Buy, spend, repeat

How To Trick Your Brain So You Can Save Money

This is the story of your life: you want to be a mature and financially responsible adult capable of handling your own money, except you tend to be your own worst enemy. Notwithstanding your good intent, saving enough of your cash for that rainy day seems like an impossible task. So every month, right before payday, you wonder where all your money went and why you’re suddenly broke again. The cycle repeats itself, over and over, ad nauseaum.

To help you in your path to financial wellness, in this article, we’re giving you five ways you can trick your brain and psychological impulses so you can save money and limit the instances when you fall into the trap of compulsive shopping.

1. Use cash, not credit.


Cash by JM Rosenfield via

Citing a study on compulsive shoppers,  psychologist Ryan Howell notes that compulsive buyers, or at least those who suffer terrible financial and emotional consequences from their shopping behavior, are usually individuals who shop in response to negative emotions or a “negative awareness of the self”. Some people value material things, and they take this value to the extreme when they have the right tools. This is especially true for compulsive buyers with credit cards, since it doesn’t feel like they are spending real money. The positive effects they get from buying something for themselves is disconnected from the psychological discomfort of parting with their own hard-earned money.

For compulsive shoppers, it’s necessary limit your access to credit cards. Paying for something with cash (especially items which are really expensive like luxury bags or accessories) hurts more than paying with credit and may force you to rethink trivial purchases. If you absolutely need a credit card for specific items, keep only one and leave it at home unless bringing it with you is absolutely necessary.

2. Use the words “I don’t” instead of “I can’t”.

Shop Window

Shop Window by zoetnet via

This is a neat psychological trick successfully used by people who want to lose weight, which might also find application in financial planning. Instead of saying “I can’t buy an expensive bag”, say instead “I don’t buy expensive bags”. If done properly, you will notice a subtle shift in your brain which makes it easier to accept the second proposition than the first.

This is because the second proposition (“I don’t”) is couched as an empowering refusal which promotes self-control and greater self-awareness, while the first proposition (“I can’t”) only feels like you’re denying yourself something you actually really want. It’s a small change, but it can help you a lot towards positive behavioral control.

3. Pay yourself first before anything else.

Pay yourself

Please pay here by Steven Depolo via

First things first, you need to contribute a percentage of your money to your savings account every payday before spending any of your earnings. When financial planners say that you should “pay yourself first”, this is what they mean. You should act like your savings account is another utility/bill that needs to be paid each month so that your brain never feels like the money you save is accessible and real.

For those who want to save more, I suggest that you treat any increase in salary as a corresponding increase in your “savings bill”. People have a tendency to upgrade their lifestyles (by buying a new car, a bigger house or just fancier clothes) every time they get a salary increase and that may create a difficult situation in the future when those same people receive pay cuts or lose their jobs. By maintaining a certain modest lifestyle which costs only a portion of what you earn, you allow yourself some financial flexibility in case of a career emergency. This will also allow you to save more money in the process.

4. Create a system that makes saving money involuntary.

Banks usually have automatic savings system which takes out a portion of your salary each month and deposits it in a different account. Avail of these services if you’re particularly prone to compulsive shopping. In this case, since you don’t actually receive the money (since it’s automatically deducted from your paycheck), you’ll never miss it.

Check out a comprehensive discussion on how to set up an automatic savings system by Frugal Pinoy here.

5. Create barriers to spending.

Credit card in ice

Untitled by Paul Stocker via

On the flip side, to minimize your ability to succumb to temptation, you should create barriers to spending. We suggest doing the following: cancelling your credit cards, leaving your ATM cards at home, imposing a daily allowance on yourself and carrying only that amount with you, unsubscribing from mailing lists of your favorite brands, limiting your trips to the mall etc. There are many more ways you can do this, but the basic theory is that if you make the process of spending your own money difficult enough, it will give you time to slow down and curb your appetite to shop compulsively.

Featured photo by Douglas Muth (“Buy. Spend. Repeat.”) via

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