Your Brain on Money: Why Saying “No” is So Hard
On a lunch break I wander into a clothing store to browse–not buy. I spot a sweet sweater with a price tag of $130. The sweater is well over the shopping budget I’ve allocated myself for this month, but I sneak into the change room to slip in on.
In a matter of moments I go from liking the sweater, wanting the sweater, to needing the sweater. Now I’m in justification mode.
“I could just cut down on groceries. It’s okay if I go over my budget by a little bit. That extra writing gig will cover the cost. I don’t need new boots right away, even though there is a hole growing in the sole and Vancouver is super rainy.”
I peel off the sweater, like heavy armour, leave it in the dressing room and walk out of the store. I walk back to work vibrating with the desire to buy that sweater and two days later, I’m still thinking about it.
Buying that sweater would’ve been against my best interest. Even walking into that store was against my best interest. So why did I do it?
Impulse buying is the unplanned, and often emotional, decision to buy right before making the purchase. I didn’t know I wanted that sweater until I saw it, and I don’t actually need a new sweater, but I was immediately willing to make sacrifices in practical areas of my life to obtain it.
What was really happening to me was a release of dopamine was making me feel pretty good– like high on drugs good.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that stimulates the pleasure and reward centre of the brain. Researchers have found that when anticipating a purchase, dopamine levels surge in the brain, which overrides our ability to think rationally and enables us to make bad decisions.
I was literally getting a high off of trying on that sweater, which explains why it was physically difficult to walk out of the store.
Unfortunately, the dopamine release has been linked to the act of finding the item for purchase and not actually owning it. In a week’s time, or sooner, that sweater would have no effect on me. Trying on the sweater was the best I was ever going to feel about it.
Compounding the problem is the rise of consumer culture where we are increasingly using our purchasing power to fit into certain social spheres, flash our status and inflate our self-esteem.
That sweater was expensive because it was an Adidas Original, which is the multi-national athletic gear brand’s more street oriented clothing line. It was cool and eye catching, and not everyone would wear it, so it was a statement piece with cultural currency.
The sweater was a projection of who I wanted to be that day, but in reality I was feeling tired, stressed and a little bored; everything the sweater wasn’t.
Retailers rely on our irrational purchasing behaviour and literally study how to influence people to buy more, right down to the way you naturally turn when walking into a store (I usually turn left).
There are broader implications to our compulsive consumptive behaviours. As stated in last week‘s post, consumers are already spending more than their disposable income and as a nation we are putting ourselves in debt for reasons beyond necessity.
That sweater was not just a sweater to me. It was a symbol of empowerment on a day I wasn’t feeling powerful. It was easier to choose that sweater than to deal with what was really making me feel disenfranchised.
What really got me out of that store without flashing my credit card was the promise to myself to stick to my budget. I’m allowed to buy whatever I want, but only if I have actually allocated the money for it after taking in consideration life’s necessities, my larger financial goals and evaluating the reasons behind the purchase. The budget actually made that choice easier when my brain was being overhauled by my desires.
If I had bought that sweater, I would have lost. Although it would not have broken me that month, it would have taken away from the things I really want, like going on a trip or having money saved for tougher times. It would have taken away from some of my options, which truly the definition of disempowerment. Ironic.
Abby Wiseman is a journalist, writer and communications professional based out of Vancouver, BC. She’s written for publications from the Vancouver Sun, Metro Vancouver, and BCBusiness, to being an Associate Producer for CBC Radio One. Follow her on Twitter. She also contributed to the CI Direct Investing blog.