the product their company provides will turn us into that person we want to be. The way I see it – every advertisement everywhere (including… Read more »

Greg
Greg
12 years ago

This post shows that life is made up of wants and needs. Really all we need to survive is food and shelter. But wants are what make life interesting. We try to find a balance of which wants we satisfy and which ones we decide not to indulge. It’s not healthy to totally deprive yourself of everything you want and the opposite is also true. Learning how to want lasting and fulfilling experiences or objects rather than fleeting gimmicks pushed by corporate marketers is also important. Yet I have to agree that places like Costco are best avoided. Their whole… Read more »

icup
icup
12 years ago

OK, I’ll bite. What is the reason you need 4 pounds of jelly beans? That’s like what, the entire GDJP (Gross Domestic Jellybean Product) of the Czech Republic!

Sandy
Sandy
12 years ago

Costco makes me nervous; I can’t seem to walk out of there without buying some impulse items that were not on my list. I have most of my discretionary income automatically withdrawn going to various accounts, so that limits me on those impulse items, which was the whole point to setting up my finances that way. I’ve got my HI account, for example, and don’t want to fritter away $ from that. It’s just that the temptations are always there. I’m at my goal weight, so I’m on maintenance, but know I could gain 5 pounds in a week-end. Similarly… Read more »

Toby
Toby
12 years ago

Hope this makes sense to you regarding the filter thing… I have lost weight and am very aware how often food is put in our way and tempts me… candy at the check out, samples, billboards, etc… I have found it helps me to actually say outloud, “No, thanks.” It makes me smile and helps me feel in control.

Tootie
Tootie
12 years ago

Great post. (And cool graphic, too. 🙂 The way I look at it, a coupon or a sale is only a deal if you were going to buy that product anyway. Otherwise, they’re just getting you to spend money that you wouldn’t have anyway.

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah
12 years ago

So many jelly beans! I know the lust of a beautiful item we already have but it’s just so pretty and at a discount that you want to buy it. Fortunately, I have a very very loud angel who says “Nooooo musn’t spend money, we’ll all die!” My angel is a bit overdramatic, but she’s effective.

carmie
carmie
12 years ago

The Kirkland Signature brand jelly beans kind of suck anyways. Jelly Bellies are much better.

Costco is good for keeping our big family in fresh produce and milk without making 2 gas-wasting trips to the store every week. I figure the $4+ a month the membership costs us is worth it.

seawallrunner
seawallrunner
12 years ago

I was avoiding Costco for years because the sizes of products are too big and lead to waste (how will I eat 4 pounds of bagged lettuce or a gallon of milk before either goes bad?) However, last winter I saved $500 by buying my tires from Costco instead of from the other place I would have considered – same make and model! Now I go every ten days or so, with a list in hand. I continue to save money by buying large quantities of fruit and vegetables, but fewer varieties thereof, so nothing goes to waste. When I… Read more »

adfecto
adfecto
12 years ago

I know that knot in my stomach and the regret all too well. Mine usually comes Monday morning after a weekend of fun, socializing, and dining out when I log in to check my debit card statement. I can never quite figure out how we spent the entire months entertainment budget ($100) and half the monthly eating out budget ($250) in three days. I feel rich right after payday and then regret once the money is gone.

echris
echris
12 years ago

seawallrunner– A word of advice about those tires you got…I bought tires from Costco and saved some money (not as much as you). They offered a good replacement policy in the past, but that has changed in recent years. These days, you are obligated to go in every 6000 miles or so and have them rotated or else the warranty will be void. In fact, at my local Costco, the tire guy had an attitude and told me he couldn’t touch my tires because they were too worn down and that they had no record of rotations with them. Well,… Read more »

gusgus
gusgus
12 years ago

So I take it your wife is the primary purchaser of groceries and is used to working under a budget.

I would say that is why she has the filter & you don’t. If she has been working under a conservative cost saving budget for a while, she has probably ingrained in herself the decision making process of separating the wants from the needs.

I’m sure if you did the grocery shopping for 3-6 months under a budget you would gain her eagle eye too.

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