This Insidious Spending Habit Is Draining Your Bank Account, Stop It Tonight

Updated: November 14, 2022

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Woman checking phone on couch

Does the following situation sound familiar? After a long day at work, you come home worn out. You order takeout because you don’t have the energy to cook, and you pay with your credit card because you don’t have cash in your wallet. Once you’ve eaten, you turn on the TV, but you’re immediately distracted by a social media notification on your phone. You end up mindlessly scrolling, telling yourself it’s all a harmless distraction, until you become captivated by a product in your feed. You come to find the product is advertised at 25% off but only while supplies last. So you hastily add the product to your cart, paying $75 instead of the normal $100, and again charge your credit card because next month’s statement is not on your radar tonight.

Congratulations! You just spent a bunch of money that you probably didn’t intend to on a weeknight. If this sounds like you, take heart, you aren’t alone.

Why does this happen to us? Well, your brain got tired and sort of went on autopilot. While your brain was checked out, savvy marketers took advantage of its depleted dopamine state that values today’s pleasure over tomorrow’s savings. Here are some ways you can use your money and credit more responsibly.

Imagine What Your Night Would Have Looked Like If Your Best Self Were In Charge

If you weren’t so tired and hadn’t fallen into that well-worn trench of your evening routine, maybe your night would have been different. You would have cooked dinner instead of ordering take out. You would have stopped at the gym instead of driving straight home. Maybe you would have decided to check some items off your to-do list, like paying bills or doing the laundry, instead of sitting on the couch. So why didn’t you? Behavioral finance, the study of the psychology behind financial decision making, has answers for you. This field of study is powerful because it identifies the obvious, everyday financial pitfalls we experience, in an attempt to develop possible solutions.

You Know This Already: When You’re Tired You Have Less Willpower

Psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues’ research demonstrates that when we exert ourselves mentally, like a hard day at work, it depletes a limited resource — willpower.

Willpower is like a muscle: when you flex it, it gets tired, and it needs rest to operate again at its full strength. In one experiment, Dr. Baumeister’s team asked people to eat radishes while looking at a tempting chocolate dessert. Tortuous, right? Afterwards they were administered a puzzle that was impossible to solve and were observed to see how long they persisted in trying to solve it. They found radish eaters gave up twice as quickly as those that hadn’t been tempted.

Here’s an important thing to recognize — pleasure seeking in the here and now is our natural state. Sitting on the couch and doom-scrolling is the default for most of us, rather than say going to the gym, an act of will.

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Can you recognize when you have low willpower and delay decisions to later? For example, don’t make big decisions while you’re hungry, like the judges in this study who denied parole because they were hangry. Another tactic is to make a decision ahead of time, like putting screen time limits on your phone or meal prepping.

The Habits That Drain Your Wallet Aren’t Always Obvious

In our hypothetical example, you probably started scrolling social media out of habit. Your habit put you in the path of waiting marketers who then took advantage of your diminishing willpower.

Pay attention to these automatic or autopilot behaviors. Are there things you’re spending money on that are now simply a habit, or worse, on autopay? Habits are amazingly powerful in the way that they dictate our actions. Consider your morning routine. You don’t have to think about how to brush your teeth, put on clothes, or make the bed. You simply do it.

For years, Millennials have been making fun of Boomer’s “skip the latte” financial advice because those saved dollars aren’t going to pay off thousands of dollars of student loans or make a downpayment on a home.

While in today’s financial world, a penny save doesn’t necessarily translate to a penny earned, your caffeine cash does add up. Your daily purchase of a single origin doppio latte with two pumps of pumpkin spice syrup, though momentarily satisfying, is still a cash-draining habit.

Social media also has a more subtle effect on your budget; it puts us in the path of advertisers who prey on us when we’re at our most vulnerable.

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Once you’ve identified a habit that’s hurting your budget, try implementing some changes. The old proverb, “out of sight, out of mind,” is tried and true for habit breaking. For social media or other mobile shopping platforms, deleting apps can make it easier to break the habit by reducing your exposure. Another successful approach is substitution. Instead of scrolling through social media, read the news or play a game, like Wordle.

Yes, Marketers Are Using Your Psychology to Sell More

You’re on the couch in your weakened willpower state and marketers have a direct line into your psyche via your phone, which functions both as a convenient marketing tool and wallet. To help you identify when you’re being targeted, we’ve outlined some of the psychological tactics that marketers use.

Marketers Set Your Point of Reference to the List Price

Saving $25 dollars is great. But are you really saving $25? Anchoring is when we set a reference of some sort and evaluate our circumstances from that reference point. Because we’re anchored at $100, we convince ourselves we’re saving $25 dollars instead of spending $75.

Normally, your actively thinking brain can see right through this mental trap. But you don’t, because your brain is currently vegging out on the couch, low on willpower, and ready to mindlessly charge instead of thoughtfully spend. Anchoring happens everywhere, even in cases like discounts on auto insurance.

Marketers Use Your FOMO

Next, you, and the rest of humanity are driven by the fear of missing out on products, experiences, and events. Psychologists call this loss aversion, but we all know it as FOMO or fear of missing out. FOMO is a real psychological phenomenon revealing that the threat of a loss can be a more powerful motivator than a positive benefit. Marketers are coupling your brain’s perceived benefit of the product with its FOMO-prone tendency.

TIP: Recognize that when you see yourself responding to an advertised offer, you’re being manipulated. If you really need something, you’re going to do the searching and shopping — it won’t just magically appear in your feed. If you do end up with an “add to cart,” give yourself a 24 hour grace period before purchasing it.

Credit Cards Increase the Amount of Money You Spend

Finally in our weeknight example, you used your credit card that’s saved in your phone to pay for your spontaneous purchases. Credit cards make it easy to spend money, because you don’t have to worry about having cash, and your purchases are more easily justified through credit card lender’s reward programs. It can feel impossible to get through the day without making purchases with your credit cards, but leaving your card at home may help you save money.

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Checking your credit card balance can help you connect to what you owe and avoid one of the biggest mistakes in managing your credit card. One way to help build this habit is to bundle it with another activity. For instance, you could delay social media use until you’ve checked your credit card balance.

Know Who’s In Charge

Many of our financial mistakes boil down to not recognizing which version of ourselves is running the show. Much of our lives is governed by habit. It’s what makes us susceptible to marketing messages or missing simple math problems. If you can shift your decision making to times when your willpower is highest, you’ll have better financial outcomes, like treating yourself to Friday night out, rather than overspending on a Tuesday night.

About Doug Milnes, CFA

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Doug Milnes is a CFA charter holder with over 10 years of experience in corporate finance and the Head of Credit Cards at MoneyGeek. Formerly, he performed valuations for Duff and Phelps and financial planning and analysis for various companies. His analysis has been cited by U.S. News and World Report, The Hill, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and many other outlets.

Milnes holds a master’s degree in data science from Northwestern University. He geeks out on helping people feel on top of their credit card use, from managing debt to optimizing rewards.