Why We Buy: The Psychology of Overspending


Miranda Martinez has a pretty good handle on her finances these days.

The college professor and her husband bought a house in Brooklyn, N.Y., with a healthy cash down payment. Martinez takes regular trips to Italy to visit her in-laws without wracking up fat credit card balances.

But 15 years ago, it was a very different picture.

"When I was in graduate school, I was in a condition of perpetual debt," Martinez says. "There was a period at one point when my lights got turned off. Which was really humiliating."

Martinez was raised by a single mother who never learned how to manage money. "I grew up in an ongoing state of emergency, and the way my mother handled finances was just bad," she says. "She didn't have the skills to manage the situation."

Nor did Martinez. "I would allow myself to become very, very vague [about money] and would just wake up with things exploding around me," she says. She'd end up spending money in a vacuum, buying a new blouse, for example, but not paying her phone bill.

Like all behaviors, Martinez's buying habits reflect her background, experiences and psychological makeup.

Here are some emotional states that drive people to make poor purchasing decisions and to overspend, and some advice on how to keep those emotions from sending your to the poorhouse.


By being fuzzy about when bills were due or if she had any money available for discretionary purchases, Martinez was practicing "avoidance, which is not wanting to confront or deal with something you find confusing or upsetting," James Dion, an industrial psychologist and president/founder of retail consultancy Dionco, tells DailyFinance.

It's only natural that Martinez would struggle handling money, Dion says. "She grew up in a financially dysfunctional family, and at some point, children as adults will mimic their parents, even if they have modeled something counter-productive."

Martinez started to break the cycle by joining Debtors Anonymous. The 12-step program offers practical money management tools while also addressing members' emotional states, she says.

People prone to avoidance behaviors must first confront their total financial picture, from expenses to checking account balances, Dion says. For Martinez, that meant "learning to be concrete -- even when I wanted to hide from the numbers," she says.

That's when she began to track everything she spent. "I carried around a little folded up index card in my wallet and anytime I bought something, I'd made a little notation on my note card. After a month of doing that, you start to make a spending plan. "

Today, Martinez uses a spreadsheet to track her expenses, spending and automatic deductions. "I've learned to be concrete to a degree," she says. "And having to share my finances with my husband makes me a little more on point."

Indeed, being accountable for your spending -- to a group like DA, a friend or to a spouse -- can be vital to keeping your financial house in order, Dion says.


The secretive shopper is often a person "scratching that depressive itch and self-medicating against depression," Dion says. Whether they're in a full depressive state or just feeling a bit blue, "they turn to over shopping to feel good for a minute, like that first drink for an alcoholic to get that rush."

It helps to be mindful that overspending has a lot of the same triggers as overeating, says financial adviser Leslie Greenman. "When do we grab that gallon of ice cream? That night when you're feeling alone and sad." That's when it's time to keep away from the stores. "Stay home and rent a movie instead. Don't get in the habit of looking for an emotional up from buying something new," she says.

Finding healthy substitutes for the over shopping impulse, such as a regimen of physical activity, is also key, Dion says. "The endorphins are good for your mind and body."

Low Self Esteem

Some people over shop to boost their feelings of self worth and to compensate for low self esteem. Although not always consciously, these shoppers believe "that a purchase is buying them love, acceptance and feelings of belonging," Dion says.

These over-shoppers tend to boast about their purchase, "feel the need to share it with their friends, tweet about it," Dion said. "It's a kind of showing off."

Some tell-tale signs of an approval-seeking shopper: "If there are items in your closet that you've never worn, tools in your tool kit that you've never used -- that's a big red flag," Dion says.

The problem is the feelings of self-worth engendered by the shopping are ephemeral.

By contrast, "When you feel comfortable in your own skin you tend buy more 'needs' as opposed to 'wants,'" Dion says.

According to humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow, famous for the hierarchy of needs theory, once a person becomes "self actualized" -- less concerned about the opinions of others and more interested in fulfilling their own potential -- "You don't need that stuff anymore," Dion says.

To work toward that state, take on pursuits that summon lasting feelings of fulfillment, such as volunteering or pursuing an interest or unexplored passion, experts say.

When we volunteer, for one, "We're looking [beyond] ourselves, we're seeing our world as bigger," Greenman says. "It gives your life a bigger perspective."

Need for Instant Gratification

People today want what they want and they have to have it now. "There is more and more of a tendency in our society toward not denying gratification -- of getting things as quickly as we can," Dion says. "Americans have been turning more into short-term hedonists."

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And the media spits out nonstop messages that say, "you can have it now, you should have it now, you deserve it now" -- which only feeds the need, he says.

Computers and mobile devices have made it easier than ever to indulge those consumptive instincts, to the point where "there are a lot of people buying on toilets today," Dion says.

Those who are inclined to get their buying fix via their computer, smartphone or tablet should set up shopping barriers, he says. "Don't make it easier to buy." Avoid setting up your accounts for one-click buying, which allows you to make a purchase with a single click by storing your credit card information on retail sites, he says.

Shopping when you've had too much to drink is another potent recipe for overspending that's only increased in potency when combined with online shopping, he notes.

And if you'll be shopping the old fashioned way, in a store, "leave your credit cards at home and shop with cash instead," says savings expert Andrea Woroch. "You are less likely to overspend when you're dealing with actual cash."

One final tip: Delay your purchases.

"Follow the 10 minute rule," she says. "Usually the urge to buy something unnecessary will likely pass after 10 minutes."