• Paul Gordon

The spender impulse: How to break bad habits and come out ahead

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

Written by Casey Aladic

I was shopping last week with a friend and our Spenditude came up in conversation. We were on our way to the Apple Store to ask a genius about a repair (2 spenders walk into an Apple Store… sounds like the start of a joke that ends with a thousand dollar plus punchline) and my friend turned to me and warned me to keep him from spending more money. The diligent project manager in me took this brief to heart and I knew that there was no way I would let him buy the latest widget - in fact, he came out $150 in credit. How is this possible? Two spenders are surely going to spend! Well, you'd think so, but with awareness and good practice it's possible to break the bad habits and come out ahead. Here's a run down of how this has happened.

My objectives were simple: don't let Spender friend buy new widget. Keep focus on objective. Get out of Apple Store before lunchtime rush. My friend had already impulse-bought an updated version of EarPods from the Apple Store on his last visit. The salesperson had convinced him that the newer version could be purchased at an additional $150 and that this would result in clearer music, noise cancellation features, and some kind of additional amazing performance that he couldn't even remember. As we entered the impressive building I asked him if the pods had been as good as he'd hoped. He said they weren't any different to the old ones, didn't fit in his ears properly, and that he was disappointed with them. Before we could find an unattended millennial in an Apple shirt I stopped in my tracks.

Why did you buy them?

Because they were supposed to be better.

How much extra were they?

$150 extra. But they said that if I didn't like them I could return them within 30 days.

Is it within the 30 days?

Well, yeah. So I guess I could return them.

We then pounced on an available Apple employee and the conversation turned to Apple IDs and how they work on multiple devices.

In the meantime I meandered away and made sure not to focus on the shiny new widgets on the shelves and thought it a good chance to ask about my own broken iPhone camera. 15 minutes later I was checking my phone in for repair (covered on warranty so no cost yet incurred!) and we went for a coffee. No money spent (yet).

The Spenditude conversation continued over coffee.

My friend commented on my restraint and how I appeared to be more of a 'Defender' or a 'Slender on the cusp of Defender'. I explained my Spenditude history; how I'd spent the last few years building up my Defender muscles and putting strategies in place to suppress my 'Spender' tendencies, but I know I am a Spender at heart. I told him about my personal spending rule that I implemented a few years ago: only spend money on things that are good for you. A subjective, bendable rule - that's true - but a good start nonetheless. It helped me to stop smoking cigarettes, buying junk food on a whim, and online shopping for yet another white shirt (hey, I know I have a problem but I'm taking steps to improve myself).

The project manager in me stepped aside and the psychologist kicked in. I analysed my own behaviour and shared my insight. I recall that over the years I've worked hard to build this muscle and make it stronger. In the context of the Spenditude conversation I called it my 'Defender muscle memory'. You know how you can build up the muscles in your body through strength training? It's the same kind of thing. Most people struggle to give up bad habits that hurt their bodies, minds and finances. This isn't an easy thing to do - in fact, coming up to the new year, you'll notice that there's a huge industry of self-help devoted to helping people overcome their ingrained bad habits.

Habits can arise through repetition, become a normal part of our lives, and are often helpful to free up our brains to focus on different, more important and immediate things. Habits can also develop when our brain's "reward centres" are triggered. This can set up potentially harmful routines such as overeating, smoking, gambling and overspending. Enjoyable behaviours can prompt your brain to release a chemical called dopamine; if you do something over and over and the dopamine is there when you do it, this strengthens the habit even more. When you're not doing these things the dopamine creates the craving to do it again.

Did someone say retail therapy?

So in a way there are parts of our brain that are working against us when we try to overcome bad habits. Routines can become hard-wired in our brains. The high we get when we came out of a store with a shiny new product in a minimalist designer bag activates our brain's reward centres to keep us craving the things we're trying to resist.

The good news though is that human beings are able to change and orient our behaviour toward long-term goals or long-term benefits. Professor Roy Baumeister, a highly cited researcher currently teaching at the University of Queensland, has shown through his studies on decision making and willpower that self-control is like a muscle. Once you've exerted some self-control, like a muscle it gets tired. Once we've successfully resisted a temptation, willpower can be temporarily drained, which can make it harder to stand firm the next time around. Recent research however has shown evidence that regularly practicing different types of self-control can strengthen your resolve. Any act of self-control will gradually exercise your 'muscle' and make you stronger.

For me, exercising over a number of years was very hard at first. Sure, I've had lapses - when I'm tired, and it's close to Christmas, and I'm feeling under the weather, I may overspend on my kids' Christmas presents, and my own, and while I’m here I might just get some new make up. Oh that’s a nice new white shirt too… But over time I've built up my strategies. No more mindless browsing in an Apple Store. No more impulse buying (recent Black Friday sales are an exception to this rule, of course). And I can help my friend with some of these strategies as well. When we returned to pick up my phone he spoke further about his pods and with my encouragement returned the newfangled version and got the originals back. With $150 and his good old pods in his pocket we both walked out with much stronger defender muscles, and a monetary reward to boot.

Being aware of your Spenditude is just the first step. Just like building your physical muscles it's possible to keep working to build up your Defender muscles and meet your goals. In the end the dopamine hit can come from meeting your longer term goals rather than a purchase you'll probably regret when the shine wears off.

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