Impulse Buys and Post-Purchase Rationalization

When I was a child, I went to the store with enough birthday money in my pocket to buy a new game for my Nintendo. After carefully thinking about the options before me, I whittled my choice down to two video game titles: Rampage and Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. After hemming and hawing until my mother was getting quite frustrated, I finally settled on Rampage.

I took the game home, played it for an hour, and hated it. I mean, hated it. For some reason, the designers of the game made the choice to give all players infinite lives, which essentially meant that you could never lose. There was no real point to the game.

Even though it was obvious I had picked up a very disappointing game, I tried to make myself believe that it was a good choice. I would make regular attempts to play it. I would coerce my friends into playing it until they begged to play anything else. I even went so far as to play the other game I considered (Castlevania II) at my cousin’s house and tell myself that the game was awful, even though I actually liked that one quite a bit.

Although this is a very extreme example, we all do some form of this at various points in our lives. We buy something. It’s not up to the standards we expected at all. Yet, we want to believe that we didn’t waste our resources, so we try to rationalize the purchase.

Three observations about post-purchase rationalization from my own life

It happens much more often with impulse buys than with carefully-planned purchases.

Let’s roll back to that video game analogy, above. My game purchase was pretty impulsive. I didn’t have access to a wide range of reviews of the two games. In fact, I mostly made the purchase on the spur of the moment. My choice resulted from remembering a fun afternoon at an arcade with my cousin in which we played several games of Rampage together. Today, I make most of my purchases in a vastly different way. I usually research the choices into oblivion. I read reviews. I ask myself if I really need this item and, if I do, whether or not this particular item gives me adequate bang for my buck. That doesn’t mean I’m immune to impulse buys. They strike me still with some regularity, most often in a bookstore or in a grocery store. Sometimes I’ll be happy with my choice; at other times, I’ll read the book or consume the item and feel pretty disappointed.

I often try to forget about those poor purchases.

Rather than thinking about them, I usually try to sweep them under the rug. I’ll toss out the remainder of an awful food item just to get it out of my eye. I’ll quickly trade away a disappointing book. My method for “rationalization” of those purchases often comes in the form of simply getting them out of my sight – and thus, often, out of my mind.

When I can’t get rid of the purchase, I usually try to “break” it.

I don’t mean that I attempt to smash the item or anything. Instead, I try to use it heavily to force the item to either prove itself or to fail in some distinctive way so that I have a reason to replace it. Think kitchen items, for example; if I buy a knife that doesn’t “click,” I’ll try using it all the time until I discover a true use for it or I discover so many flaws that it’s replace-worthy. In its own way, this is a justification mechanism, as I’m forcing myself to either justify the purchase or justify a replacement for it.

Stop the Impulsive Buy

These three observations lead straight to a few solutions to keep post-purchase rationalization from ever becoming an issue.

Simply curb those impulse buys.

Instead, write down the item and research it a bit. If you still want it and can still afford it, buy it later on. Walk away from it, though, if you don’t know anything about it other than what’s on the shiny packaging.

If an item doesn’t work for you, admit it.

Don’t try to beat yourself up over it, or stubbornly use it while making a mess of everything else (which can often happen with a kitchen implement, for example). If you made a mistake, admit that you made a mistake. Then, ask yourself how to deal with that mistake.

Once you recognize the mistake, focus on a good solution for it.

Can you trade away the item for something you actually will use? Does the item still have resale value? Turn that mistake into something more positive by quickly turning it into some form of a gain in your life. For example, if I read a book I don’t like, I almost always trade it away quickly on PaperBackSwap and then get a book that I will enjoy. This way, I at least wind up getting some value for the money I spent.

Don’t rationalize your mistakes. Instead, face them and look for ways to improve on your choices. A mistake is an opportunity to improve yourself.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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