In my work as a consumer psychologist and author, I’ve read countless studies about consumer behavior, and I've conducted plenty of research on my own, interviewing hundreds of shoppers about how, when, and why they shop. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to avoid piling up too much stuff and how to stop making unnecessary, excessive, and ultimately unsatisfying purchases.
Do an inventory check. Jenna Suhl, who has worked as a wardrobe stylist in San Francisco for more than a decade, told me, “It’s not uncommon for people to buy new things because they have so much they can’t see what they already have.” Suhl recommends weeding out what’s worn, ill-fitting, unmatchable, or a style that no longer suits. That’s not only true for clothing and accessories, but also tools, household products, and knickknacks. Another woman once mentioned to me that she actually bought the exact same serving platter twice, forgetting that she already owned it. “At least I have consistent taste,” she laughed, “but clearly I have too much stuff.”
Buy good quality—and use it. Perhaps counterintuitively, I’ve found that it’s common for people to almost never use the things they love the most—a favorite pair or jeans, a vintage Mustang—and that give them the most pleasure. Why? Often, it's because they want to protect the item in question, because they like it so much and don't want it to be ruined. Instead of using their favorites regularly, they buy cheaper things—sometimes knockoff imitations—for “everyday” use. The unfortunate result is less satisfaction, and that lack of satisfaction often leads to more buying in the misguided hope that some new item will make us happier. In a similar vein, many people spend more money on an outfit they wear once for a special occasion than they spend the entire year on clothing they use every week, such as workout wear, jeans, or sneakers. The smarter approach is to put your money where you’ll see it in action and enjoy it the most, thereby reducing purchasing cravings.
Count your blessings. First and foremost, being grateful—not just for possessions, but also for the people, places and simple pleasures in life—is good for the soul. But an attitude of gratitude is also a proven antidote to impulse purchasing because it creates a sense of abundance within the individual. When you're feeling full of gratitude, you're less likely to subconsciously try to fill emotional holes by treating yourself with gifts and accumulating more stuff.
Turn off the temptation. Imagine having a friend who was constantly telling you about seemingly terrific deals (half-off watches!), or that you simply had to try the new pizzeria in town (free dessert!). Hearing about these offers puts you in the position of considering purchases you might not otherwise have noticed. Worse, you're likely to get worn down over time, so that you end up jumping at some offer partly to reward yourself for all of the times in the past you behaved virtuously and passed on the latest bargain. These are the effects of signing up for email subscriptions from retailers and deal sites. If you’re trying to rein in your spending, simply cancel those subscriptions. Forget the idea that they somehow save you money. You'll save a lot more by remaining ignorant of all those seemingly amazing bargains.
Play the waiting game. When you’re tempted to buy something on a whim, wait at least 20 minutes. Then, after clearing your head, reconsider how and when you’ll actually use the product. Instead of simply choosing to have it or not have it, think for a moment about what else you might prefer instead—such as the freedom of having less debt or a bigger purchase that requires saving, such as college tuition, a house or retirement. When considering larger purchases of, say, anything more than $100, make the wait period 24 hours. The typical impulse purchase seems a lot less like a "must-have" after sleeping on it.
Learn to share. I’m not talking about the explosion of "sharing economy" businesses that facilitate things like car-sharing and bike-sharing. I’m talking about the old-fashioned DIY method of buying something with a friend or neighbor and owning it jointly. I recently watched two young women negotiate sharing rights for a relatively expensive gold necklace they both wanted and ultimately bought together at Nordstrom. And I interviewed a family that purchased backyard play equipment with their neighbors. That family is also ingenious about repurposing. For example, they decorated homemade birthday cards with buttons taken from worn-out shirts (which were cut up and used as dust rags). I’ll admit these practices can seem time consuming and not commonplace—but they’re inspiring, and perhaps there’s an opportunity to share or repurpose that will eliminate a new purchase in your life.
Buy only what you need, right now. Part of what makes shopping so alluring is the mental vacation that comes with imagining how a product can be used, such as, “I’ll turn heads in this outfit,” or “We’ll have the wildest parties with this cocktail shaker.” But most homes are cluttered with unused merchandise (often with the tags still attached) purchased for, say, an African safari that never materialized or a slimmer figure that has yet to be acquired. Don't let your imagination divert attention from the cost and practicality of an object, nor from reality. Before making a purchase, ask yourself if you'll be using the item in the very near future. If the answer is no or not likely, pass.
Focus on the bottom line, not freebies. "Free" is the four-letter word that always seems to work in marketing. But the free gift with purchase, the free bottle of water while you’re shopping, and the free samples can all cost you. For one thing, getting something for free creates a sense of obligation that makes it harder to say “no” to a persuasive salesperson. Shoppers also often use the free gifts included with purchase to rationalize buying something that’s way beyond their budget. I’ve seen otherwise highly intelligent, logical people spend a fortune to get something for free. And the irony is completely lost on them.
Remember that it's okay to buy nothing. Shopping takes time, and it can feel like time wasted if a purchase isn’t made. Outlet malls, which typically require a significant drive, are particularly dangerous places for people trying to reduce their consumption. It’s not uncommon for people to purchase something they don’t really need rather than to leave empty-handed, with the feeling like the trip was a total waste. The same phenomenon occurs in upscale "destination" boutiques and at e-retail sites that have drawn shoppers in for significant amounts of time. But don’t fall for the notion that you’ve wasted time if you shop and don’t buy. The truth is that buying something you don't need only makes for more waste.
Do some quick math as a reality check. If you earn an hourly wage, do a little simple division to see how much of your time, effort, and work is eaten up by a potential purchase. The thought that three hours of your work barely covers the cost of some restaurant meal is likely to inspire you to cook more. The same concept works for salaried workers, just first do the math to break down your roughly per-hour take. Alternately, you could compare the cost of a new purchase to the amount in a savings account, or how long it took to save that amount. Calculating that the cost of a new TV would swallow 50% of the savings that took you two years to compile should be enough to give you pause. Likewise, if you're really trying to get a better sense of how much you're spending, don’t use credit cards. Spending with cash feels more tangible, more like you're spending real money that required your real time, sweat, and effort to earn—and that's the whole point.
Buy for the right reasons. Research shows that we can think we’re hungry when we’re actually thirsty, think we’re tired when in reality we’re bored, and so forth. In other words, we're pretty good at identifying when we need something, just not so good at identifying precisely what it is we need. The concept translates directly into the world of shopping and buying: People often buy stuff not because they truly need the stuff, but to fill a variety of other psychological needs, including the craving for human contact, relief from boredom, the opportunity to feel totally competent and in control, and the mental stimulation of something unique or beautiful. To buy less, don’t confuse the real reasons you’re shopping; the tips above about practicing gratitude and waiting for a specified time period before making a purchase should help boost awareness of what it is you truly need.
Shop for stuff you need, not sales. Another of the psychological reasons that many people over-shop and buy is to get a burst of feel-good dopamine that accompanies sale shopping. Snagging a coveted item at 30% off can feel like winning a prize. But sales are nothing special: Virtually everything is discounted at some point in today's retail world, and at least three-quarters of the purchases shoppers tell me they regret making were bought on sale. They often say they the item isn't quite the right size, color, shape, or style—but what got them hooked was that the price was right. This is silly, of course. If you don't like the item, there's no price that makes it a smart buy. I’ve also found that sale-focused shoppers, ironically, tend to spend more total money than others. Remind yourself when shopping that the point is to seek good-quality items you need, not random stuff that is appealing solely because of a seemingly good price.
Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.