We all have spending triggers. Even as financial coaches, we have triggers. These triggers are deeply rooted in our emotions and most of the time happen without us even realizing it. The first step in overcoming your spending triggers is identifying them. The benefit of knowing your triggers is you can then put actions or stopgaps into place that will force you to pause and think before handing over your debit card or hitting the buy button on your shopping cart. But before jumping into identifying your triggers, first, let’s take a closer look into what they are and what causes them.
What are Spending Triggers?
A spending trigger is an emotion that causes us to give in to spending temptations. Spending triggers generally subconsciously make you spend money to magnify or replace an emotion you’re feeling, be it good or bad. The result of being triggers is usually a spur-of-the-moment, unplanned purchase.
Spending triggers can result in any number of different purchases – you might spend money on something you do, like going out to dinner, or a tangible item like home decor, toys for the kids, or new shoes for you. It could also be something that you’re spending money on for the sake of entertainment or even convenience. I had a client that would buy a cat every time she was triggered. Pets made her happy, so when she felt a spending trigger, off to the pet store she went.
Your trigger might not be that extreme (I hope it isn’t!), but again, you definitely have them. We all do.
When Are you Most likely to Encounter a Spending Trigger?
Some people feel triggered on a regular, consistent, and somewhat systematic basis. Other people feel triggered maybe more periodically, like a couple of times a year. But your emotions and your ability to identify them or keep them in check will play a big part in how often you are triggered.
Triggers can be tied to happy or sad emotions. Some people are triggered when they’re having a really good day. Some people when they’re having a really bad day. Some people are triggered by both, so it really is a day-to-day battle of impulse control.
If you’re having a good day maybe you spend money because you feel like it’s a celebration. You think, “I deserve this, and I should reward myself.” Or maybe it’s the opposite. You’re having a bad day. You’re mad or depressed about something. You’re feeling negative, so you spend money to try to make those feelings go away, no matter how temporary the relief is.
Or maybe you spend money when you’re bored. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do with ourselves, so we drive to the nearest Target and wander the aisles. The same goes for opening Amazon, browsing around and seeing what you’ve left in your cart.
Do you spend money more so when you’re with other people? Some people might feel triggered when they are with a bunch of friends. They think they’re spending money, so I should too. Peer pressure is a very real emotion that is tied to a lot of people’s spending triggers.
Periodic Spending Triggers
Now other people have triggers that may only happen a couple of times a year, under certain circumstances. I have a client that right before their class reunion, spends a lot of money. I think they get nervous and maybe have some social anxiety that corresponds to the event. They’re starting to think about who they were back in high school, and they have to see all these people they haven’t seen in years. I get it. There can be a whole host of emotions that go into attending a high school reunion.
For other people, they get triggered right before they go see family. Or when they get back from seeing family. Or right after family leaves. Family can certainly be triggering.
Job stress is another cause. If you work in an industry where there is a really busy time of year, you probably have some triggers tied up in that time. I used to work in corporate accounting before I started Fiscal Fitness, and we had a year-end cycle that was really intense. We had hourly deadlines. No joke. It was I was a lot of work, and even though I loved it, when that busy season was over, I wanted to go spend money. There was a feeling that I made it through this really tough thing so let me go reward myself.
Why Spending Triggers are Bad, No Matter the Amount
Now you might be nodding your head and identifying with all of these triggers. You might also be wondering what’s the big deal? So what if I wander Target when I’m bored or I splurge on an appetizer and drinks when I’m out with my friends. It’s not like I’m blowing thousands of dollars on needless wants. There is a very simple reason the spending trigger, no matter how small the resulting purchase, is bad: It demonstrates that you are not in control. Your emotions are.
You spend money in these scenarios to replace or magnify an emotion, so it’s not the amount that matters. It’s the action. Your spending trigger might be an item that’s well within your budget, so it’s the impulsivity of the purchase that is the issue. We want you to be in control of your spending and spending triggers try to wrestle that control away from you.
The Spending Trigger Aftermath
Typically speaking, purchases made as the result of a spending trigger will have a negative consequence. While you may have felt better in the moment making that purchase, it’s a hollow feeling. We don’t feel proud of that choice because we know weren’t really in control. Our emotions got the best of us. I describe the feeling as “The pleasure is false.” So the pleasure you get from the immediate purchase is false because at some point afterward, it goes away.
And what you’re usually left with is guilt.
Maybe that purchase put you further into debt or maybe it’s giving you buyer’s remorse because you know that money should have gone towards X instead. Those are all negative consequences to these triggers. That’s how you can tell this was a trigger. The emotion that purchase brought you quickly fades away.
If the purchase was something that truly added value or satisfaction to your life it wasn’t caused by a spending trigger. If you’re making purchases that are aligned with your values, then they don’t leave you with the same feeling as a spending trigger. But if there was a negative consequence, be it financial, emotional or mental, then you were likely triggered.
The problem is we are fully capable of rationalizing our purchases in the moment when they’re brought on by a spending trigger. You can justify to yourself why it’s needed, why it’s important, why it’s okay if you break the budget to splurge. So much is happening in these moments on an unconscious level.
But by stepping back and thinking about the times, the situations that are most likely to cause you to make unplanned purchases, you’ll go a long way to identifying some of your biggest or most consistent spending triggers. And when you know your triggers, you’ll be far more likely to stop and think before making that purchase out of emotion, not necessity.
As financial coaches, we help our clients not only identify their triggers. We help them come up with ways to make those types of purchases a rarity. If you’d like help putting the why behind your spending, check out our Money Masterplan session. You’ll leave this two-hour one-on-one coaching session with a plan for your money that includes your day-to-day expenses as well as your long term goals.
Or if you’re ready to do a deep dive into your spending habits, check out our six-part podcast series dealing with cognitive biases and spending.