Spending triggers

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impulse spending spending triggers what causes that

Spending triggers What causes you to impulse buy

Talking points

  • What are spending triggers
  • Why are spending triggers bad
  • How to control spending triggers

Do you ever buy something just to make yourself feel better?  Do you spend money on a whim or make impulse buys?  What causes you to do that?  Often, the answer is spending triggers.  Spending triggers are events that provoke an emotional (you could say psychological) need to spend money.  The expenditures are unplanned—not figured into your budget.  More than likely, they have an adverse financial impact.  There are synonyms like “shopping therapy” used for this behavior: In reality, you’re wasting money.

Under the influence of a spending trigger, a person feels more than just a desire to acquire something. There is a very real “need” to spend money.  Acquisition is the means: Spending is the object.  Fear of a lack or loss is the motivator, and most of us see money as the primary means to allay that sense.

The fears at the root of this problem vary.  They could be a history of poverty, the need to protect current image or standard of living.  Competiveness and jealousy could come into play.  A restlessness (or anxiety) over boredom or the fear of losing a “high” are possible triggers.  Any circumstance in which a sense of loss or uncertainty is prominent can be a spending trigger.  If a person spends to gain or maintain a sense of validation, regardless of the reason, it’s likely they are dealing with a spending trigger.

spending triggers

Spending triggers

To put this on a personal level I’ll talk about some things that are spending triggers for me:

    1. A sense that I deserve…  I work long, hard hours.  Sometimes, I feel that I should be rewarded: Am I not entitled to a treat once in a while?  The answer is, of course I am.  Unfortunately, when I start down this path, “once in a while” can, quickly, turn into “often”.  The habit of frequently “treating me” can get to be very expensive, and there is no long term satisfaction that comes from it; I’ll want to be treated again next month, next week, tomorrow?  Over the long term, the money I spent would have served me better if I had applied it to something else.  However, I do work long, hard hours, and I do feel the need to treat myself—occasionally.  My solution has been to build a small fund into my budget for treats.  I allow myself to get a Starbucks coffee or and ice cream cone every other week.  If the urge for a treat comes, I already know I’ve got one coming, and I can circumvent this spending trigger.
    2. I’m a foodie; so is my wife. We love to eat out—for the joy of the whole experience, not just the food, but the atmosphere and the luxury of not having to prepare the meal or clean-up afterwards. We also like to say, “You should try (fill in a new hot spot),” or “Yeah, we’ve eaten there.” (A pride thing, maybe???) I bet you can guess that we enjoy going to a full-service restaurant over fast food. Now, just as frequent “treating” can be expensive, so can eating out—only more so. I’ve limited our eating out to once a month, and only if we have, purposely, saved twice as much as we expect to spend on the meal. We use the excess to make a special deposit to our savings (or the emergency fund). (Note: We save this money in addition to our regular, budgeted savings—usually by spending under budget on our weekly groceries.) Since we like eating out so well, we tend to save up as quickly as we can for each splurge. We want to be prepared when one of our favorite restaurants has a special meal, or it’s the night “we just can’t stand to cook.” There are a couple of benefits to controlling this trigger. The extra deposit to our savings is a small advance towards my desire to retire while I’m fairly young; with that in mind, most of our meals are home-cooked and healthy: Most restaurant meals have large portions and are prepared with extra fats, sugars, and salt.
    3. This concerns my wife: Boredom/Stress. Anytime my wife feels she needs a break—she’s tired, bored, tense, angry, hyper, even extraordinarily happy… You name it— she wants to head to the Good Will store. Once there, she never leaves without buying something; usually, it’s a cookbook. It can definitely be said that she has some spending triggers. In the past she’d head over there once (well… maybe twice) a week. Her purchases were never very expensive; she’d only buy one book and spend somewhere between fifty cents and two dollars. (But, if you think about it, that money does add up.) Awhile ago, we decided she needed to stop reacting to the triggers. In this case, it was not so much because of her actual spending. Rather, it was the cost of the fuel consumed making frequent, unplanned trips across town and back. You can, also, do the math: She was accumulating a great abundance of cookbooks—more than she can ever remember where to find a particular recipe, more than we have room for. (And, you better believe, I am not going to rent a storage unit just to house unused cookbooks!) Our solution has, again, been scheduling. We still stop at the Good Will store about once a week, but it is, now, one stop among several that we make when we have errands to run in that part of town. Also, my wife has started an online recipe file for her favorites from each book, and she’s posted some of the books for sale. She recoups some of the money spent, and that makes me happy!Ok, there is one more spending trigger I want to address. I thought about not including it. You’ll probably get a chuckle from it. This is one I battle a lot. It has to do with the idea of saving money or getting great value relative to the money spent. If you’ve been following my posts, you’ll agree that these traits are so typically me… Well, here goes: When I notice that something I’ve–even vaguely– considered buying is on sale, I want to buy it now. Heck, as I graze (This isnot a typo!) through a store, a marked down price ticket can have me wanting something I hadn’t even been considering. (Let’s talk exercise equipment or chain saws here.) Throw in the phrase “limited number” or “limited time only,” and I might just panic at the thought of missing out on the savings. Guess what: If I buy now, I may spend less, but am I still spending money? The answer is, “Yes.” So, really, the sense of saving is false—a trick: If up to the point that I saw this item on sale, I had not considered buying it, do I need to spend money getting it now? The answer is, “NO.” Again, to defuse this spending trigger, I need to employ planning and patience: If a fund for this item has been part of my budget, I’ll get it when I’ve figured I’ll need it. Also, once I have the money set aside, if I have patience, it’s possible it will go on sale, again; if that’s the case, I will—then—actually save some money—really save it, or spend it; the choice will be mine A couple of other things can be done to avoid this spending trigger:


patience and planning can go a long way in minimizing the influence of many spending triggers.

  1. Don’t window shop (at the mall or online).
  2. Recognize that retailers run sales and markdowns in their own best interests—not yours.
  3. Unsubscribe to advertising websites.
  4. Toss junk mail in the trash.
  5. Plan expenditures and stick with the plan.

Now, that I’ve shared (some) spending triggers that challenge me, I’d like you to review your financial records and identify yours.   Almost anything could be a spending trigger. Look for frequent expenditures that give you emotional—but temporary—satisfaction. They will, probably, be the exceptions to your budget. Ideally, we’d curtail this urge to spend like this; the best way to solve a problem is to avoid it. Hey, I’ll admit that’s hard to do. So, take control. Set a limit on how much you are willing to spend. Build a fund into your budget to cover it: Planning=Control. Decide how often and under what circumstances you’ll allow yourself to use the fund—then, stick to your schedule: Patience=Control. Be conscious, conscientious, and proactive. Spending triggers can be made a non-problem.
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Douglas Antrim

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