Why Your Brain Is Working Against Your Wallet…And What You Can Do About It


BrainThe following is a contribution from Jerry over at Repaid.Org. If you’d like to contribute to Wise Dollar, please?contact us.


It is easy to say that we are going to start a new habit and break an old one, but as we have all found, habits are hard to break and they can be even harder to form. If you have any doubts, just count the number of New Year’s resolutions that you have kept.

So, since we keep failing why do we keep trying? Hope, we all have the hope that this time will be different. Unfortunately, hope is not enough, and neither is willpower at times. Why? Because our brains are constantly working against us.

The Debt Cycle

If you need proof, think about the last time you wanted to stop doing something. For example: first comes the resolution to quit smoking, then the first day you didn’t smoke a cigarette. You felt great about yourself, but the next day you felt lousy getting up, just couldn’t get going. Then you remembered how quickly you could get it together after a single smoke. So, you thought: heck, I did great yesterday, so one cigarette today won’t matter, then I won’t smoke again.

Unfortunately, that slip leads to another, which leads to another, then you are back to a pack a day and beating yourself up about it. The process is the same with saving money?and avoiding debt. You vow to do better and your brain tells you that buying that one shirt or charging that tank of gas is not going to hurt anything.

How Can You Fight It?

The only way to form a new habit or break an old one is to out-logic your own logic. To better explain that confusing statement, let’s start by looking at how your brain works. You know on a conscious level that you should not use your credit card, every time something shiny is in front of you. Your brain has a far more powerful subconscious level that knows that shiny trinket is linked to a habit that you currently have and one that makes you feel good, so it fights against your logic in order to allow you to do what you have habitually been doing.

You can start to change your debt habit by looking at why you want to spend money so badly. The general reasons that people spend money needlessly are:

  • The thrill of the purchase.
  • Negative emotions: depressed, lonely, etc and hoping the purchase will help them feel better.
  • Lacking a full understanding of the negative impact of impulse buys.

Fighting the Thrill

Shopping can be fun. That fun can drive people to seek that purchasing thrill when they are bored, lonely, or depressed. It is very easy to fall into the routine of work, home, weekend, then rinse and repeat. If that is the case with you, look for weekend activities, a weekday movie night, or look into a hobby that you can distract yourself with.

Fighting Emotional Spending

If emotional spending is your issue, you may have a tougher road ahead. In order to avoid swiping a card or spending cash unnecessarily, you will have to dig into the underlying emotion. Why are you feeling this way? Lonely, bored, trapped in a routine, feeling isolated or overwhelmed? Any one of these can lead you to feeling as if spending will fix the problem. Sadly, it does for a few moments, then you start feeling the same way, but have the additional emotion of knowing you shouldn’t have spent that money, so the cycle begins again.

To fight emotional spending, you must work hard to set new steps to prevent the spending and break the cycle. A new habit that makes you feel good will be a great start, but you may need to add people to your support group. Try calling someone when you think you should go shopping. If depression or loneliness are the issue, then human contact outside of work may help.

Fighting Impulse Buys

Many adults do not fully understand the impact of an impulse buy. The rationalization is that one item will not matter. After all it is only $2.50, right? Well, often it is only $2.50 on Monday, another $2.50 on Wednesday, then an additional $10 or so on the weekend. The next thing you know, you catch yourself spending $30 or more each week on impulse buys. If you put them on a credit card, they can get out of hand even more quickly.

The best way to keep a handle on impulse buys is to track your spending every day. Just using a pocket notebook can keep you clued in. Write all of your purchases down, then add them up. It is likely that you will shock yourself out of the impulse buying habit.

Re-training Your Brain

The true cure all for fighting your brain is to train it to stop fighting you as often. You need to train your brain to fully process alternatives to the subconscious reactions that you have. Being under a lot of stress, depressed, not sleeping enough–any one of these things can reduce your brain’s ability to process alternatives, making you more apt to spend unnecessarily. Getting more sleep is easy to do, but feeling stressed out or depressed can be harder to fix.

When you feel like buying something to make yourself feel better under those conditions, try simply walking away. If the purchase is necessary, it will still be available tomorrow and you can go back. If not, you will have forgotten it by morning. Walking away may not work for everyone. You may need to find someone to help you. A parent, spouse, or sibling that will help talk you out of buying things you do not need. Keep in mind that you may feel as if you are being judged while in the moment, but that will pass when you realize that they are only helping like you asked. Just like many bad habits, it may take some assistance to kick the debt monkey off of your back.


What are some ways you trick yourself into not spending more? What tempts you to overspend when you know you shouldn’t? What is one financial thing you’ve been trying to conquer for years but have struggled with?



Jerry Coffey is a self-described recovering “debtaholic” who went deep into a spiral of spending, debt, bankruptcy, and assorted money woes before breaking the cycle with a frugal lifestyle. Now he shares his experiences and advice over at Repaid.org.




Photo courtesy of: Morgan





*This post was featured on?Broke Girl Rich and Mom Makes Cents.
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  1. I have had this problem for years that I cannot control myself from impulsively buying things I want. That kinda sucks when I can’t pay the bills so I needed to borrow money from my brother so that the interest wouldn’t get higher. Now, I really need to fight the urge and think it wisely before making a move.

    • Jayson, without a doubt impulse-spending is getting out of control when it inhibits your ability to pay your bills. Hopefully some of the tips we’ve offered here and on our blog can help you bring that spending under control. Asking to borrow money from family is no fun!

    • Jerry says:

      Jayson the first step toward changing any habit is recognizing it. You have made that, now forming a plan to prevent your impulse buys is on the horizon.

  2. I love this post so much! I truly believe that you have to train your brain to understand money in a different way than what is usually taught. If you can do that and take control of your emotions, good money management will follow. But trying to manage your money without changing how you think about money is a dead end, for sure.

    • Natalie, so true! I am a huge advocate of “training your brain.” We tend to think of money management as such an objective, cut-and-dried sort of process, when in reality emotions play an enormous part. By re-programming how you think about money, you put yourself in such a better position to handle your finances.

    • Jerry says:

      Natalie I am glad you enjoyed the post. It took years of debt purgatory for me to come the the realizations in the post. Thankfully, I finally found a way out.

  3. Robin says:

    My best way to deal with overspending is the walk away rule. That has served me time and time again…but I still have days when I want to say, “screw the budget! I’m going shopping to blow a lot of money!” It’s sadly still a constant battle, but it think it gets easier the longer you work at it.

  4. I have definitely had to work hard on training my brain to get my finances in order. For me, I had to replace things that I thought made me happy with other, less expensive alternatives. I also started training my brain to focus more long term than short term. I view each expense as something that is taking me further away from my long term goals, and when I do that, I realize that most short term expenses are not worth the long term risk.

  5. Great advice as the brain works in mysterious ways. Addiction of any kind takes a lot of work to break the habits. Excessive Shopping is an addiction even though it might not be recognized as bad as smoking might be. It plagues many people who view it as a normal part of their lives, when in reality they are not happy. I feel it?s a coping mechanism, but many people don’t view it as such.

  6. I had to train my brain pretty hard to stop it from wanting to spend money. Now I just know to wait a day before I buy anything. If I feel the impulse to buy something new, I sleep on it and if I still want it the next day, then I have a chat with myself and ask “do I really need this?” Usually the sleeping on it does the trick. The next morning I realize that I really don’t need that pogo stick.

  7. Jerry says:

    EL you a very right, shopping can be a coping mechanism for many emotions. Depression and anger are two of the most powerful emotions that trigger self-destructive habits.

  8. I’ll be honest I can’t trick my brain, but when I sit down to help someone out if I show them on paper what can happen if they save it starts to click in. I also tell them that I don’t want them to stop spending, but I don’t want them to give their money to other people but to themselves. You are going to spend, but you are paying you every month. Then after time that money you save is going to grow. It’s not initially as fun as “stuff” right away, but in the long term you’ll have much more. Addiction to spending is just as powerful as any other addiction and tough to break. You should plan on failing a few times along the way, but as long as you get up and try again you haven’t failed.

  9. Kipp says:

    I have to fight those small impulse purchases sometimes as well. One thing that works well for me is to not have cash. I see a few dollars in my pocket as free spending money (where other people see credit cards as free spending money). So not walking around with any cash helps me personally to avoid impulse purchases.

  10. It takes a ton of willpower and training your brain to fix your money mindset. I have to work hard on not making emotional expenditures. For me, that usually means going out to eat or drink, which adds up quickly. I have to ask myself why am I feeling this way and if buying this will really make me happy? Great post!

    • I’m with you, Melanie: going out to eat and drink is my #1 money-suck. It’s so expensive. This summer I’ve been “training” myself to drink beer instead of cocktails whenever I go out with friends, as a beer generally costs 30-50% as much as a cocktail, ha 🙂

  11. I completely agree that there are often underlying reasons behind spending. If we all only bought exactly what we needed, no one would be in debt (to an extent, of course). So, I think your advice to explore the causes behind overspending are so on point. Thank you for this!

  12. I have a note in my wallet with my goal net worth. Whenever I go to spend money, I see this note and it makes me stop for a minute and think things through. Before that, I had a picture in my wallet of all of the stuff I bought and got into debt over. It reminded me that I really didn’t need the item I was looking at buying. As you can tell, I’m big on visual reminders. They work best for me.

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