A Neuroscientist’s Top 3 Tips to Avoid Emotional Over-spending This Holiday Season



Thanksgiving is just around the corner which means we’re entering the season of joy, celebration, family gatherings…. and out-of-control credit card bills

You might blame our collective tendency to overspend over the holidays on the dazzle of the blinking lights, the impulse to reward yourself after a long (and trying) year, or a kind-hearted desire to spoil the ones you love. But according to neuroscientist and marketing consultant Terry Wu, the root of the trouble is actually with us year round. It’s our brains. 

In a recent installment of Big Think’s Your Brain on Money video series, Wu explains the deep evolutionary reasons our brains are wired to impulsively spend on things we later regret. It’s fascinating science (both for those looking to rein in their budgets and those looking to sell more stuff), but the most seasonally useful insights come near the end when Wu offers tips on how to use an understanding of neuroscience to rein in emotional spending. He offers three main tips.  

1. Build some barriers. 

As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, humans actually have two systems they use to think about the world. As the title of the book suggests, one is emotional and fast. The other is more logical but slower. When it comes to late-night Amazon purchases, you want your slower, more logical brain to be calling the shots. To make that happen, you need to slow down your thinking so your rational brain can catch up with your emotional impulse to buy that air fryer or cashmere sweater. 

The way to do this is to put up a few artificial barriers between your impulse to buy and actually clicking the ‘order now’ button. “Designate a day in the week to shop to allow yourself some time between the moment you think of buying something and the time you buy something,” Wu suggests. 

Alternatively, you could make a rule for yourself to always leave items in our online cart overnight before you make your final purchase. 

2. Exercise away your impulse to buy. 

What does working up a sweat have to do with controlling your spending? Wu explains that we often buy things as a form of stress reduction. Replacing that less-than-ideal impulse with healthier ways to kill stress should help us shop more consciously. And exercise is one of the best science backed stress busters out there. 

“One way to lower our stress is physical activity. Any time you feel like you’re under stress, instead of going to shop, go outside and move your body. When your muscles become relaxed, your stress level goes down,” he explains. 

3. Lean on friends. 

Another stress buster with a huge amount of science behind it is also one of the most pleasant — hanging out with friends. Social support isn’t just a great mood booster, it can also help us control our impulse to shop.

“When you’re connected with other people, you gain a sense of safety and that sense of safety can blunt your stress response and make your frontal cortex function better,” Wu says. So if you’re feeling lonely and bored don’t reach for your credit card. Instead call a friend or organize a get together. Both your bank balance and your mental health will benefit.  

Looking for a deeper dive into what actually goes on in your brain when you mindlessly shop (and how companies encourage this behavior)? Then check out the complete six-minute video below: 

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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