How to Identify Your Spending Triggers

Thousands of consumers find themselves trapped in a never ending loop of purchasing items they find they do not even want. However, the next day the same consumers find themselves repeating the same behavior. Why?

Spending triggers, or triggers of any kind, is a situation, thought or action that causes you to initiate a behavior. In this case, that behavior is spending money.

Experts state that spending triggers are almost always tied to some underlying emotion, usually negative emotions such as anger, frustration or shame. Spending money releases certain chemicals in your brain that temporarily make you feel better, but inevitably wear off. In essence, the spending is simply masking the issue for a short time. Learning how to identify the emotions and the situations triggering those emotions is the key to controlling some of your spending habits.

What are you avoiding?

One of the first questions to ask yourself is if you are buying something to avoid facing a difficult situation, person or decision. Taking a piece of paper and writing down anything you may be avoiding, then stopping to reflect on how that corresponds with your spending sprees may uncover the trigger. Do you step across the street every day at 1:30 to get a soda and a candy bar because you are hungry or because you dread going back into your office? Are you shopping because when you go home you know you have to do something you do not want to do?

Out with the Bad, In with the Good

Developing a habit happens slowly over time, experts state, so eliminating your spending trigger may take some time. One of the keys to success in eliminating the behavior is to find a better, more positive habit, to deal with the emotion experienced by the situation.

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For example, instead of stepping across the street every day and spending five or six dollars on junk food, just to avoid going back into your office after lunch, opt for a positive substitution. That can be leaving yourself something nice on your desk for when you return, or perhaps seeing if it is possible to change offices with someone. If it is the job that is impacting you, see if there is something that can be changed about the job, increasing or decreasing responsibilities, or trying something innovative and new.

Look for Patterns

Triggers may not always be easy to spot, or it may be easy to talk yourself out of recognizing them. However, if you track your spending and write down what you bought and how you were feeling before and after your purchase, you begin to see patterns in behavior.

For example, maybe you were coming up for a performance review and treated yourself to a new power suit before the review. Then after the review you treated yourself to a new pair of shoes to go with the power suit. Were you feeling pressured to spend that money to show someone how successful you were? Were you stressed, thinking the reviewer did not like you? Often, it is the need to be away from certain people who trigger your spending. This is especially true if you perceive the other person as somehow superior to you in some way. Keep this journal for at least a month and the pattern will emerge.

How to Deal with Spending Triggers

In the scenario above, spending on a power suit to feel more successful was the trigger identified. However, it may not be financially feasible to purchase a whole new set of clothes each time you feel inferior to someone else. New habits can replace old ones if they are achievable and small at first. The emotional trigger in the above scenario is stress and feeling inadequate. Therefore, a good question to ask is what the person can do to de-stress and fell less inferior to co-workers. Is there a class he or she can take? Maybe a makeover, or time spent learning how to rebrand him or herself could remove the trigger.

Typical Spending Trigger Mindsets

The following list is experienced by consumers who identified themselves as spending money when they really did not intend to do so. If you can identify with any of the following categories, then you are a trigger spender and chances are, you could save a lot of money each month simply by recognizing and modifying your perspective and emotional reactions. Trigger spenders use most of the following excuses to spend:

  • I’ve earned it.
  • Everyone else has it.
  • I need it for work.
  • Spending to save.
  • Social spending.
  • Retail therapy.

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While there is nothing wrong with offering yourself rewards for accomplishments but it is a slippery slope and eventually anything you do can deserve a reward. Select rewards that you already have, like a nice meal at home, or making time to spend on a hobby you have already started. Other spending triggers happen as a result of competition, referred to popularly as “Keeping up with the Joneses”. Most who fall prey to this trigger are feeling inferior or do not feel as if they fit in. Having what everyone else has makes the consumer feel as if he or she will finally fit in. Unfortunately, this is a false assumption.

The trigger or impulse to spend money to save money is even more false. Most often spending money to make money never produces the intended results. If you like to go shopping with your friends, then understand you most likely will spend more than you intend. Why? You will try and match your friend’s spending or purchasing habits. This extends to meals, vacations or activities with friends. One way to override the spending trigger is to focus exclusively on your friend, assisting him or her with the purchase, giving opinions and enjoying his or her experience (not the price tag).

One of the most common triggers is boredom or guilt. Have to kill some time before a meeting? How many times have you found yourself going into your favorite store just to browse while waiting for an appointment or meeting? Consequently, shopping to avoid feelings of guilt is another common trigger. Identifying the guilt, making a plan to deal with it often circumvents the guilt. The key to any of the triggers is to identify them, then deal with them.

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