Despite our best intentions, it's easy to be fooled—by emotions, clever advertising, shiny objects—into shelling out more than we anticipated. Yes, we're looking at you over there with a shopping cart full of unplanned purchases.
And the worst part? You can speed down the road to perpetual overspending without even recognizing the warning signs.
So to help shield you from sabotaging your budget, we’re exposing eight common overspending triggers—along with smart strategies for how to hit the spending brakes before it's too late.
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1. You Scored A "Deal"
Finding that covet-worthy pair of jeans at a drastic markdown may just be one of life’s greatest rushes. No, wait—it’s when you finally redeem the $5 rewards coupon you’ve been working toward at the drugstore.
Alright, it feels good to get pretty much any kind of deal.
But Reef Karim, D.O., a psychiatrist and director of a California addiction treatment facility, cautions against falling down this bargain-obsessed rabbit hole. “For certain people, when they feel like they’re getting a deal, they’re more likely to spend—and keep spending—because they’re getting this euphoric response from it,” Karim says.
Retailers are well aware of this response—and use it to hook shoppers. According to a Fox Business report, stores will often make it appear as if everything is on sale to appeal to frugal shoppers. They may also raise prices, just so they'll have the opportunity to mark them down.
How to Overcome the Overspending Urge Shoppers can—and should—take advantage of legitimately good bargains that can save them money. Just keep this rule in mind: “A deal is never a deal if you have to finance the item on your credit card,” says consumer savings maven Regina Novickis. “Accruing interest instantly negates it.”
Also, make sure to really evaluate the sale before taking the plunge—especially if you're addicted to sites like Groupon and LivingSocial, which incentivize spending.
So ask yourself: Is the deal really that sweet if it's for an item you don't need? Sure, getting a $300 designer lamp at 50% off might be a steal—if you’re in the market for one and budgeted for it. Otherwise, you just dropped $150 for no good reason.
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2. You're Basking In A New Home Purchase
The overwhelming desire to make over your digs—also known as new home syndrome—brings out the spender in the best of us. Window coverings, fancy appliances and “essential” furniture purchases can quickly add up.
Need proof? A 2013 survey between American Express and Echo Research found that nearly three quarters of homeowners planned to spend roughly $4,000 to revamp their digs—and more than $300 of it was allocated for accessories.
Scharr-Bykowsky recently met potential clients who purchased two new cars, a Caribbean vacation and more—all within the first month of receiving an inheritance.
However, there’s a difference between essential buys and an outright splurge. Do you really need that flat-screen TV or do you just want it because you’re in a new home?
How to Overcome the Overspending Urge Before packing up your boxes, identify your must-haves for the new place—then create a realistic spending plan to purchase them. “The key is to realize that you can’t do it all at once, so set a budget for things that are essential post-move and those that can wait,” says Laura Scharr-Bykowsky, a Certified Financial Planner™ based in Columbia, S.C.
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3. You Hit the Jackpot
Banking some unexpected cash—by way of a tax refund, work bonus or inheritance—provides a great opportunity for responsible savers to up their savings account balances. But coming into money can also rev up our spending engines.
According to Novickis, it's due to the fact that windfalls can feel disconnected from your everyday budget. "It's called mental accounting," she says, "which basically means that you treat your ‘winnings’ less cautiously than you would your regular earnings."
Case in point? Lottery winners who go broke.
How to Overcome the Overspending Urge “If there is no upfront plan [for the windfall], the money starts to burn a hole in people’s pockets,” says Scharr-Bykowsky, who recently met potential clients who purchased two new cars, a Caribbean vacation and more—all within the first month of receiving an inheritance.
A better approach? Make a plan for your cash before dipping into it.
If you don’t have six months’ worth of emergency money on hand, Scharr-Bykowsky suggests making that savings goal your first priority. Once you've checked that money to-do off your list, then apply a chunk of the cash toward your retirement.
After that, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend some of the money on fun stuff. “Just make sure it’s not the entire amount—and that you’re still contributing to your overall financial goals,” Novickis says. A good rule of thumb: Splurge with 10% of the funds, and budget the rest accordingly for big-picture financial goals.
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4. You’re Job Hunting
You already knew it was important to dress the part when meeting a prospective employer for an interview, but here's research that proves it: According to a 2011 study, it only takes someone a quarter of a second to judge your competence and trustworthiness, based on—you guessed it—your appearance.
There's just one problem: A polished, professional look doesn’t come cheap. For a basic suit, men can expect to pay anywhere from $300 to $599, while women may fork over roughly $300 for an interview-appropriate ensemble.
And that’s not all job-seekers may be tempted to shell out for—eager job hunters often opt for things like a premium LinkedIn membership, which allows users to garner more information about who’s been viewing their profiles.
How to Overcome the Overspending Urge If you can make it work within your budget, investing in one high-quality outfit, like a stellar interviewing suit, can be well worth your cash—as long as you take care of it and make it last.
Another thing to keep in mind: “Sometimes job-search-related expenses can be tax-deductible,” Scharr-Bykowsky says, so talk to your accountant—and keep track of your receipts if you anticipate itemizing your deductions.
And when it comes to those oh-so-tempting LinkedIn upgrades, opt for the basic, free subscription if the expense is out of your budget. With a little elbow grease, you’re likely to have just as much luck reaching out to friends and acquaintances, and utilizing social media, to establish valuable contacts. According to a Forbes report, 65% of recruiters use Facebook and 55% use Twitter to seek out candidates.
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5. You’re Keeping Up With the Joneses
We all have them: high-rolling pals who have no problem throwing money around. And since nobody likes to feel like the cheapskate in the group, meeting up with these types of friends usually leads to a spending hangover the next morning.
“Our identities are often tied to our purchasing habits, especially in public,” Karim says. “So when we’re out with friends, and we want to make a statement or fit in, our purchasing habits can define us.”
“Pick a friend who’ll be your savings buddy, just like people who team up for accountability when they want to lose weight. If you have a friend who counteracts the high-spending ones, it will help.”
How to Overcome the Overspending Urge If possible, try to seek out ways to spend time with your friends without shelling out quite so much, like meeting up for coffee or going on a hike.
But if you’ve committed to a social situation where you can’t avoid going out on the town, Scharr-Bykowsky suggests buddying up with someone who’s also looking to curb the overspending urge.
“Pick a friend who’ll be your savings buddy, just like the people who team up for accountability when they want to lose weight,” she says. “If you have a friend who counteracts the high-spending ones, it will help.” With a buddy backing you up, you might be able to convince the group to start the night at a cheaper restaurant.
And according to research out of Vanderbilt University and Texas A&M University, there's another upshot: Friends who jointly battled urges to overspend felt more connected to each other.
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6. You’re Kicking Back on Vacation
Excursions, spa treatments and $20 bottles of sunscreen from the resort gift shop often go hand in hand with a relaxing getaway—but they also come at a cost.
According to a 2013 American Express study, the average American spends about $1,145 on summer travel alone. And a chunk of that cash, according to Scharr-Bykowsky, is likely due to lack of proper planning.
“The problem people come into is that they’ll budget for just the airfare and the hotel, but they forget about the extras and end up going way over budget,” she says.
How to Overcome the Overspending Urge Plotting out your vacation spending money is all about making trade-offs, says Scharr-Bykowsky. If you want to splurge on a higher-end hotel, then plan to cut back on the number of fancy restaurant dinners you'll indulge in.
As for a way to keep those fun vacay “extras” in check, start thinking about the activities you might want to do long before you board that plane. If you do your homework ahead of time and pre-book excursions, you won’t be as tempted to pull the trigger on last-minute—and often costly—vacation adventures.
And Novickis has a bonus tip: “Calling the hotel concierge in advance is a good way to find out if they recommend any local providers and what their rates will be. At a minimum, you'll know the costs in advance.”
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7. You’re Celebrating a Special Occasion
Weddings, baby showers, job promotions, birthdays. The reasons to splurge in the name of celebration are endless. But whether you’re spending money on someone else or to treat yourself, the harsh reality is that all that celebrating adds up—fast.
According to Karim, several factors play into why people feel compelled to overspend on loved ones. “Their feelings of affection and connection trump practical needs to watch their spending,” he says. In other words, feelings take priority over practicality.
Another factor can be traced back to our relationship with money. Karim says that many of us use money as a way of winning someone over or developing an emotional connection. Other times, we use spending to show how much we care.
How to Overcome the Overspending Urge If you know you have a special occasion coming up, like a birthday or anniversary, start putting money aside well in advance so you're not financially slammed when the event finally rolls around. Even just $20 a week can add up to hundreds if you've got a few months to plan.
But if you're blindsided by a gift-giving occasion—or haven't had time to stash away quite enough cash—Scharr-Bykowsky says it's time to start thinking outside the box.
Scharr-Bykowsky recommends treating yourself to non-financial rewards that can be just as satisfying. The point is simple: Money isn’t the only way to pay yourself.
Instead of dropping a lot of money on a bouquet of roses to accompany the new necklace you’ve purchased for your significant other, opt for a handwritten love letter. In addition to costing you no additional money, your partner will likely be more touched by the sentiment.
Another smart tact? Offer your time by volunteering to address your best friend's wedding invitations, help make DIY favors for your cousin's baby shower, or whip up your father-in-law's favorite lunch to celebrate his retirement.
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8. You Just Feel Like It
Whether it’s to shake off a crummy day or toast to a good one, many of us turn to spending as a means of treating ourselves. “I deserve it!” we say as we clock out and head to the manicurist or our favorite restaurant.
The danger with this mindset, according to Karim, is that it directly links your mood to your spending habits—which is a slippery slope.
“When you have a general lack of feeling good, you do things to try and compensate for those feelings," Karim says. "For some people, it’s spending and buying things."
How to Overcome the Overspending Urge As always, reasonable splurges are OK—as long as they comfortably fit into your budget.
But if they don’t, or are becoming a little too frequent to justify, Scharr-Bykowsky recommends treating yourself to non-financial rewards that can be just as satisfying, like setting aside time to watch your favorite movie or indulging in a bowl of ice cream. The point is simple: Money isn’t the only way to pay yourself.
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