A couple of days ago I got a package in the mail from Amazon. Inside was a set of magnetic eyelashes, a new curling iron, and a set of 24 acrylic paint pens. Now, this might come as a shock to you given the list of absolute essentials I just rattled off, but I didn’t actually need any of those products. And yet, I bought them.
Why? Because the act of purchasing them made me happy…at the time.
In his 2011 book, Compass of Pleasure, neuroscientist David Linden explains that the brain reacts to shopping the same way it reacts to sex or french fries; by releasing dopamine in the medial forebrain pleasure circuit, causing us to feel pleasure at the swipe of a credit card.
So yes, buying magnetic eyelashes made me happy, but once that dopamine faded I was left with a product I don’t need and can’t even get to work. I’d have been happier with the money in my bank account.
In an effort to stop this cycle of unnecessary spending, I turned to the one source that has always been there for me, to always help me out financially: Reddit.
r/PersonalFinance had several threads devoted to training oneself to only buying products one needs—as opposed to spending without thought. After hours of perusal and a few days of following down the rabbit hole of replies, I’ve culled the best of the best for you. Ahead, five things you can do immediately to stop buying shit you don’t need—after all, if it works for a community of almost 13 million tough critics, I have high hopes that it might just work for you and me.
If you’re really trying to break a spending habit, it might be a good idea to put away your credit and debit cards and hit an ATM.
“Start using cash,” recommends Redditor ThatGuy4029. “Seeing the physical amount being spent each time makes it click how useless it is. Also, if you run out of cash… well that’s it man, you can’t spend.”
If you need a little extra help avoiding the siren song of credit card points KS26739 advisesin favor of an age-old trick: Keep your cards very out of reach like “Frozen in the freezer, up in the haunted corner of the attic…”
There is value to building and maintaining good credit, but save that as a next step, once you get a better handle on your impulses.
Build A Simple Budget
A budget is always a good idea—an in a case where you are trying to jump-start change, a simple shift in the way you think about your assets can change the way you spend.
“Account for all your current cash assets (checking, cash, savings), and assign that money a job,” suggests rabuf. “It’s fine to have $20K in savings, but if you keep moving money out of it each month to cover your spending, and on unimportant things like fast food, then assigning it a real job (like house downpayment, new dSLR camera, new tires) will help to discourage you from the frivolous spending once you realize that you’re stealing from yourself (either limiting your future by going into debt, or distracting from your true desires and needs by borrowing from your savings goals).”
It sounds simple but it makes a lot of sense. If I look at the money I’m about to spend on art supplies which I’ll use once before realizing once again that I have no artistic skills as money I’m stealing from a future downpayment on a house, I’m much less likely to make the purchase. Building the spreadsheet lets me track this—but it also creates a persistence around remembering my bigger financial goals and priorities.
Avoid Ads Like The Plague
“Stop consuming media with advertisements,” says r3dt4get. “This is huge. You don’t realize how much you are influenced by ads until you stop them all. I don’t watch cable TV. No magazines. Installed adblocker on my internet browser. I avoid any services that are supported by ads (I would rather pay a few $ a month for Google Play Music than listen to ads, for example). If it contains ads, avoid it like the plague.”
If these steps feels a bit extreme, try easing your way in.
Redditor totesmadoge suggests starting by unsubscribing from e-commerce emails. “Seeing sales or getting a coupon for 20 percent off only encourages spending money because of the urgency (“Only one more day for these fantastic deals!”) when you don’t actually need something. Chances are really good that once you know you need something, you’ll be able to find it on sale within a couple weeks anyway.”
Calculate: “Is it Worth My Time?”
Redditor S-ClassHoodRat works retail. So, when they’re thinking of buying something they first ask: “How much bullshit from these gawdawful customers will it take to [cover the cost of] this?”
Basically, if you’re about to spend $200 on a black dress that looks remarkably similar to another black dress you already have, take a moment and think about the money in terms of hours. Let’s say you make $25 an hour. Is it worth working a full eight hour work day to get that dress?
If the answer is yes, go ahead. But odds are good most of the time, the answer is no. And taking that moment to think about it may save you a wasted work day.
“Wait a day before making any nonessential purchase,” says thehonestyfish. It’s amazing how much stuff you no longer want [after just 24 hours].”
If I had waited a day before purchasing those magnetic eyelashes, I wouldn’t have bought them and I wouldn’t have felt bad about myself for not being able to figure out how they work. Basically, if I had waited a day, I’d have $15 more in my bank account and I’d feel better about myself. If that’s not a reason to stop spending, I don’t know what is.