Updated on 01.13.08

Handling Unexpected Social Spending Situations

Trent Hamm

I’m currently on the west coast in the midst of a business trip. My hotel sits across the road from a shopping mall far nicer than any in the entire state of Iowa. Unsurprisingly, during a break in meetings, a group of us went over there to wander around. It didn’t take long before most members of our group had purchased something – myself included (I got a simple edible souvenir for my wife and for my son – mine was the most modest purchase of any member of the group).

However, the real trouble came when we entered various stores, particularly (for me) Williams-Sonoma and The Apple Store. At both places, I was incredibly tempted to spend money. I saw item after item that I deeply wanted and lusted after. Yet I managed to not open my wallet at either place.

To me, this is one of the reasons for my financial turnaround. I’ve learned some self-control in these situations, and I applied it in spades today. Here’s how I did it.

I attempt to stay away if I can, even using social mechanisms. I’ll try to stick to the opposite side of a particularly attractive store, not going anywhere close. If someone mentions wanting to go, I’ll make a comment about how that place is basically a giant money pit for me, but I won’t adamantly avoid it and create discomfort.

I never stop and pick something up. I find it works best to keep moving when I’m in a store full of temptation. That way, I never have the opportunity to grab anything and talk myself into buying it. If you’re with a group, particularly one that breaks up inside a store, just go from person to person and chat with each one – it keeps you moving and not buying.

I keep something in my hand. I like to hold a drink cup. If I’ve not purchased a drink, I like to hold something, if even a bag from another store. Usually, a cheap coffee that I just slowly sip as I walk around does the trick. This keeps my hands from grabbing things.

I use the ten second rule diligently. Whenever I’m about to make a purchase, I spend ten seconds adamantly trying to talk myself out of it – and it usually works. This comes in handy if I’ve found my willpower weak and I’ve actually wound up approaching the cashier with an item in my hands.

I leave the store if I start to get sucked in. I just go outside and look around, keeping my back to the store. At any point, if I’ve thought seriously about buying something, I just walk out of the store and wait for other members of the group.

These tools, along with a sense of diligence about avoiding unnecessary spending, really help me through situations like today, where the social pressure to spend is high. Because of that, I’m going home with a few tiny, rather inexpensive gifts for loved ones – and nothing for myself. And that’s just the way I like it.

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  1. Frugal Dad says:

    Way to fight the spending peer pressure! I traveled to Denver two years ago on business and got sucked into buying a bunch of junk at one of the larger malls there. The worst purchase…a $59 “Denver Colorado” tote bag from Nordstrom for my wife. It’s been in the top of our closet ever since! And since I charged it, I’m still paying for it.

  2. jtimberman says:

    I solved my temptation to impulsively buy things by doing something very simple.

    I plan what to impulse on when we do our budget every month. Either I specifically choose purchases and budget for them, or I allocate spending money to “blow” on whatever strikes me that month. Typically this is less than $40/mo.

    By doing this over the last three years, I’ve completely broken the temptation to impulsively spend money and I’m far happier because I have more money to spend when I do plan for a purchase.

  3. Mrs. Micah says:

    I think it’s harder to avoid spending when you’re in groups. One way I try to reframe the situation is enjoying other peoples’ purchases. That can lead to jealousy or it can lead to a simple enjoyment…what I’m going for.

    Not touching and using the 10-second rule are also good moves.

  4. Kate says:

    Good post, Trent!
    I used to shop vicariously through friends, but I can trace a big credit card balance back to one impulse buy that I “just had to have.” Once I had a balance it seemed easier to add to the balance and add to the balance and add to the balance. Seems like it hit a certain number and it was beyond my control.
    I have a very hard time with the whole concept of souvenirs while traveling. Traveling with only carry-on luggage has helped immensely, but there is still that “feeling” that I should take something back for everyone in my life. Does anyone else struggle with this? I know that with souvenirs for me–it is the little things that really become treasured.

  5. Macinac says:

    Back when I was a frequent traveller, my standard souvenir for the kids was a tee shirt with the city name. These are overpriced, but nothing else was required. I have two girls but only bought one shirt at each place. Over time they had several to choose from so they could both go to school promoting Chicago or Atlanta. If I went to Atlanta again, they understood that they already had that shirt.

    Because I travelled a lot, I realized that there was not much difference in the goods available in one place as compared to another — in the United States. So there was little reason to go shopping away from home. In other countries there are handicrafts and cultural goods that are not commonly seen in the US, so a new temptation appears. Fortunately, from the standpoint of money management, I was only sent overseas once or twice a year.

  6. atorres says:

    When i was younger my friends and I used to shop at malls as a form of entertainment or the event itself! When I think about how much baby-sitting money I wasted on clothes and cheap jewelry that I could have saved..arghh! So yeah, resisting peer pressure shopping can be very difficult…but I find it helps to just tell friends that I am trying to get out of debt and while I may still go shopping for the social function it provides, I don’t buy anything. As far as souvenirs go, for me I am always much more interested in the peoples stories and pictures and experiences from the trip rather than a shot glass, t-shirt, or snow-globe withe the city on it. Why not have all your loved ones over for dinner or dessert and watch a slideshow of the pictures you took, or talk about what you liked best about traveling to that particular city. Might be a more meaningful way to satisfy that “feeling” of needing to share your trip with loved ones….and probably less expensive.

  7. (another) Kate says:

    I used to travel a lot. I never bought “souvenirs” for anyone else. The whole point of a souvenir, to me, is that it’s something that helps me “remember” a place I’ve been. So it makes no sense to me to buy souvenirs for someone who isn’t there to begin with. That’s what postcards are for. Photographs and journal entries fulfill the helping-me-remember purpose better than some crappy t-shirt or mass produced tourist schlock. When I bought anything while traveling, it was something meaningful to me. (I have several framed prints I picked up in Italy hanging on the walls of the room I’m sitting in right now.) Maybe some of those things ended up being Christmas gifts for other people. But the obligation to buy things for others just because I’m traveling was something I never felt, thank goodness.

    I think buying souvenirs for other people is just an excuse that compulsive shoppers use for their own purposes. Or they’re bought by people who don’t travel all that much in order to advertise to others how well traveled they are.

  8. cendare says:

    Just wanted to add that I really like Macinac’s comment about goods being similar in the United States. I live somewhat near the Mall of America. When I visited, at first I was overwhelmed by it, but then I realized, it’s just a mall, we have a Starbucks and a Payless and many of these stores at other malls. They just look cooler in a different setting.

  9. Agreed, the US is very homogenized and there is very little differentiation between different cities as far as shopping and few compelling reasons to shop while traveling. Even abroad, you have to get pretty far off the beaten track to buy something you cannot find on eBay, IMHO. I don’t buy anything when traveling for business or vacation, largely due to the hassle of bringing it back. The one exception: when I go to Oregon, I buy things there that I was planning to buy anyways, to save on sales tax.

  10. Jonathan says:

    Great post. I’ve always fought off purchasing things, especially at Apple stores. Those MacBooks always look so tempting.

    Thanks for the tips!

  11. Teeny says:

    Trent, don’t rule out Jordan Creek it is a really nice mall for Iowa. But I understand, I moved to Omaha from the Quad Cities and I still get overwhelmed sometimes with the amount of shops and restaurants we have here. For me the store I have to avoid is Whole Foods!

  12. PiFreak says:

    Great post – I used to travel a lot(grandparents out of state), and now my grandma does. She insist on getting souveniers, but we have her trained. She gets my mom a keychain at each place she goes ($3) and I have a nice collection of different license plate zipper pulls with my name on it ($2).

  13. Seth Miller says:

    Slightly unrelated to this post, but how do you manage to take your safety razor with you when you travel, especially if you just want to bring a carry on?

  14. Sandy says:

    My husband’s cheapstake tricks while travelling on business, particularly when driving, was because the company he worked for gave him a per diem account. The total was the normal amount for expensive restaurants, etc…but when he wasn’t entertaining a client, he would go to a local grocery store and bag groceries that he would bring home and use at home. He’d grab a sandwich or something inexpensive to eat, and bring the rest home for us to eat!
    As for souvenirs, my particular collection are the “floaty pen”. We’ve travelled around the world, and they are a nice, usable, fun, cheap souvenir, not to mention small and easy to store, and fun to get out and look at on occasion!

  15. Danielle says:

    When we travel we just pick up a small christmas tree ornament (or even something like a keychain that could function as a tree ornament.) We reminisce about trips at every christmas while not increasing our clutter by very much.

  16. Cyde Weys says:

    “I never stop and pick something up”??

    I don’t know, I just can’t empathize with this advice. I don’t seem to have the same problems you do in avoiding spending money. Is this common? I can simply go into a store, telling myself I won’t buy anything, then proceed to browse the merchandise for hours just checking out all of the cool things. How do you read the back of a box to see the technical specifications if you won’t even pick it up?

  17. Cyde Weys says:

    And as for souvenirs while traveling, my solution is simple: I don’t buy them, period. Souvenirs are synonymous with schlock in my mind. I can return from a trip with the memory card in my digital camera full of pictures and have more than enough to remember the trip by. I don’t need a physical item to remind me of somewhere I’ve been; my memory is good enough.

  18. db says:


    I’m betting you aren’t a recovering spender/debtor. Those of us who know the heady rush of going into a store and shopping with abandon know what it’s like — it’s an addiction. Like any addict, no matter how much you’ve beaten there’s always the chance for you to slip up and go off the deep end.

    It’s worst when you slip and buy something you really didn’t need. And of course, if you’re travelling, it’s not like you have a lot of recourse to return it.

  19. Ken says:

    @ Cyde

    Yea, i was thinking the same thing. Are people’s will power that bad? Maybe for food i can understand but i think it doesn’t need that much of a will power to pick up something and not buy it.

    Or maybe it is just us. :D

  20. Kate says:

    Actually, db, it is possible to return something bought from Williams-Sonoma and Apple. If you have your receipt most chain stores don’t seem to care if it comes from another store in another part of the country.

  21. sumcool says:

    I travel a lot – all over the world – and the house was getting full.
    Did you ever return from Tunisia or Italy and find the same thing you lugged home at your local Marshall’s? So now I bring home bookmarks. Inexpensive, useful, don’t weigh anything, and don’t take up space.

  22. Katy Raymond says:

    I can totally understand the not-picking-it-up, having something else to occupy my hands trick (and need for it…). I am a recovering sugar addict (it’s been 8 years since I’ve touched the stuff). For the first three years or so, I LITERALLY sat on my hands in restaurants when all my companions were inhaling desserts. It’s necessary–I think–to develop tricks that work for you when attempting to radically alter a behavior.

  23. Ryan S. says:

    Those are some great way to handle pressured situations. I typically go to the Apple Store here a lot, but almost never buy stuff. I generally don’t buy much from brick and mortar stores; I’m more tempted online!


  24. I asked myself the same question that Cyde did. I don’t have a problem with buying things and regretting it later. I can spend hours browsing through a store of things I love, and then leave without spending a penny.

    But then I read Katy’s post and suddenly I could relate! Dang, addictions sure can control you! I have the same problem with sugar. If I looked in the mirror I am sure I would see a glint in my eye when a dessert is coming around.

    Good for you Trent, having a list of strategies you use to help you through the tricky times. And thanks for sharing! I will be adapting some of them for my sugar addiction.

  25. All I can say is congratulations for developing a system to help you maintain control. Most people have neither the willingness, nor the inclination to control their spending, much less actually develop a system. Then people complain about not having the ability. Truth be told, ability probably accounts for only 10%, the willingness to use your system is the other 90%.

    Good job, Trent.

  26. MattJ says:

    I’m with Cyde and Ken, I guess.

    I’ve been to the store specifically to get new casual shoes about 3 times, and finally bought a pair last Saturday. I’ve been putting off buying a new pair of athletic shoes for about a year.

    I hate spending money on myself

  27. Peachy says:

    I was in the mall and stopped in a shoe store. For some reason they had a ton of shoes with a brand that sells narrow shoes (I wear narrow). I asked the salesperson if they had one particular shoe in narrows. She asked my size. I said that I just wanted to know about the narrows but gave her my size anyway. I told her that I wasn’t planning on buying them today. She went back and said they had narrows, but they didn’t have my size. It was such good luck, because I didn’t need or really want those shoes. I was just browsing, and it worked to my advantage. It’s fun to ask and try things on, if you’re not tempted to buy anything. For those that are tempted, this isn’t a good idea. :)

  28. Louie says:

    last christmas i had to go to a store to pick up a gift for my girlfriend that her father was getting her and it just so happened that next door there was a bike shop, i am an avid cyclist and i have been yearning for a new ride…anyhoo i went in, found what i was looking for applied for credit (which wasnt bad considering it was 12 months same as cash) took it for a test ride, checked for the accessories i wanted…and left. it was so hard to leave and its all i have been thinking about, but i just couldnt justify the purchase. much like trent’s ten second rule, i mill over my bank account in my head and then i start adding up the amount i NEED for essentials and how much i have…and thanks to that i still dont have the bike, but i have been saving toward it so hopefully i can have it in a few months in time for spring.

  29. Jehoram says:

    Here’s a tip: make a friend with someone who works at the William Sonoma store. Employees get 40% (!!!) discount on all merchandise (from there, Pottery Barn, and West Elm; all the same parent company). Employees are allowed to use that discount to buy “gifts” for friends.

  30. db says:


    Yes, but if I wanted to buy something from Williams-Sonoma I’d be inclined to just wait until I was not travelling since their stock is pretty universal. If I was shopping someplace else I’d be looking for something unusual to buy.

    I was taking the more pertinent part of this article to be spending while travelling, but maybe that’s not really what Trent was driving at. I will say — I’m not a social shopper, so the mere presence of other people wouldn’t trigger me to spend. I’m a solo shopper. Otherwise this is just a rehash of stuff he’s written about before.

  31. Thea says:

    Williams-Sonoma and not only did you not buy anything, you didn’t pick anything up??

    You are stronger than me.

    There, and Sur la Table, are my lusty stores.

  32. Monica says:

    Those who have said that the same stores and merchandise are available everywhere are basically right. Malls are pretty generic (personally I prefer to avoid malls and big-box stores), you are usually not going to get anything unique there. That being said, most communities do have one-of-a-kind stores, maybe in the downtown area, or in locations known mainly to locals. The thing to do when travelling is, if you must buy something, to only purchase those things which you could not get elsewhere or that are produced locally.

    I don’t seem to have the problem Trent has though. In fact, I am too far in the opposite direction. I have trouble spending money on myself even when it is something I actually need desperately, such as new glasses or winter boots.

  33. reulte says:

    Another tip I find useful is to write down the information on things that I want. I whip out my little notebook and jot down the information – this keeps my hands busy.

    When I get home it goes on my “Wish List”. About once a month, I edit my “Wish List” — checking if books are in the local library, checking reviews of items, checking lowest prices — and editing the list with the newer information. Then I prioritize the list — what I want most goes to the top of the list — and delete no longer wanted items. If the item stay at the top of the list for 3 or 4 months, I buy it (or set it up as a goal to buy).

  34. Barb Minton says:

    I enjoy going in the stores that have catalogs.I tell myself that it is research.Besides,if I am on a trip,I do not want to carry it the whole trip. Works for bus trips and vacations. If I really want something, I will order it when it is on sale knowing from previous research the quality etc. Procrastination can come in handy when it comes to spending money.I have found many of the things I wanted at Goodwill within days of hesitating to buy at the specialty store.

  35. db says:

    I should add that when I travel I don’t like to check my luggage — it’s a challenge to myself to only travel with as much stuff as I can comfortably stuff into my travel backpack. That doesn’t lend itself to a lot of travel shopping.

    Though one time I did happen upon a “must-have” piece of art that I then shipped back to myself so as not to deal with luggage.

  36. DivaJean says:

    I too find the lure of shopping harder when traveling. But I usually talk myself out of it by asking myself if the same item were available at a store near home- would I buy it? Ninety percent of the time, the exact item already is- since malls and stores are basically all the same wherever you go. Once in a while, I will find that something special and indulge. It’s all the more special by not being something I could pick up anytime at the local malls.

  37. twonewfs says:

    I’m a retired pastry chef, who lusts after many things in Williams Sonoma – especially an (incredibly superfluous) $80 gadget that stirs milk for lattes! yes, I know, but I can’t help myself.
    One thing that helps me at W-S is knowing that yes, they have nice stuff, but you can almost always find the same stuff for more than 50% less with little trouble. French tart pans from the local bakers supply place (check yellow pages or ask on something like chowhound)go for $12 vs. $29 at my local W-S.

    I got a 12″ Shun chef’s knife for my son for Christmas, and paid about $170 from knifemerchant online (I’ve bought there happily over the years: you can talk with real people!)the 8″ version was $298 at my local W-S.
    And W-S did offer me a job running classes, etc. but a combination of $8/hour (in the northeast yet) and a 40% discount looked to me like a net loss of my time (thanks for the calculation nudge, Trent!)
    So – I like to visit W-S, but I look at it as a research trip, not a shopping trip. Incidentally, that’s one thing my son and I did with toy stores when he was young and we were poorer. My son didn’t want so much to have more transformers (although that would have been great) as to be able to talk about them with the guys at recess. So we’d do research trips, and I found myself trying hard not to whine about whether he was done yet, and could we go – an interesting take on shopping with him!

  38. Melanie says:

    Wow, I love reading the comments here. I cannot believe someone else knows about the Quad Cities (I was raised there). I now live in Southern California and I think I know which mall Trent visited. If it is South Coast, it is very difficult to get out of there without spending an obscene amount of money but, I have found some of my best deals there.

    I find that making a list of what I might want on the way there helps tremendously. I still use a mug I bought on a trip to Seattle 15 years ago. It goes from the microwave to the freezer.

    Thanks for the wonderful content,

  39. Allison says:

    One method that i use to curb my spending in malls is to step outside and admire the window display if i feel myself wanting to start spending money. I can look, but not touch (and quickly fall in love with) those shoes/apple products/purses/pottery barn dishes… It also gives me housing and clothing ideas that I can search for at the local thrift store or consignment shop.

  40. Tahlia42 says:

    For me the best way to keep from spending is a technique my mother taught me when I was young. Whenever I would whine that I wanted something, she would simply say, “put it on your gift list.” As I got older and started having my own spending money, anything on the gift list was off-limits for me to purchase for myself. Even though it is only January, just yesterday I wrote something on my list for either my birthday (September) or the holidays. I guess being well-conditioned by parents isn’t something people can do as adults, but the principal is still sound.

  41. When I was in college, the wishlist system helped me a great deal as well. I would write down what I wanted in planner and the average price. When I saved up enough money than I would buy the item and crossed it off my list. Sometimes I go for the inexpensive item because I want it sooner and other times I wait a year or more for the expensive item. But since been out of college, I stopped using this system. I am starting to notice my lifestyle rising with my income. I really need to go back to managing my money the way I did when I was in college.

    I have pretty much stop buying souvenirs when I travel after moving and throwing away small things I have acquired in my travel. It adds to my clutter and only collects dust. But I have a friend who recently went to Orlando and brought me a Disney shirt and cap. She did not just buy a set for me, but one for everyone in our regular social group (8 people!). I really like the idea that she is thinking of me, but I really do not know what to do with the stuff. The shirt is over sized, you can make two shirts from that shirt for me. And there is no way I am going to wear a cap with Jonny Depp on it in public. So the nice Disney stuff is still in the giftbox in my closet.

  42. Llama Money says:

    Keeping something in your hand is huge -a drink works wonders. Just sip slowly to make sure it stays in your hand for a long, long time.

  43. Nikki W says:

    I love the comments – I travel a lot for work. The one thing I haven’t seen mentioned is postcards.
    * 90% of the time, my problem was that I was a) bored and b) wanting folks to know I was thinking of them.
    * I got in the habit of buying a postcard for Gram & one for Mom & Dad, niece & nephew- and that was it. Jotted a note about how I was thinking of them (and something special about that place that connected me to them… “You would have loved the cow statues around the square…”(farm country background).
    * Having them in your hand, bag or pocket, means you can whip them out and write on them (against a counter, wall, or while seated outside the store) as a way to fill down time OR as a way to avoid shopping more. But if I don’t have time to write them, I don’t have time to shop. While the co-workers are checking out their purchases from other stores, I can be jotting my hello notes. The little ones and the elderly in my life, in particular, LOVE mail. Postcards and stamps are so reasonable – double win.

    FLIP SIDE- sometimes when I’m traveling is my only time to shop for things I do need. If it is on my “need list” and the price is in the range I have set for it – and I have room in my luggage – I’ll buy it. In terms of time savings, buying it now, rather than having to look again, means that if it is in the range, (even if not at 75% off), I can cross off that pair of (insert hard to find item never found in my size and in the color I want). Going home, dragging myself to the mall, parking, gas, time, and wasted effort – buy it now, get rid of the item on the list that is plaguing me (no, I can’t wear that pair of black pants one more season with that fading and worn look).

    Having the “need list” helps also, because if you are having peer pressure, you can say “I’m looking specifically for…. but they don’t have it.”
    Any purpose is useful… “Hmm…I have a green blazer like that – I’d like to see how they are accessorizing it this season.” (quite true – one I bought at Goodwill turned up at Nordies, matched with items I wouldn’t have thought of … score to get that info).


  44. ERB says:

    One thing that works for the mall with a group situation is to leave your wallet underneath the seat in your car. If you have to walk all the way to the parking lot to get it to buy something, you will probably turn around and decide not to bother with it. Just carry your car keys and enough change to buy coffee. No credit cards either. Similarly, if you find something you want, tell yourself that you will walk all around the mall and socialize first, but just walk back to the store later before you leave to buy the item. Often the urge will have passed by then.

  45. solacefox says:

    It can be easy to get carried away in a society that emphasizes that material good will “improve” or “make happy”.

    It might help when you are fighting the urge to purchase to ask yourself the following:

    Is this a “need” or a “want”?

    If you aren’t going to starve or suffer without it, you can live without it. Put it back on the shelf and walk away.

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