Misery is not Miserly: Breaking the Connection Between Spending and Sadness

One of my readers recently alerted me to an interesting article at CNN.com entitled Why Sadness Can Blow Your Budget. The article discusses the “misery is not miserly” phenomenon, where people who are experiencing sadness tend to be much less in control of their personal spending, prone to splurges and poor consumer choices. Even more interesting: most people aren’t even aware of it, as they believe that their emotional state doesn’t affect their buying decisions.

Intrigued by the idea, I kept digging and came across the scientific literature that this article is based on, Misery is not Miserly: Sad and Self-Focused Individuals Spend More by Cynthia Cryder, Jennifer Lerner, James Gross, and Ronald Dahl.

Their study involved having people watch various movie clips with different emotional content – some watched neutral clips and others watched sad clips. Afterwards, they were given money and allowed to buy products with it. The people who viewed sad clips were willing to spend significantly more money (as much as 300% more) to buy the same items as the people who watched a neutral clip. In effect, the study demonstrated that sad people spend money frivolously.

For a lot of us, the idea that sadness leads directly to spending isn’t a surprising conclusion. I can say that I’ve certainly experienced this phenomenon – I used to regularly go on a buying binge whenever I felt sad about something, and quite often that would lead to initial elation and a sense that things were better. Over time, though, the bills would come in, triggering the same issues all over again. That’s a very vicious cycle, indeed.

It’s easy to offer the usual advice on how to break it – substitute other mood enhancers for shopping, avoid opportunities to shop, reduce the influence of marketing in our lives, and so on. These are tips I talk about all the time on The Simple Dollar – they’re powerful techniques that can really make a difference.

Unfortunately, those solutions are just the steps to follow once the problem is recognized. As the study shows, most people don’t even realize they’re buying because they’re sad. Is there any wonder why advertisers want to link their ads to strong emotions? Strong emotions drive us to irrational behaviors, and one of the biggest ones in modern life is spending more than we should.

The real challenge for solving this problem is simple awareness. When that moment of sadness comes and you are suddenly urged to buy something, what will help you remember that maybe you’re not making the best choices – that maybe right now isn’t the best time to buy?

Remind yourself. Do something very basic and silly, even something like placing a smiley face sticker on the front of your credit card. Try to remind yourself of this regularly, particularly when you are about to shop – ask yourself if you’re in a good mood before you bust out the plastic just to protect yourself.

Have others remind you – and remind others yourself. Send that article around to your friends and talk about it with them. Get the idea flowing among all of you that it’s a really bad idea to shop when you’re sad, and then when you’re trying to cheer someone up, don’t suggest shopping – or point to that article as reason not to go.

It’s not a willpower issue or a common sense issue – it’s a psychological predisposition issue, something most of us are prone to. It might seem obvious now when you’re in a good mood, but think back – have you ever bought something when you were sad or upset and regretted it later?

The key thing is to realize that when you’re sad, you’re quite liable to make bad buying decisions even if you’re not realizing it at the moment. Emotional purchasing is simply dangerous to your pocketbook.

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