Reducing Spending: Helpful bits of Psychology to Know

1. We are poor at “affective forecasting,” or predicting how we’ll feel—in large part because we tend to project our present emotions into the future. As a corrective, hink not just about how you will feel about getting the item, but think about how you’ll feel after you’ve had it for a while.

Remember those items of clothing in your closet that still have the tags on them, or the books or DVDs you’ve bought but never managed to read or watch.
Also think about the downsides of the purchase—the excessive packaging waste if you’re an environmentalist, the need for storage, the decrease in your checking account.

2. It is helpful to know something about brain organization—not to be a brain scientist but to know that we have a “triune” brain—a “reptilian brain” that helps us with basic biological, sensation & perception and movement, a “mammalian brain’ that is focused on emotions and memories, and a “hominid brain” in the prefrontal cortex that is focused on our higher-order reasoning powers. Desire is rooted in the dopamine systems of the mammalian brain, and our hominid brain, with maturity and practice, usually has the ability to control our desires. It is also useful to know that “wanting and liking” are separate from each other, according to Kent Berridge’s work, and this means that it is possible to want what we ultimately do not like, which becomes the case in many addictions.

3. A key idea from psychology is “automaticity”—we only use the higher order powers when we really need to and much of the time we operate on automatic pilot. So you want to make the desirable behaviors like saving automatic and the less desirable behaviors like overspending more conscious or mindful.


  • Put your saving and investing on automatic pilot.
  • Make a list and sticking to it when shopping.
  • Track your spending. If you sign up for an online “data aggregator” account on,,, or and input your bank account information, which is secure, your spending will be automatically tracked, and then you can make an appointment with yourself each week to check that you are on track. Or if you’re a paper and pencil type, use envelopes, or if you just don’t want your data on the web, get a program to put on your PC—I like You Need a Budget.

4. Making a precommitment and keeping track of how long you’ve been on track can be useful because it’s easier to make a commitment in advance of being in the actual situation, and also because we hate to break streaks (Rachlin’s work).

5. Fight automaticity by building in a delay—I use my shopping cart and wish list to keep track of things I want to buy, but never allow myself to buy them immediately. I’d say that I ultimately buy 10-20% of the things that I put on the list and felt that I “needed.”  (The shopping cart allows you to put up to 600 items in and then move to “save for later”).

In the interim, I look for alternate ways to get hold of them—for example, from the library.

6. Pay attention to WHY you’re buying—are you buying a symbol of what you want—will buying the 20th cookbook actually make you the cook you desire, or is this a purchase an image of a “desired” possible self.

7. Channel factors—we are very influenced by how easy or hard it is to do things (eg Leventhal tetanus vaccination study), so make it hard for yourself to spend by
don’t go shopping for recreation—find substitutes
Don’t bring your credit card—limit yourself to cash on hand, which you have precommitted yourself to.

8. For women, especially, social support is key. Women often make shopping recreational, so its important to make “not shopping” a fun part of your social life too. Develop a support group around simple living, or around an alternate activity like cooking, watching videos at home, or hiking.

9. When you do spend, remember that what people often end up valuing most in retrospect is experiences rather than material things, so try to make room in the budget for a day at the shore or some other fun experience, and choose that rather than the new handbag, because ultimately you will treasure the memory and the handbag will end up donated to goodwill when it goes out of style.

About elissawurf

Elissa Wurf, Ph.D. (psychology), CPA
This entry was posted in automatic vs controlled, material vs experiential, neuroscience, psychology, situational influences, spending. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Reducing Spending: Helpful bits of Psychology to Know

  1. Bonnie says:

    What a great intertwining of the different fields of psychology!
    This is great information!

  2. Eloy Hieb says:

    Discovered your web blog via msn the other day and absolutely adore it. Carry on the fantastic work.

  3. elissawurf says:

    Thanks so much! I appreciate the encouragement!

  4. Seo Moldova says:

    Thanks for the interesting information. Subscribe to rss

  5. Danyon says:

    Your answer lifts the intelligence of the dbetae.

  6. Stevie says:

    More posts of this quaitly. Not the usual c***, please

  7. Kacy says:

    Your’s is the intellgient approach to this issue.

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