A neuroscientist’s top 3 tips for avoiding emotional overspending this holiday season


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

You could blame our collective tendency to overspend during the holidays on the glare of flashing lights, the urge to reward yourself after a long (and trying) year, or a caring desire to spoil those you love. But according to neuroscientist and marketing consultant Terry Wu, the root of the problem is actually with us all year round. It is our brain.

In a recent episode of Big Think’s Your Brain on Money video series, Wu explains the deep evolutionary reasons our brains are hardwired to impulsively spend on things we later regret. It’s a fascinating science (both for those looking to control their budget and those looking to sell more stuff), but the most useful information for the season comes at the end when Wu offers advice on how to to use an understanding of neuroscience to control emotional spending. He offers three main tips.

1. Build barriers.

As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman explains in his book Think, fast and slow, humans actually have two systems they use to think about the world. As the title of the book suggests, we are emotional and fast. The other is more logical but slower. When it comes to late night Amazon shopping, you want your slower, more logical brain to call the shots. For that to happen, you have to slow down your thinking so your rational brain can catch up with your emotional impulse to buy that air fryer or that cashmere sweater.

You do this by putting up a few artificial barriers between your impulse to buy and hitting the “Order Now” button. “Designate a day of the week for shopping so that you have some time between when you think you’re buying something and when you actually buy something,” Wu suggests.

Alternatively, you can make it a rule to always leave items in our online shopping cart overnight before making your final purchase.

2. Exercise your urge to buy.

What does sweating 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 scientifically proven stress relievers.

“One way to reduce our stress is physical activity. Whenever you feel stressed, instead of going shopping, go out and move your body. When your muscles relax, your stress level goes down,” says he. .

3. Lean on your friends.

Another stress buster with a huge amount of science behind it is also one of the most enjoyable – hanging out with friends. Social support is not only a great mood booster, it can also help us control our urge to shop.

“When you’re connected with other people, you gain a sense of security, and that sense of security can dampen your stress response and improve the functioning of your frontal cortex,” Wu said. So if you’re feeling lonely and you’re bored, don’t use your credit card. Instead, call a friend or set up a meeting. Your bank balance and your sanity will benefit.

Looking for a deeper dive into what’s really going on in your brain when mindless shopping (and how companies encourage this behavior)? Then watch the full six-minute video below:

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


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