The Sneaky Mind Trick That May Lead to Overspending

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overspendingWell, you’ve found them: the sandals of your dreams. Sure, $499 is pretty steep, and technically you weren’t planning to buy shoes today. But hey, you’ve only spent $20 on accessories this month! Go for it.

But wait … What’s that receipt lurking in the inner pocket of your wallet? $200 for a belt at Bloomingdale’s? Busted.

Your excuse: You forgot exactly how much you spent earlier that day. And the scary part is that, no matter how lame your story sounds, it’s actually sort of true.

In fact, a new study finds that, when faced with the chance to make a new purchase, highly impulsive people often distort their memories of spending money in the recent past. That way they can feel as though they’re making progress on their money goals even when they aren’t. In other words, you really did forget about that extra $200, at least temporarily.

In one part of the study, researchers asked participants to imagine that they were trying to save money. Then they asked participants to envision themselves receiving a check and spending a portion of it at the mall. Next, some of the subjects were prompted to pretend that they saw a pair of shoes they loved.

Finally, everyone was asked to describe their initial shopping experience (when they spent part of their check). It turns out the more impulsive individuals who were presented with the opportunity to buy the shoes remembered spending a smaller amount of their budget than the rest of the participants.

So what’s the solution for forgetful budgeters? The study authors suggest keeping a detailed journal of past indulgences (and actually consulting it when you’re about to splurge on something new). Another option might be to shop with a trustworthy buddy who won’t let you “forget” any expenditures—and will celebrate your efforts when you exercise self-control.