A few days ago, I was in a pretty down mood. I mostly just wanted to curl up somewhere and hide from the whole world. I felt like a failure, mostly in a professional sense, but in a bit of a personal sense as well. I was really doubting my ability to write anything that could reach anyone.
I went for a drive. I had a weak reason for going – I intended to pick up a few items at the grocery store – but it was an trivial reason. I really didn’t need to go out at all. I didn’t really think that much about where I was going, either. I just felt like driving – simply doing something to make myself feel better.
Before I could blink, I found myself wandering around an electronics store. In my hands, I held a pair of headphones, and I was fully intending to buy them. Why? On the rare occasions when I actually listen to my iPod while walking around (instead of having it linked to speakers), I’m fairly frustrated by the “bud” headphones that come with the device, as they don’t fit in my ears very well. It’s not enough of an issue that I would ever rationally buy a pair of headphones to replace it – I might put it on my Amazon wish list (in case a desperate relative needs a gift idea for me at Christmas) and forget about it.
It was a complete impulse buy – something I hadn’t done in quite a while. I looked at the headphones for a while, even though I had already decided that I wasn’t actually going to walk out of the store with them. The question I kept asking myself, though, is why did I wind up in this situation?
This whole episode made it very clear to me how strong the emotional component to shopping really is. This entire journey – from leaving my house to going to the electronics store to holding a potentially expensive purchase in my hands (these were nice headphones).
I was in an emotional trough – and my immediate, almost automatic, reaction to that emotional trough was to buy something. It’s amazing to me that, almost three years after my financial epiphany, it’s still so easy to turn back to an old emotional crutch.
I’ve had a few days to reflect on this, and here’s what I’ve been thinking.
There can be – and there is for me – a strong emotional component to buying. This is something I’ve talked about quite often on The Simple Dollar, but this stunning little adventure outlines how true this is. If I were in a better mood, I would not have went to the electronics store. I was simply seeking a quick and easy mood lift – and I was seeking it through buying.
There’s an addiction component here as well. As I wrote the above story, I couldn’t help but think of how I was reminded of how people I know dealt with substance addictions. They would stay seemingly clear for years, then suddenly relapse back into their addiction. Almost always, I’d later find that the people who relapsed were suffering through a difficult time when they relapsed.
One powerful solution to this problem is to find other ways to lift my mood. A big part of the emotional valley I’m in is the presence of a pretty fierce Iowa winter (keeping me from going outside as much as I’d like) along with my fairly isolated daily schedule. Solutions? Go outside any time the weather cooperates and take a walk. Get some exercise. Interact with more people – I’m not entirely sure how to do this, but I’m looking for some community groups to join. Improving my mood makes me much less likely to reach out for an emotional crutch – which is what such impulse buying really is for me.
The ten second rule really came through for me here. I stopped at the checkout before making the purchase because the ten second rule is almost instinctual for me at this point. That little ten second pause made me reflect on why I was making that purchase – and I didn’t have a real reason at all. Instead, I put the headphones back on the shelf and walked out the door with money in my pocket and reflection on my mind.
If you are trying to get your financial life under control, you cannot let your emotions control your spending. The act of buying something will not bring you lasting happiness – just a little rush that will go away soon enough, leaving you right back where you were with less money in your pocket.