Stopping Shopping Momentum

Shopping momentum is the bane of many budgets. You may have a good grip on your money most of the time, but once you've opened up your wallet to make one purchase, it's easy to just keep spending.

People sometimes experience shopping momentum during times of stress or transition: when they're traveling, when there's a crisis at home or at work, during a big life change like a move or welcoming a new baby. You've just laid out a lot of money for an unusual expense, and something in your brain tells you it's time to spend more.

Shopping momentum
Crazy as it sounds, this is a real psychological phenomenon. Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business showed that people who buy one item are more likely to continue buying others.

Essentially, the decision to buy anything — from a house to a toothbrush — involves two steps:

  1. Choosing, and
  2. Buying

In the first step, you weigh your options and carefully consider your choices. Once you've made a decision, your brain shifts gears to the “buying” mode. In that mode, it's easy to keep buying. Your buying brain doesn't stop to carefully consider your alternatives on each purchase; it just throws stuff in the cart and keeps going.

Shopping momentum in real life
I worried about shopping momentum during our recent trip to Argentina. From past experience, I know I spend more when I'm traveling and when I'm stressed. Traveling with young kids is stressful, so our Argentina trip featured at least two budget danger zones for me.

My worries were unfounded. While in Argentina, I barely spent anything at all. We stayed with family, and spent most of our time hanging out with family and friends. I was concerned about how much the trip cost, and so was very focused on keeping our incidental expenses low. At the end of the month, we flew home with a third of the money I had set aside for the trip unspent.

All that changed when we landed. Coming home was wonderful, but suddenly we were facing a wall of pent-up need:

  • There were, of course, no groceries at all in our house. We needed to go grocery shopping — right away.
  • I'm traveling for a business conference this week, where I'll also be running my first 5K race. A look through my closet confirmed that I needed new clothes for the trip. And new running shoes.
  • My husband and kids had needs too.

Pretty soon, we'd stacked up a lot of expensive requests — enough to spend all the money we'd saved on our trip…and then some. Some of these needs are real, of course. We really do need groceries. I really do need appropriate shoes and clothing for the conference and the race. But once I'd started buying, the expenses piled up fast. I “needed” a haircut, and new lip gloss, and…

What I really needed was to take a deep breath and recognize what was happening.

Just because I'm doing some stressful, exciting things doesn't mean I have to spend a lot of money. In the end I got away with buying only a new bra and paying for a haircut. Everything else I was able to borrow, reuse, or do without.

Stopping shopping momentum
How can you stop shopping momentum once it gets going? The first step, of course, is to recognize it. To do that, set up some sort of mental alert for yourself, to pay attention when you have an unusual expense. There are plenty of good reasons for unusual expenses. These come up in our lives all the time, and there's nothing wrong with spending money when you need to. The trick is to notice that you're doing it so you don't accidentally slip into a buying mindset.

If you have trouble taking mental note of a shift in your spending patterns, you can set your personal finance software to alert you when you've had unusual activity in a particular category. Mint alerts me whenever I spend more than $100 on “shopping”. It doesn't happen very often, and it's good to be aware when my shopping expenses are unusual.

You can also help yourself recognize shopping momentum by getting to know your financial personality. Look at your spending records each month. What kinds of situations cause spikes in your spending? Do you spend too much when you travel? When you go out with friends? On your kids? Figure out what pushes your brain into buying mode, and you'll be able to catch it that much sooner to hit the brakes.

To stop the shopping once you've started, ask yourself these questions before any purchase:

  • Do I really want this?
  • Will I love it and/or use it?
  • Can I get it another, less expensive way?
  • Can this purchase wait?

A lot of times, even good purchases aren't urgent. If you're really struggling to slow your spending, try adhering to a 30-day list. If you see an item you want to buy, put it on a list instead of buying it. Wait 30 days. If you still want the thing after 30 days, consider buying it. You'll be amazed at how much Stuff you're able to just cross off your list without purchasing.

The power of conscious spending
Stopping shopping momentum is good for everyone. Even if you have plenty of money, you don't want to end up at the end of a shopping spree with a bunch of Stuff you're not interested in having and a big bill to pay. Shopping also soaks up valuable energy that you might rather spend on a hobby, a side job, or just relaxing with friends and family.

By mastering your buying brain, you'll have more time and energy to pursue the things you really want.

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bon
bon
10 years ago

So interesting that this is a real phenomenon — I am one of those people who has a very hard time spending, and generally hates shopping. So when a “shopping mood” hits me — it is actually a good thing — as I finally replace clothes with holes in them!

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

I faced this beast the other day! Good tips.

My net worth spreadsheet keeps me honest. It’s a reality check. Otherwise, I try to tell myself when I see a tempting item that “this is keeping me from saving for a house.” Usually does the trick, but sometimes I take it too far and don’t buy things I need. (Like replacing old clothes!)

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I don’t shop in person very often, one of my tricks to avoid spending more than I want to spend or should spend. So when I do shop, I do my very best to develop a list, stick to the list, only go in the stores (i.e. if I am at a mall) that are on my list or match my list. For example, if I know I need some new shorts for an upcoming vacation I limit myself to clothing stores that I know carry shorts. I don’t pop into Pottery Barn or Williams Sanoma (two of my favorite… Read more »

Annemarie
Annemarie
10 years ago

Timely advice. I’m about to leave my family for a four-month stay on the other side of the country, helping care for my folks, who both have dementia. In past years, the trip triggered a spending spree — presents for myself for dealing with an appallingly stressful situation. And that’s on top of the expenses I’d normally incur (rent — no family or friends to stay with — and food), which have wrought havoc with our savings over the last five years.

Maybe I’ll have a bit more self-control this time. Thanks for the tips.

Tawra@Living On A Dime
10 years ago

Mom, wrote about this very thing in our newsletter today!!

The best tip that she had was if you have a problem with put a $20 bill (or whatever amount is good for your budget) and only spend that amount for 1 week. Lunches, snacks, everything can only be spent with that $20.

Once it’s gone, it’s gone and it sure helps to stop the spending!

Passiivinen Sijoittaja
Passiivinen Sijoittaja
10 years ago

I know I usually spend much when I go out, but I also know I can afford it, and I really like going out with my friends, so I don’t worry about it. I keep my daily spending under control by using the envelope strategy, but I don’t actually use cash and envelopes. I just keep one weeks “allowance” in my checking account, and transfer more money there every Monday. That way I really can’t spend too much, since my account will be empty! I don’t have to worry about overdraft fees, since using my card, transaction won’t go through… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

I’m with #1, Bon. If it weren’t for shopping momentum, I wouldn’t have any clothing!

When I buy clothing, I tend to drop $300-$600 all at once. But I go shopping about once every two years or more or when my size has changed and nothing in my closet fits. I hate shopping for clothing, but you’re right, once I make my mind up to buy something I buy a whole lot all at once. No regrets though.

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

I would assume you have been training for your 5K race using some sort of shoes and wearing some form of clothing. I don’t get why you need to run out and get anything new for your race, you certainly don’t want to have problems with an itchy tag or an ill-fitting shoe. Go with what you know and don’t change shoes or clothing till after the race! Also, I highly recommend getting polypropylene/synthetic running attire. Not only does it wick moisture away very effectively, but it also lasts forever. I have run a marathon plus 5K’s, 10K’s and 15K’s,… Read more »

Rob
Rob
10 years ago

I like the advice to wait 30 days. I would usually try to go a week and then see if I still wanted something, but 30 days is even better!

In terms of the shopping momentum, I can definitely attest to the fact that occasionally this happens. The few times a year a shop for clothing I will want to keep buying more and more because I like everything I see. But as long as a stay out of the mall, I’m good to go!

Techbud
Techbud
10 years ago

I think travel (vacation) and holidays are the 2 big ones for me and I’m sure for others. When on vacation you want to enjoy yourself, treat yourself and family for their hard-work, so it’s easy to over spend. The shopping momentum kicks in because typically you’ve spent money for the travel airfare, hotel etc so what’s a few more dollars on food and entertainment. Holiday shopping as well, did I get enough? Did I overlook someone. Once you are out in that mode buying gifts it’s tough to slow down. You need to plan ahead and stick to a… Read more »

Dotty dot dot
Dotty dot dot
10 years ago

I’m all too familiar with “shopping momentum”.

It’s kind of like being on a diet, and then going to a buffet for dinner. You only intend to eat a few things to meet your caloric needs, but before you know it, you’re making your third trip to the food counter!

Frugal Texas Gal
Frugal Texas Gal
10 years ago

My solution to this is generally a few big shopping trips a year, first, and secondly, I buy everything online when I can. I personally spend less on line because I usually weat for deep discounts on one item. Soother than perisable groceries, everything else is bought in bulk ifyou will. My exprience is that the more times you go into a store the more you will spend.

HollyP
HollyP
10 years ago

Generally I avoid shopping situations. There are a few stores to which I believe I’m most vulnerable to this type of over-consumption. I have a personal rule that I must review every item in the cart before getting in line. This saved me $90 at the mall just last weekend.

Crystal
Crystal
10 years ago

I’ve had this happen-I’m amazed that there is a real term for it! Its so very frusterating to me b/c I’ll pay down a credit card balance on a card I have not used in over a year, but the INSTANT I allow myself to use it for one little thing (responsabily I tell myself) I can’t stop! We put so much off, do w/o for so long that I just snap. And its never big huge buys, just TONS of little ones (pot holders; new cotton undies; a/c filter, etc) that add up

JMK
JMK
10 years ago

We do our weekly shopping and gas fillup every Saturday. Most weeks, that’s all the spending we do. I simply don’t go to a store unless I have a list and a purpose and I certainly don’t shop for entertainment (like I did in my teens). In the past year my clothing purchases have been a Tshirt, a 3pk of socks and a thrift store sweater. All were replacements for worn out items. Total cost under $15. My daughter’s summer wardrobe was all from the thrift store and came in under $25. I suppose the downside of staying out of… Read more »

Tami
Tami
10 years ago

I’m in the midst of a shopping momentum right now. I’ve got a sign above my computer that says “Stop Shopping! Is it a Need or a Want?”. I’m slowing down…slowly.

momcents
momcents
10 years ago

Shopping momentum, huh? It’s good to finally have a name for it.

I find that I’ll go days without spending money and then I’ll make one trip into town find $200 gone before I know it. I always thought it was better to get all my errands done on one day, but I wonder if this bundling is causing too much shopping momentum.

Kelley
Kelley
10 years ago

This happens to me all the time. I am about as frugal as they come. But if I identify an actual need (ex. little girl swimsuit) then it opens up the floodgates because I see what’s out there. If I find a nice shirt at the thrift store for the kids, I have to actually say to myself, (more like yelling), “SELF, the kids have 20+ shirts at home.” Most of them we’ve gotten free or for $1 or so, but I really have to remind myself that we don’t need, we want. It’s definitely an internal battle.

Kjirsten
Kjirsten
10 years ago

I face this often. One of my personal struggles is to balance the enjoyment of the experience – hanging out with friends and getting a bite to eat, shopping with a girlfriend (for things She needs) who tells me I look great in X, a road trip with someone I haven’t seen in half a year… – and the momentum of purchases; another drink or two after dinner because I’m still enjoying talking, shoes to go with X that looked great, and a bracelet and lunch while we’re shopping, a new swimsuit for the trip, the small bottles of shampoo… Read more »

Carrie
Carrie
10 years ago

While you should absolutely replace your shoes as needed, the time to do so is not right before a race. Nonetheless, quality running shoes are a lot cheaper than a knee replacement, so if you keep running replace your shoes frequently. Consumer reports has good recommendations and analysis of how long the shoes actually last. The situation that causes spikes in my spending is, paradoxically, high credit card bills. I wind up thinking, “enh, what’s another $50?” I pay the bill in full every month, so it isn’t killing my budget, but when things like vet bills or medical bills… Read more »

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

We went through this yesterday. My husband actually did need a few pairs of new jeans and work slacks, so off we go. Then we realized we “needed” 3 new blouses for me, a Magic Bullet for easy smoothie making, more mixing bowls, a good folding table for board gaming potluck parties that we throw, etc. Overall we ended up spending $450 in one day ($305 after gift cards). Hubby still couldn’t find any slacks…

Joel
Joel
10 years ago

I’m a victim of this mentality. I’m usually pretty frugal but once I start spending, it can be hard to stop the bleeding 🙁

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
10 years ago

Great post and a good reminder to be more mindful.

KarenJ
KarenJ
10 years ago

My thing is coupons. I belong to a couple of “rewards” programs, so I get coupons in the mail that “remind” me to shop at my favorite store (“but honey, I’m going to get 50% off if I spend $100!”). It can be tempting even though I have a closet full of clothes. If I don’t need anything, I’ve learned to give or throw away the coupon so it’s not burning a hole in my pocketbook.

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

And this explains why I refer to Target as the $100 Store. As in – I can in for one thing, but left spending $100. I can easily spot things that I didn’t know I “needed”. I’ve gotten far better about it over time. Mostly just by practicing and by limiting the amount of time that I spend window shopping (in stores and online). If I don’t see it, I don’t realize I want it. My stay-away strategy has worked for my purse, however, I do know that my work wardrobe is seriously suffering. I need to replace things as… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I haven’t been to a big market like Target or KMart or Walmart for well over a year. May even be two years. For me, stopping momentum requires staying out of the stores altogether. Because despite the fact that when I’m at home I am quite contented with what we have, when I’m out in a store seeing things that are shiny & new, I want to upgrade! I am more likely to get something at the corner drugstore, even if it costs a bit more, than go out to a big market or Bed Bath & Beyond or whatever,… Read more »

ditchtheboss
ditchtheboss
10 years ago

What a great post. I am sure that next time I am shopping this post will come to mind. I guess that’s the idea.

Tara
Tara
10 years ago

When I’m heading out on a shopping trip, I purposely wear a pair of uncomfortable shoes, so that I won’t take any longer than absolutely necessary to accomplish my mission. 🙂

Lindsay
Lindsay
10 years ago

I’m not a big brick and mortar shopper, but a crazy online shopper. I have my credit card # memorized, so the idea of “freezing” it will never work… I don’t have credit card debt- I pay it off every month, but I have a bad habit of clothes buying. Anyway, one thing that I have been doing lately when I see a good “deal” is to go to this website, and start thinking about how much more money I want to save. I read these articles about people paying off their mortgages and having wonderful emergency funds. Then I… Read more »

brooklyn money
brooklyn money
10 years ago

Sierra! Please never buy and wear new shoes before a race. It could be a very painful experience. Break them in on practice runs first. Good article, though. I know exactly the feeling that you are talking about.

Glass Is Half
Glass Is Half
10 years ago

This always seems to hit me when I’m at Costco or Sam’s club! 🙂

I go in for something small and end up spending hundreds which is a real pain … lol. However I know that I’m getting a deal and I do have a contingency budget in place for stuff like this too so I guess not too bad.

David/moneycrashers
David/moneycrashers
10 years ago

Its all about control and maturity in my opinion. We are not brainlessly led around by our “buying” side. We al have brains and should all be able to make sensible buying choices. If you don’t, well then you’ll live with the consequences.

Asha - 13 Years Later
Asha - 13 Years Later
10 years ago

This is so on target. During law school I lived on $500 a month, paying for my own rent, food, insurance, and pretty much everything else on that small sum, but never felt poor because, knowing I had no discretionary income, I simply never went shopping. These days, as I’m looking at reinventing my career in a way that will almost certainly mean less income, I’m trying to work my way back to that way of thinking — if we don’t need it, we don’t have to buy it.

Sneh Agal
Sneh Agal
10 years ago

Shopping through cash back websites is a great option for saving money when shopping online. Being a thrifty online buyer, I always use cash back websites like ShopAtHome, AAfter Search and Ebates, and MrRebates.

Amandia
Amandia
7 years ago

I stopped shopping recently and I have saved a lot of money on things I ALMOST bought. I almost bought a bunch of clothes, a bunch of stuff at HOmegoods that I could do without. I track my spending in a book my husband got me for Christmas – 101 Ways to Stop Shopping and Start Saving. The advice in this book has really helped me curb my crazy shopping habits. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to start saving.

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