Impulse spending doesn’t seem like too terrible a habit the moment it happens. Sure, it was only 20 or 30 dollars. But over the month, the practice can sneak up on you. Impulse spending alone can drive your credit card bill up to levels that leave you reeling. Ending the bad habit can be tricky. Like with trying to lose weight and keep it off through dieting, forbidding yourself often backfires. It kicks up your cravings when dieting, and makes you want to spend even more. You’ll see plenty of places tell you to just follow the 30 day rule to fix it, but is that really the best method?
First of all, what is the 30 day rule? Some budgeting experts and banks suggest it as a way to curb your impulse spending. Theoretically, it’s simple. Whatever you want to buy in the moment, you put it back. You walk away. You can come back and buy it if you still want it in one month. The 30 day rule sounds simple and on the surface like it might just work. The problem is that same connection with dieting.
Why delaying gratification is a good method
Delaying gratification might be painful, but it’s worth the effort. Financially, more money in the bank means you’re racking up interest. So you’re not just stopping the spending, but also actively making money for telling yourself no. No one’s going to argue with more money.
But the benefits of delayed gratification go well beyond that. The marshmallow test, or Stanford marshmallow experiment, is now famous. Books, podcasts, and TV shows reference this study. Thousands of parents probably subject their poor kids to informal versions of the test at home each year. In case you missed the resurgence in interest in this series of studies done in the 1960s and 1970s, let us fill you in. The researchers gave children two options: enjoy one marshmallow now, or wait 15 minutes and enjoy 2 marshmallows. Some of the poor kids had to sit alone faced with the sugary snack, and all faced a big decision.
Researchers and psychologists have claimed that the test is a good predictor of future success. Now, plenty of people have pointed out that’s a stretch. The initial test’s results indicate the ability to delay gratification might have a lot to do with age. But for adults, delaying gratification has real value. (We know that. It’s why we seek out solutions like the 30 day rule.) And it requires you to think logically about short-term versus long-term value.
Why it’s so hard to say no to impulse spending
OK, it sounds easy, right? We all know that putting money in a saving account where it racks up interest is better for us than buying another pair of shoes. We know and yet we keep buying the shoes (or whatever object it is). But it’s not just you. Humans in general are really bad at this sort of thing. So bad, in fact, that researchers have been trying for years to pick apart why our brains struggle so much with this.
Researchers suggest that short-term decisions are made with the emotional part of our brains. Long-term decisions, on the other hand, tap into the part of our brains responsible for abstract reasoning. That’s why, they hypothesize, we feel that tug when faced with a decision like impulse spending.
“Our emotional brain has a hard time imagining the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions,” a head researcher on a study on this exact subject explained. “Our emotional brain wants to max out the credit card, order dessert and smoke a cigarette. Our logical brain knows we should save for retirement, go for a jog and quit smoking. To understand why we feel internally conflicted, it will help to know how myopic and forward-looking brain systems value rewards and how these systems talk to one another.”
Translation: the different parts of your brain value rewards differently. Trying to curb your impulse spending taps into both parts of your brain, resulting in your internal struggle. But there is an easy way to get around this.
The 30 day rule and a new alternative
The 30 day rule is a long standing suggestion for curbing your impulse spending. It might work for you. I, however, find it tedious and labor intensive. I don’t want to put so much work into something I’m (hopefully) going to decide I don’t actually need after all. Experts suggest writing down the name of the object and the price and posting it somewhere you can see it. Each day, you take a look at that object and slowly form an opinion on whether you want it or not.
It makes sense, and it might be the perfect solution for you. But you might also find that you can keep talking yourself into a purchase you don’t actually need for 30 days. I’ve found that the best way for me to curb my impulse spending is a simple one week rule. I don’t write down the name or price of the item, and it’s on purpose.
My one week rule is simple. If I’m still thinking about the object one week later, without any reminders, then I can go back and buy it. It’s tough to estimate how frequently this rule works since it functions off of me forgetting about the item. But I can tell you with confidence that it has drastically slashed my impulse spending. If I can’t remember what I wanted and how much it was one week later, I clearly don’t need it or want it that badly.