The Psychology of Decision Making Can Help Curb Impulsive Shopping Habits: Here's How

This post was written by Francesca Willow of Ethical Unicorn, a blog that takes a holistic, fact based approach to sustainable living and social justice.

Ethical Unicorn always provides content of substance that is both thought provoking and inspiring. I highly recommend checking them out!


This post was sponsored by BuyMeOnce. All thoughts my own.

How often do you find yourself getting bored of your stuff? You look around your home and something feels not quite right, like you’re stagnating. The obvious answer is to buy something new, to change something, right?

But maybe this isn’t the way to actually make us happier.

It’s a common attitude in the West: ‘I don’t like this anymore, I’m bored, I’m getting something new.’ Whether it’s our clothes or our spaces, the temptation when things start to feel a little stale is to change it out for something new and exciting. Those feelings are valid; it’s important not to stifle our emotions after all. But today I, alongside sustainable and long-lasting marketplace BuyMeOnce, am here to suggest that there are other ways to deal with these feelings. If we want to live in a more sustainable world, there are a couple of problems with buying new things every time we feel unsettled. Firstly it’s an expensive habit, which pushes us into cheaper purchases that are often unethical and unsustainable; it encourages overconsumption, which is already a pretty big global problem; it creates more trash to fill up landfills; and ultimately, it will not make you happy.

But Fran, you don’t know me! You don’t know what makes me happy! I hear you cry. True, but there’s a whole host of research out there in relation to modern spending habits and overall wellbeing. It’s fascinating and can also shed some light on where we can be focusing our time and money instead. Here are some things to consider when it comes to changing our mindset.

Sunk Cost Fallacy

In economics a sunk cost is money that has been spent that can never be recovered. For example, when you pay rent that money is gone forever, it’s ‘sunk’. The phrase ‘sunk cost fallacy’ basically refers to a situation when you’ve already invested in something, even if it has become unpleasant, but you don’t want to pull out because you feel you’ve passed the point of no return. For example, you buy a non-refundable ticket to an event. By the time the event comes around you don’t want to go any more, but as you’ve already paid for it you feel you have to go, and end up not enjoying yourself the whole night. It’s that feeling of ‘well I’ve come this far, I may as well just continue on’.

In the right context, that attitude can be a good thing. It can stop us from making rash decisions or abandoning projects when they begin to get hard. The thing we need to hone is our discernment on when to let things go and when to see things through. This attitude bleeds into how we spend our money, and we can wind up buying things we’ll hate pretty soon after taking them home. Perhaps you put a lot of effort into travelling to a furniture shop to buy a sofa. You don’t see any that you really like, but you’ve already travelled so far that you buy one that is just ok. Perhaps you spend a long time browsing the internet for a certain item, you can’t find one that really matches what you like but you feel that you’ve wasted so much time looking, you have to buy something. That’s a sunk cost fallacy popping up in your spending.

When it comes to your home, this can cause two expensive long-term problems. If you buy something you don’t really like, you’re likely to get tired of it much faster, which leads to the desire to buy a replacement much sooner. Before you know it you fall into a cycle of behaviour where you keep buying things that you don’t like that much to replace the last thing you didn’t like that much. Developing the skill to not buy something, even when you feel like you’ve invested time and energy, means that you can give yourself the time and breathing room to find one really good quality piece that you’ll love for much longer. It will also save you money in the long run; as you invest in one beautiful piece that you love and will keep around for generations, even if it’s a little more pricey, you won’t throw money at constantly replacing things in your home. If you find yourself thinking I’ve come this far, I need to get something‘, stop and ask yourself will this wind up costing me more if I go through with it?‘. Take your time to consider decisions, and make the choice not to bite unless you really love something, knowing that then you can buy with a much more long-term mindset in place.

Anchoring Bias

Anchoring is described as the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered (the “anchor”) when making decisions’ (source). We can see anchoring bias  in our spending choices when we let that first piece of information dictate our perspective. If we’re used to seeing something at one low price, whether it be a t-shirt or a television, we then see more expensive alternatives as hugely overpriced, because we compare everything around that one anchor.

This can lead to overspending, if our anchor is very highly priced then it makes things seem reasonable in comparison. But it can also lead to undervaluing. Because we’re used to seeing t-shirts for as low as £5, we compare other t-shirts to this price, and suddenly an ethical t-shirt at £25 seems completely ridiculous. The problem here isn’t the t-shirt itself, it’s that our anchor has been set in the wrong place. The price we’re anchored around is so low because the t-shirt is made unsustainably, massively hurting the planet and the people who made it. At the same time we often expect it to last a much shorter time, perhaps a year or two. We need to recognise our original anchor points and then work to change them. The best way to do this is through research, learning the process of how something is made to understand its true value.

This is where BuyMeOnce can help, as they prioritise quality, durability and doing the research for you when it comes to each product they stock. Their main goal is to help us all move away from planned obsolescence (products that are designed to break so we buy more) and towards long lasting buying, which makes them extra diligent when it comes to who they stock in their store. After they’re confident that a brand meets their criteria, making it super easy for you to shop based on your values without having to do extra work, they also write spotlight articles and research pieces that take a deep look into the processes of the brands they work with. This means that you can both rest in the knowledge that they’ve found the longest-lasting version of any item you buy, and be confident that you’re getting the best value for money possible. If we can shift our anchor from low quality and low price to high quality, higher price and longer lasting, we’ll feel less like we’re suddenly having to spend a lot more. Especially when the items we buy are ethical and durable, their long-lasting nature saves us money once we’ve invested in them because we know they’ll be with us for life, saving us both time and effort. Don’t believe me? Check out this bed linen with a 50 year warranty. A set is a little more expensive up front at £210, but much cheaper in the long run as they average out costing £4.20 per year!

‘Question: is this the best quality I can afford?

These words run contrary to the entirety of our culture, structured around bargain hunting and getting more for less. Finding deals. Shopping sales. Black Friday. This constant emphasis on quantity over quality has helped to create consumer goods which embody the principle of planned obsolescence. Our purchases wear out too quickly, are constantly being replaced with new models or more current trends, or simply break with no option to fix them – and then it’s back to the mall we go.

This isn’t accidental. Most products simply aren’t built for the long haul and when they are, their higher costs serve as powerful deterrents for consumers. It’s the ultimate mind game: we’d rather pay $10 for something and have to replace it every year, than pay $50 and have it last for five.

It took me a long time to realize that cheap is usually more expensive in the long run. Buying something once, and buying it well meant that I was making an investment instead of just a purchase. The $60 boots I loved because they were such a great deal looked worn, scuffed and threadbare after just a few months, and needed replacing after a year. When I finally spent $200 on a pair of good leather boots, however, they lasted me over four years and still look great.’ (source)


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