Why Our Brains Want to Buy New Stuff, Even When We Don't Need It


Ask anyone why they want new things, and you'll get almost the same answer from each of them: It will make their lives better. Or at least, that's what they believe. It's not a new concept, and we're all aware of it, but that doesn't stop us from either buying impulsively or fighting the desire to buy new things. It's the reason people lease a car for three years; they know they'll want a new model soon enough. And we all have a list of what we would buy if we suddenly inherited money, won the lottery, or simply found $20 in a jeans pocket. (See also: Why You Blow Your Tax Refund but Not Your Raise)

With the New Year now in full swing, many of us are moving forward with goals for 2014. These New Year's Resolutions range from calorie diets to debt diets, but most of us give in to old habits quickly. One of the biggest is overspending on new things that we just don't need. And it all boils down to two different aspects of our psyche: emotional triggers, and behavioral ones.

1. We Like Novelty

Our brains are actually made to be attracted to novelty. It's part of the brain's natural desire to seek out new experiences, which provides us with stimulation and improves learning capacity. That means we're fighting hard-wired instincts to seek out something new and different, every single day.

For example, take buying a new car. When you enter the dealership, you're excited. The new car has everything you want, and then some. It smells wonderful. It's pristine. It will change the way you live your life! This is the car for you, forever. (See also: How Much Should You Spend on a New Car?)

Well, not really. Within a year, or less, your eyes are already be searching for that next ride because the one you have is no longer impressive. It's lost its luster. It's dusty in places. There are dirty footprints on the floor. The new smell? Gone. The novelty disappears as we become familiar with it.

Advertising plays its part in this, of course. As an ad man with almost twenty years of experience, I know all too well the tricks and psychological manipulation used to have people drooling for the latest, greatest products. We are taught in college that we must create a hole, and then fill it. But that hole will never be filled. (See also: What Car Salesmen Don’t Want You to Know)

After understanding this hardwiring, it's easy to then understand some of the other reasons people constantly seek out new things, despite a lack of need.

2. We Get Bored

This ties into the novelty idea, but also the simple nature of something to do. Bright lights, upbeat music, fun displays — stimulation! Boredom can be the reason you start flicking through the deal sites, perhaps looking for something interesting for a birthday or anniversary. Before you know it, you're checking out online for something you had absolutely no intention of buying. (See also: Frugal Ways to Fight Boredom)

3. We Crave Excitement

Shopping can release the same endorphins in your brain that are released during sex, taking drugs, or eating chocolate. It's thrilling to spend money. For a second, we believe the brand new thing we have will make our lives so much better. Of course, this stimulation wears off quickly, and like a drug, we soon want to have that euphoric feeling again. This is one of the reasons some people can go into severe debt and bankruptcy. They have a home filled with things they don't want, and no money in the bank. Yet, they cannot fight the addiction.

4. We Create Distractions

We are all guilty of this. If there is a consuming issue at hand that you can't remedy at the moment, such as medical test results, work concerns, relationship woes, then going shopping can be a wonderful distraction. It's a pause from the worries of life, even if the worries are financial. Indeed, it's ironic that some people will go shopping, spending money they don't have, to avoid facing their financial problems. It's an easy trap to fall into.

5. We Bow to Peer Pressure

This is the classic example of keeping up with the Joneses. They say we measure our misery, and our happiness, by our surroundings. And this is the reason many people can go into debt just by trying to keep up with a more affluent family next door. They get a new car, so you want a new car. They get new bikes, so you want new bikes. They get a 70" TV, so you get a 70" TV. The tragedy is, many of these people are living way beyond their means. But because you see only greener grass, and will do anything to live on it. (See also: How Peer Pressure Keeps You Poor)

6. We Are Often Passive Aggressive

Shopping can be a way to stick it to your spouse. This is something often seen on shows like Dr. Phil, where a neglected spouse will spend money like crazy to punish their partner, and "hit 'em where it hurts." Of course, while it may feel good in the short term to spend his or her money, it's ultimately a behavior that will come back on you.

7. We Practice Symptom Substitution

This one is a big problem for people who replace one problem, or addiction, with another. For some, quitting smoking will lead to excessive shopping. For others, it's giving up food or alcohol.

There are many other reasons as well, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-esteem issues, poor body image, past poverty, and deprivation. These are all symptoms we will substitute with overshopping, filling one void with another.

So, How Can We Fight The Desire for New Stuff?

Well, it's not so much fighting the desire. It's more about not giving in to those feelings. If you find yourself in Target, or on Amazon, for no good reason, take a pause. It's much easier to control your impulses if you pay attention to them, rather than blindly shopping. (See also: Simple Ways to Stop Impulse Buying)

That simple pause is usually enough to make you stop and think. Then, ask yourself some easy questions:

  • How are you feeling?
  • Why am I here?
  • Do I need this?
  • What if I wait?
  • How do I pay?
  • Where will I put it?
  • Will this make my life better?
  • Will I regret this decision later?
  • Can I use the money for something else?

Look at the consequences, and even write them down. Use this online calculator to remind yourself of the high cost of credit card debt. Remember, this overspending on new stuff is a common problem. It's important to recognize it before it snowballs and creates a larger problem, not just financially, but emotionally.

How do you resist the allure of the new? Please share your tips in comments!

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