5 Ways to Stop Your Mindless Spending


The other night, as I was searching through new titles on my Kindle, I saw that Charles Duhigg, one of my favorite nonfiction authors, had published a new book that I could buy and download with a single click.

Despite the fact that Duhigg's research focuses on breaking bad habits and setting up good ones, I wasted no time in committing a wanton act of one-click buying.

This kind of spending without thought is remarkably easy these days. Nearly every device we touch gives us an opportunity to spend money, even if we never set foot in a brick-and-mortar store. But it is possible to make spending mindful again, without feeling overwhelmed or deprived.

Here are five ways to put an end to mindless spending for good.

1. Use Gift Cards for Online Purchases

My big mistake with my Kindle was allowing my credit card information to be synced for one-click ordering. Putting an additional layer of work between wanting a title and buying it can be enough to keep me from spending mindlessly.

That's why I've removed my credit card information from my Amazon account, and I have committed to using gift cards for my purchases. When I find something I want on Amazon (or another e-tailer), I purchase an electronic gift card through a third party site that benefits local charities. The extra effort required to get the gift card is enough of an annoyance that I know for sure whether or not the purchase is worthwhile, and it makes me feel good to know that institutions I care about will benefit when I do decide to buy.

More importantly, using gift cards removes the one-click purchase temptations, which have gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion.

2. Record All of Your Purchases

Writing down every single penny that you spend can be an eye-opening experience. Not only is this a good way to find the leaks in your budget, but it can also help disrupt your habit of mindless spending. Since you must take the time to write down the $0.99 for a new song on iTunes here and the $4.78 for a gourmet cupcake there, you will create enough space for yourself to think through each purchase and decide whether it is something you really want.

Additionally, many times you might find yourself thinking you really don't want to write down a particular purchase. If seeing the reality of what you have spent in black-and-white does not appeal, then you probably don't really want to spend the money and would be happier keeping it in your wallet.

3. Pay Attention to Context

Every habit you have depends upon a context. The environment is often the context or cue for you to engage in a particular habit.

For instance, when my mother was working to quit smoking over 30 years ago, she realized that she lit a cigarette every day in the car upon passing a certain landmark in her morning commute. During the first few weeks after she quit, she took an alternate route to work, making it easier to forgo that particular cigarette of the day.

Researchers have found that Mom's strategy works for any kind of habit. When movie-goers were given free popcorn (that happened to be stale) in a movie theater environment, those who habitually ate popcorn at the multiplex ate the same amount of the stale stuff as they would have eaten of a fresh batch. But put those habitual popcorn eaters in a conference room to watch a film with a free bag of stale popcorn, and they stopped eating the stuff — since the context did not activate their habit.

If you have a tendency to spend mindlessly in particular situations, such as when you go to happy hour with friends, find a way to change the context. For example, just shaking up which bar or what type of establishment you go to can be enough to stall your mindless spending habit. According to Psychology Today, any alternate activity is less likely to trigger your mindless habit.

4. Give Every Dollar a Home

My husband is paid on a monthly schedule, which means we feel remarkably flush on the first of every month. To keep ourselves from mindlessly getting takeout or wasting money on Pay-Per-View movies, we don't just let his paycheck sit in our checking account. Instead, we automatically transfer money to various savings accounts as soon as his salary hits the bank, leaving just enough to cover our monthly bills (with a cushion).

Knowing that every dollar that comes in has a specific purpose does a great deal to curb our mindless spending, since we would have to access savings in order to spend outside of our monthly budget.

5. Keep a Running List of Things You Need

We take convenience for granted these days. Many stores are open 24 hours, and something you order online can be on your doorstep the very next day. But many of the things that you need are not time sensitive — and waiting to make purchases can help you stop spending on unnecessary impulse items.

This is why it's a good idea to keep a list of needed items, rather than running out to the store or logging onto Amazon as soon as you realize what you are lacking. With a specific list in hand at a brick-and-mortar store, you are less likely to "browse" and find something that you think you can't live without.

In addition, keeping a list of needed items can help you overcome the "free shipping" trap of online purchases. If you wait to make orders online until you have enough items to qualify for free shipping, you don't end up buying things you don't really want just to get some of that sweet free shipping action.

Breaking Bad Habits

Spending your money without thinking about it is nothing more than a habit, and habits can be broken and changed. You do not have to give up the things you really want as long as you are mindful of what you are spending your money on.

What are you doing to curb mindless spending?

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Guest's picture
Lady in the Black

I am just starting on taking care of my personal finances....after years of neglect. I really love the "give every dollar a home" concept. I recently started multiple savings accounts each with automated deposits. We will see how it goes! I am optimistic!

I'd love to know if you use a particular tool for tracking expenses. I tried an app but couldn't stick with it for more than a couple of days.

Great article!

Guest's picture

Very informative, lots of great ideas!

Guest's picture

I find that my dire financial circumstances have chipped away at my usually fiscally responsible behavior and turned me into this being intent on deepening the ditch. These are some great tips and I think writing down my purchases will force me to try and curb this destructive habit.