The Determined Dollar

5 Ways Your Brain is Sabotaging Your Budget

The part of our brains that craves instant gratification will find EVERY excuse in the book to get us to justify a purchase.

When you have a really good reason for buying something, sticking to the budget might take a backseat to the shiny object in front of you. No judgment here: I’m speaking from personal experience. It’s hard to say no to a good deal.

Why do I bring this up? Because saying no is an area that I’ve personally been working on and have found that becoming more aware of my own tendency to rationalize buying unnecessary stuff (even if it’s affordable) has helped me tremendously when it comes to staying within my spending limit and enjoying the things I do end up buying.

Best of all, when I practice this mindfulness, I realize that I’m completely content without all the stuff I didn’t buy, and that is priceless.

There are five phrases that frequently pop up in my head while shopping and in coaching sessions with clients. Sometimes they are subconscious; sometimes they get verbalized in conversations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we all have these thoughts! 

When you become more aware of the common rationalizations that can trick you into overspending, you take away their power and regain control.

I deserve it.

The truth is, I don’t deserve anything that I can’t pay for, but here’s the beauty of the budget: If I can reasonably afford to treat myself to a pedicure or a Starbucks, my mind doesn’t start rationalizing about deserving it. I just go enjoy it and leave it at that. (That’s one of my favorite aspects of having a budget: it gives me permission to spend!)

The ‘I deserve it’ phrase usually comes up in the context of “self-care.” I’m not saying this isn’t important. Definitely do not neglect taking care of yourself! But spa treatments, vacations, restaurants, and designer shoes are luxury items, not necessities. Taking care of yourself can be as simple as going for a walk, reading a book, listening to an uplifting podcast, or scheduling quality time with friends.

The next time you’re tempted to buy something on the basis of “deserving it” when it’s outside the budget, take a moment to consider how you can treat yourself without breaking the bank. Or if you’re feeling guilty about spending and feel like you always need to justify a purchase, it may be time to make a budget that includes a reasonable discretionary category.

I need it.

Unless it’s shelter, basic food, transportation, and clothing essentials, you don’t need it. It’s that simple, and that difficult. Try replacing “I need it” with “I want it” or “I choose to prioritize this.” How does it feel? 90% of the time, I realize that I don’t need the object in question.

If you discover something that IS a priority but is not in the budget, there are two ways to deal with this kind of situation: either edit the budget to include this new thing, making sure you reduce spending in another category by the same amount, or wait to buy it until you can save enough to pay in cash. When you feel like you need something, it’s incredibly tempting to charge it to a credit card or sacrificing your goal, but don’t. If it’s worth having, it’s worth sacrificing something else to get it.

I’ll figure out the budget later.

I used to use this excuse a lot. And it sabotaged my budget EVERY time. I get it. The brain has a biological limit on its capacity to make rational decisions every day, like 10 (I’m making the number up, but it’s less than what I need!) And even less if I haven’t had two cups of coffee. Add impatient young children to a shopping trip, and all I want to do is get my stuff and get out of the store. So then I decide to get what catches my eye and “figure it out later.”

Two strategies have helped me a ton. One is to not go into a store without a list, and only buy what’s on the list, even if it’s something I HAVE to have, because you know what? It will be there later. It’s no big deal. 

I’ve had to learn that in this season of life, it’s better to go without and make an extra trip to the store than it is to get my budget all out of whack, as inconvenient as it may be. Plus, most of the time my intense desire to buy something RIGHT THEN goes away and I realize that it’s not even worth going back for.

Case in point: yesterday I went to Babies ‘R Us with a list of four items and found six more things I wanted or felt like we needed. I didn’t get any of the extras, and today I can’t even remember what they were. Guess they weren’t that important.

It’s on sale.

I LOVE a good sale, don’t you? I feel so savvy and brilliant when I score a gorgeous pair of shoes for half-off or waltz out of Walmart with a stash of toiletries for 3 bucks. But nothing is cheaper than not spending money (with the exception of when you use the Krazy Coupon Lady’s super genius coupon stack-ups and earn a little cash back from the purchase). This is where the cardinal rule of ONLY spending the amount in the budget is so important.

Just the other day, my friend launched her business selling top-of-the-line skincare, and she was offering her consultant discount for the weekend only. This is a product I’ve been wanting to try, and it was $50 off! And I sincerely want to support my friend’s small business and I knew this sale price wouldn’t be coming back anytime soon.

It would have been SO easy to justify the purchase. But then, where would I have taken that money from? Retirement savings? The family Christmas fund? Just as the budget says “YES!” when you have money to spend, it also says “No!” when the money is spent. So I turned down a great deal, knowing that when I can budget for it, I’ll likely have to pay full-price. And that’s okay. If you want to have a successful budget, the question “can I afford it?” always trumps “is it on sale?”

It’s not for me, it’s a gift.

The spirit of generosity is so precious that the last thing I want to do is crush it in anyone who loves to give gifts. However, the people in your life who are worth lavishing with the costliest gifts don’t care if their birthday present is a $1000 necklace or a handmade card. They care that YOU care about them.

But sometimes we simply get excited when we see something we know they would love and the consideration of price flies out the window.

In those moments, take a step back (or a few steps outside the store) and think about the big picture. If you want to be able to be generous long-term, you must spend less than you make now and invest enough for your future. Then you can give even MORE generously, and your loved ones will feel just as loved in the meantime. And isn’t that the point?

You can have the things you want, provided they fit into your budget. If you find yourself tempted with any of these rationalizations, take a deep breath and remember that you don’t have to have it right now. It’s okay to say no, walk away, and buy it later. Then you’ll have the presence of mind and the money in your wallet to make a decision you can feel great about.