We love spending money. It makes us happy. There’s just something about exchanging our hard-earned dollars for objects and experiences that feels so, so satisfying.
But oddly enough, the purchases that bring us the most joy aren’t always toys or gadgets or concerts. This 2017 study found that when people spend impulsively, they don’t buy luxury goods or frivolous tchotchkes — they buy utilitarian products. Like window cleaner. Or tools for the house. Stuff that makes us feel like we have our sh*t together.
Researchers think it’s because this type of spending makes us feel in control.
“Consumers who experience a loss of control are more likely to buy products that are more functional in nature, such as screwdrivers and dish detergent, because these are typically associated with problem-solving, which may enhance people’s sense of control.”
It’s so easy to feel a complete lack of control over your own life, including your finances, that buying certain products can make you feel productive. Hitting Buy Now on something you “need” feels like you’re accomplishing something. When you’re stressed out, that small accomplishment makes you feel better, if only for a moment. Maybe it’s not even about the stuff we buy, but our ability to buy it. The act of spending can feel subtly powerful.
In other words, sometimes spending money feels safe.
Of course, this can become a problem. These small, seemingly harmless purchases — the household goods we think we need or the fridge full of food that makes us feel abundant, even if we end up throwing half of it away — can quickly lead to overspending. And it’s harder for us to think of this as overspending because groceries and household supplies are considered needs, after all. They’re basic living expenses.
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In another study on retail therapy, researchers hypothesized that “the choices inherent in shopping may restore personal control over one’s environment and reduce residual sadness.” Choice is everything. In a statement, one of the researchers said, “When it comes to alleviating sadness, actively choosing between products is essential, even if those choices are hypothetical. Shopping is a natural, easy vehicle for choice.”
Author Charles Duhigg talks about the relationship between choice and control in his book, Smarter Faster Better. I once interviewed him about this and asked, “If someone doesn’t feel in control of their situation, how can they learn to feel more powerful?” He said:
“You make clear to people how their choices, how their actions have these positive outcomes. Then you put them into situations where they actually have to make controlled choices and in doing so they learn.”
We use shopping as a mechanism for doing this, but you can make small choices in many other areas that won’t negatively impact your budget. Choose when you’ll check emails, for instance. Or choose where you’ll go on vacation this year. In his book, Duhigg says it’s best to tie that choice to a meaningful goal — something that actually matters to you, like not feeling beholden to your inbox or taking trips with your family.
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Spending money makes us feel in control, but it can be a harmful illusion.
behind the byline
Here’s the full interview I had with Duhigg for Lifehacker in 2016.
I wrote about how to argue on the Internet without being a jerk.
Mic interviewed me about our obsession with other people’s money.
I learned a new word. The Welsh concept of hiraeth is a longing for home, but more specifically, it’s longing for a time or place that doesn’t exist or which you’ve never visited — perhaps your ancestral homeland.
P.S. Theo had a good holiday and hopes you did, too. See you in 2020.