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Resisting the Urge to Splurge

Ylan Mui

Temptation can strike at any moment.

One minute, I'm hunting down items on my grocery list, and the next I'm sniffing around the cheese counter. I'll be swinging my water bottle as I walk to the office, and suddenly find myself inside Starbucks. I pass by a coworker in a cute outfit, and my shopping cart has filled itself at (Delete, delete, delete!)

Sometimes it seems that budgets are made only to be broken. On the path to frugality, I often trip over an adorable pair of patent pumps. Psychologist April Benson, author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, says that the same techniques she uses for her patients who are compulsive overshoppers also can be applied to everyday temptations. Rule No. 1: Question yourself.

Benson has an arsenal of them at the ready. Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it? Do I have something like it already?

By the time you've remembered all of them -- not to mention answered them -- the urge to splurge will likely have passed, she says. You can also just clear your mind, count to 10 and breathe. The key part is putting distance between the impulse and the action. The farther you separate them, the less likely you are to indulge.

“You want to do something to slow down the process,” she said.

Sometimes, your honest answers may lead you to make the purchase. Benson says this is a sign that the product is actually useful, even if it's outside your budget. Other times, we just slip up.

Don't beat yourself up. Benson compared staying on a budget to dieting. We don't always follow the rules, but we can always resolve to start fresh the next day.

Let us know how you fight off temptation and stick to your budget. Leave your comments below, shoot me at e-mail at muiy[at] or Tweet me at @ylanmui.

By Ylan Mui  |  June 19, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Ylan Q. Mui  
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OK, so let me get this straight. I'm in the bar, the Russian bartender in the bikini says, "One more vodka tonic?" And to resist this urge to splurge, I'm supposed to ask myself: 1. do you really need that extra vodka tonic? What if I wait? How will I pay for this? What is the opportunity cost of that extra $12 drink -- not including tip -- versus going home and getting a good night's sleep.

So I try to put some distance between myself and the bartender. I make an excuse to slip into the men's room, thinking, oh-boy, gotta put some distance here. Trying to separate myself from the demon rum (or in this case, quinine.) Gotta stick on a budget, dude. It's only Thursday -- a whole weekend of drinking ahead.

I cannot help. I give in to impulse. A good song just came onto the juke box. I'm in for another round. Hell, treat the bartender to one, too -- budget be damned!

Set 'em up, Valeriya. And gimme a shot, too.

Posted by: richburgk | June 19, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Questions for myself:

1) do I already own something like this?
2) have I had a good track records with things like this that I've bought here before?

These two questions often save me from buying the same thing again and from buying things that didn't work out.

Posted by: RedBird27 | June 19, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

With a full time job, by the time I eat, do chores, read, exercise, watch one movie a week, do some writing (hardly enough) and socialize, frankly I don't see how people have enough time to shop.

Posted by: cmecyclist | June 19, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: cmecyclist | June 19, 2009 2:44 PM

This is a really, really good point. The best way to avoid the impulse to splurge is to avoid putting yourself in front of the temptation in the first place. When you're trying to diet, you don't keep bacon in the house (well, I don't, seeing as how I can't stop once I start). When you're trying to kick alcohol, you don't keep whiskey in the cabinet or hang out at bars. So if you're trying to stop spending, take up a hobby that doesn't involve placing yourself next to a Starbucks or a mall (or a Starbucks in a mall). Added bonus: if you make new friends in your free hobby, they may have other free/cheap things they like to do that you can go do with them.

Also, cancel magazine subscriptions, record shows and skip the commercials, and stop junk mail. When I'm trying to cut back, the Williams-Sonoma catalog is the first thing that goes in the trash. :-)

Finally, when you know you are going to be braving the dragon, come prepared. I mean, you need groceries, there's only so much avoidance you can do. Sometimes Peapod is a good work-around, but sometimes not. So if the cheeses are your weak point (like, say, me), acknowledge that going in. Decide beforehand what is appropriate ("I will let myself get the X, because they only have this at this store," etc). Then -- and this is really important -- build in a treat that you can have only if you stick to your list.

When it's a surprise attack, I think the real key is realizing that there are a lot of very smart people, with very good degrees from very good schools, who are paid a whole lot of money to induce you to buy things you don't need. For you, it seems like an "impulse buy," something that just caught your eye and sounded cool -- but that unconscious decision is really the result of a carefully-crafted and -orchestrated marketing scheme. (It becomes so much clearer with kids -- even my 3-yr-old sees something on a commercial and immediately proclaims "I want a [fill in blank]). We're all smart and aware, but frankly, we're outgunned. So the best thing we can do is -- as Ms. Benson suggests -- be aware, remove yourself from that moment. I find that even asking myself things like, "hmm, wonder what aspect of the marketing campaign made me want that so much" works -- because I don't want to see myself as someone who falls for Pavlovian-type marketing training!!

Posted by: laura33 | June 19, 2009 5:12 PM | Report abuse

Use the HALT method: don't make purchases when Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. Easier said then done but it's useful to keep in mind.

I also remind myself that it'll be here tomorrow. I can wait, go home, think about it, and make a decision tomorrow. For the most part this works for me. Not so much in used book stores. I had such a backlog of unread books, some of which were more "I wish I was the sort of person who would read this book" that I said no more used book stores until I finished the backlog OR was looking for a specific book.

Posted by: fitday19550 | June 19, 2009 7:50 PM | Report abuse

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