Fend off Black Friday regret with science

Maybe you don’t really need that.

Person online shopping and holding credit card in front of computer on
Black Friday is the shopping equivalent of a crazy night out with your friends. Let's hope there's no hungover equivalent for this, though. Rawpixel via Deposit Photos

I can never resist the allure of a new gadget to play with—especially if it’s on sale. A few months ago, I bought a new smartwatch, telling myself it’d be great to keep up with work notifications throughout the day, and track my distance while running. After researching the latest models and hunting down deals, I finally pulled the trigger.

Three months later, I rarely use it. There’s nothing wrong with it—it does everything I hoped it would. I just don’t often feel the need to wear it in place of my normal watch. I had more fun doing the research and building anticipation than I actually did owning the product.

Online shopping has made it easier than ever to buy stuff without a second thought. “It’s less tangible,” says journalist Kristin Wong, author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. “When you click the button and put it on a credit card, it feels like Monopoly money. It’s so easy that I’ve accidentally bought stuff on Amazon.” Couple that with the fact that we’ve come to value deal hunting more than actual ownership, and you’ve got a recipe for rampant, impulse consumerism.

That’s not to say buying things is inherently terrible. We wholeheartedly recommend buying things that genuinely make your life easier, and while most of us aren’t truly addicted, we could all stand to think a little more before we click that “Add to Cart” button.

Trick your brain into waiting

Woman in sunglasses holding shopping bags
Waiting to shop? What is waiting?freestocks.org on Unsplash

It’s easy to curb some of those casual impulses by putting some space between the urge and the purchase. Some like to adhere to what Wong calls the 24-hour rule: “Put it on your Amazon wish list, then wait,” she says. A 24-hour waiting period forces you to ask yourself if you actually want what you’re about to buy, or if you just don’t have control over your emotions. A lot of the pleasure we get from shopping comes from the anticipation of the item rather than actually owning it—so if you can ride that out before hitting “Confirm Order,” you might be able to ward off excess spending.

A browser extension called Amazon Contemplate does something similar, but on a smaller scale—any time you try to check out, it forces you to wait 30 seconds, lightly taunting you about your impulse spending. Sometimes that’s all you need.

It also helps to remove yourself from all those retail newsletters and sale alerts, unless you’re tracking a specific item you already have on your wishlist or have previously searched for. Those newsletters are designed to increase a sense of urgency, leading you to want to buy the item now—instead of giving yourself that waiting period.

Wong has gone so far as to make a list of all the clothes she currently has. “Just having a list of things I already own is such an effective deterrent for not buying more stuff,” she says.

And of course, there’s the old standby: unlinking your credit card information from Amazon and other sites. If you have to go find your card and type in the numbers, you’re building in extra time that may lead you to rethink the purchase.

Examine why you spend

You can freeze that credit card in a block of ice if you want, but it’s not going to stop you every time. “I really think these tricks work,” says Wong, “but at some point, you have to get down to the root of the problem. You have to figure out why you’re inclined to spend that money. Is it stress? Is it emotional? What kind of need are you trying to fulfill when this happens?” Because when the urge is strong, you’ll eventually cave and re-enter those credit card numbers.

Figuring this out is a bit different for everyone, and will take some self-examination to uncover. Some people, for example, impulse-buy utilitarian products instead of luxury items, because it gives them a sense of control over their life. “I have a big problem spending on clothes,” Wong says. “It feels like I’m fixing a problem—the problem being ‘I am not stylish at all.’ But I feel like if I just buy the right clothes, and have the perfect capsule wardrobe, then I will solve the problem.” Others may pursue the biggest discounts possible because they love the chase. Or maybe, like me, you just get bored, and your time gravitates toward shopping.

If you can figure out what the impulse is really trying to achieve, you can replace it with something else.

Find another way to get your fix

Stressed teenager
Buyer's remorse—we've all been there. vlue via Deposit Photos

When designer and illustrator Sarah Lazarovic found herself in this never-ending shopping cycle, she started painting the things she wanted instead of buying them (eventually turning those paintings into a book called A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy). By doing so, she redirected her energy into something more productive. This inspired what she calls the “Buyerarchy of Needs”—riffing off of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—to help others redirect their energy, too. It looks like this:

The Buyerarchy of Needs pyramid by Sara Lazarovic
Sara Lazarovic suggests using what you have. If you can’t, suggestions go from borrowing, swapping, thrifting, to making, and then, at the very end, when all else has failed, then you can buy.Courtesy of Sara Lazarovic from her book "A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did not Buy."

Wong loves this approach. “Our default in fixing a problem, or in getting that dopamine hit, is to spend money,” she says. “But before you buy, ask yourself if there’s a way to fix this problem without spending money.” For example, you could borrow the item from someone else, or thrift it at a much lower price—tapping into that deal-hunting desire.

I experienced this myself recently when my phone started to show its age. Not only had battery life degraded after two years of use, but it would stall at random times while I was using it—despite having perfectly capable hardware. It would have been easy to move on and buy a new phone (and, admittedly, I did start searching) but I decided to replace the battery myself and do a factory reset before shelling out the cash. Not only did it work—my phone is running better than ever—but I feel a lot more attached to the device now that I’ve put my own blood, sweat, and screwdrivers into it.

“Decluttering and getting rid of things can give you the same sense of productivity,” Wong says. “Consumerism makes you feel like you’re curating a collection of material goods, but getting rid of stuff can help you feel that way too.” Heck, you can even rearrange the items in a room to give yourself that novelty you crave from new things. Don’t let this backfire, of course—the more you get rid of or the more space you make in a room, the more you may feel you need to buy later on.

“I don’t think consumption is bad,” Wong explains. “Sometimes it’s okay to spend money, it’s okay to be impulsive. Just budget for it.” That way, when Black Friday comes along, you can give yourself a set amount of splurge money—and you won’t feel guilty for spending it.