Updated on 08.20.14

Impulse Buys and Post-Purchase Rationalization

Trent Hamm

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.

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  1. Great points!
    For me, “buyers remorse” almost always only occurs on items that are impulse buys.

  2. wanzman says:

    This happened to me recent, and on a fairly large scale, le me explain…

    Last summer, after several months of discussion, my wife and I decided to purchase a boat. We were torn between a small ski type boat and large “cabin cruisers”, which have kitchen/bathroom/sleeping space below deck. Believe it or not, the initial cost was about the same. We wound up going with the larger cabin cruiser.

    We really enjoyed the lake, but the fact that purchasing large boat meant we had to purchase an older boat (1989), the engine had a few quirks that made me a bit nervous each time we got out on the water. Plus, the boat was huge, and tough to maneuver for a first time boater. These things kept me from fully enjoying the lake.

    This winter I decided to list the boat on Craigslist, just to see if I could get my money back. I wound up selling the boat 2 weeks ago to a very good friend of the previous owner (small world).

    He was happy to buy the boat.

    We were happy to sell and get most of our money out of the boat.

    I am happy to say that we recently purchased a much smaller, newer boat (2003). Our new boat has barely been used and should be very reliable, and obviously much easier to maneuver.

    I am happy that my remorse about buying larger boat was able to be corrected in such a way that I am still able to enjoy the lake whenever I want on my own (smaller, more relaible) boat.

  3. Nick says:

    I know this wasn’t exactly the point of the post, but yea… huge mistake. Castlevania was awesome.

  4. Jeannette says:

    Reminds me of an old retail adage “The first markdown is the best markdown.”

    No retail buyer/merchandiser is perfect, regardless of their experience. Sometimes, in any category, there is an item that is clear, from day one, that it is not gonna sell. Inexperienced buyers keep it marked to full price while experienced ones know to mark it down ASAP and get it out of the inventory mix.

    Somewhat akin to what you’re talking about here.

    Sometimes, buyer’s remorse is inevitable, even if we have done our research, etc. In which case, as you said, admit it, recycle it and move on…noting WHY it didn’t work.

    But the best thing is to carefully examine our buying motivation and expectations. A lot of the time there is nothing inherently wrong with something except that we had some sort of expectation that we attached to it, about performance, etc. or how it would change our lives.

    Understanding why you are buying something and being clear about what a product/service can or cannot do is important.

    FYI: We’re not talking here about products that do not perform as advertised. That’s something else entirely.

  5. Him says:

    Ugh, the worst part of this story is that you picked Rampage! Castlevania FTW!

  6. Josh says:

    Rampage was one of my favorite games growing up! Castlevania is great too though!

  7. It comes down to a reluctance to admit failure. Our culture has turned into a society of everyone wins and the shame of being recognized, even by ourselves as making a mistake is difficult to accept.

    However, if we are truly interested in improving ourselves, it can only be done after we learn to face the realities of our weaknesses.

  8. DiscoApu says:

    Rampage did suck, Castlevania II was probably the best Castlevania game there was. But look at the bright side, at least you owned a nintendo and not a sega.

  9. Dave M says:

    Last summer I sold our VCR and DVD player for $5 and $10, respectively, at a garage sale. Then I spent about $170 on a combo unit — a TUNERLESS combo unit. I am still kicking myself – you can’t watch one thing and tape another, the VCR playback quality is poor, the DVD player lacks a good aspect feature, and the remote is awful. And we have not converted ONE VHS tape to DVD, the secondary reason we got it.

    This is easily the worst purchase I have made in a long time. But now I’m afraid to “fix” this mistake. Getting a similar unit with a tuner may fix the recording issue but not the playback issue, and it really seems like admitting defeat. Dumping it and going for a DVR eliminates the VHS-to-DVD feature and I fear it will cost us in the long run (do you have to get it from the cable company??). And I don’t think we should waste any time with recording TV to DVD since DVR is here to stay.

    I want my VCR and DVD player back while I think about this some more!

  10. Poultry in Motion says:

    Yeah, I’ve got a Ford Ranger right now that I’m just not pleased with. Since the cost for a replacement is relatively high, I’ve been putting off doing anything about it. I think I see a trade for a used car in my future.

    Thanks for the post.

  11. Brittany says:

    Good post! This is something I have to be on guard against too, although I sometimes have trouble separating out why I’m getting buyer’s remorse (I spent more money than I wanted or I spent money on something I didn’t really need/want). Oh, the plight of a cheapskate.

  12. I really enjoyed this post! I’m both frugal AND a minimalist, so a bad purchase is a double whammy: not only do I regret the money wasted, I’m stuck with an “extra” (and potentially useless) item around the house.

    My desire to avoid this situation has curbed many an impulse purchase; I think long and hard before I buy or bring home ANYTHING. And when I do (inevitably) make a mistake, my favorite form of rationalization is giving it to charity. :-)

  13. If you can’t re-sell it, then I would forget about the post-purchase blues, get as much use out of it as you can, and chalk it up as a lesson learned.

    And another lesson learned in the way of avoiding impulse buys at all costs

  14. deRuiter says:

    The two best days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy the boat, and the day they sell it! As to all the other purchases which don’t live up to expectations, SELL ‘EM! There’s a reason for all those yard sales, house sales, estate sales, tag sales and flea markets! If it makes you unhappy, if it reminds you of money wasted, best thing is to blow it out to a new owner. As you get older, you tend, due to past experience, to buy fewer losers. Sell it! “Our of sight is out of mind.”

  15. This made me giggle!
    In my 30’s I began a path of rebellion on things that we not up to my standards, also referred as ‘entitlement’. I became so critical about services and products and would compulsively returned items that were ‘good enough’. I’m trying to find a middle ground, and after reading this I think it must have stemmed from that first toy I HAD to have and probably spent all my hard earned allowance on just to be disappointed.

  16. Trent, one more vote for an editing tool on the comments! It’s a good practice for me to really read before I post- but I seem to be failing!

  17. Lily says:

    LOL – the same analogy applies to a bad marriage.

  18. Ryan says:

    Man, you hated rampage? It’s sad that the story that made me the saddest to read wasn’t about conflicting money or political values, it was dissing Rampage. I used to play that all the time with my sister. It was hours of time wasting fun.

  19. Dave says:

    If it makes you feel better, Castlevania 2 was a terrible game. Check out the angry video game nerd’s review of it :)

  20. Steve says:

    My wife and I have some issues with this (with more of a flavor of “sunk costs” weighing too heavily, rather than rationalization as you describe.)

    I actually embrace rationalization, as recommended in The Paradox of Choice. It can be a natural and desirable force when it helps you enjoy the choices you made. Of course that only applies in cases where the option you chose ended up being at least OK. (For instance we were choosing between two cars, each with pros and cons. We had to pick one so now that we have it we’re focusing on what we like about it and not worrying too much about what we don’t like/what we would have liked better about the one we didn’t get.)

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