The 3 Most Common Spending Triggers—and How to Beat Them

woman with shopping bags

Does this sound familiar? You feel fried after a long day at work. You stop in the bathroom on your way out of the office, get one look at your sallow complexion, and the next thing you know you’re dropping $100 on “skin-brightening” makeup.

Uh—what just happened? You tripped a psychological trigger.

Huh? “Triggers are how the brain responds to stress,” explains coach and meditation instructor Jeff Cannon. “They’re related to our ancient fight-or-flight response.” But, while our cave-women ancestors might have hunted down a mastodon when they had a bad day, we’re attacking the mall.

Want to avoid the damage to your wallet? We’ve tracked down the 3 most common spending triggers, and tips on how to defend yourself against them.

Spending trigger #1:

You had a rough day.

Why you want to shop: Negative events trigger a chemical change in your body, Cannon says, making you crave a way to boost your mood. “Your brain thinks, ‘Ooh, how do I get dopamine to feel better?’ And the immediate response might be: ‘Let’s go shopping.’” Because, let’s face it: Who doesn’t feel great after scoring new stuff? (Buyer’s remorse usually takes a little longer to sink in.)

How to fight it: First, ask yourself, “Why do I need this?” says psychologist Marla Deibler, founder of The Center for Emotional Health. Once you’ve identified what you hope to get from shopping, you can find another activity that gives you the same benefits. Feeling down after a bad meeting with a client? Or burnt out after an 11-hour day? Pick up the phone: Connecting with a friend will help you bounce back faster than blowing cash on a spring wardrobe, Deibler says.

Spending trigger #2:

You get good news or reach a goal.

Why you want to shop: Whether you nabbed a raise or dropped a few pounds, shopping can seem like a reward…and a way to keep the rush going.

How to fight it: “Give yourself a break before you start to celebrate,” Cannon advises. Why? A huge emotional charge can mess with your judgment, but time takes the edge off. His advice: Wait a week. That way you can celebrate what’s really important—the next step of your life. And if you still end up treating yourself to a new pair of stilettos, at least it wasn’t an impulse buy.

Spending trigger #3:

You’re stressed out. 

Why you want to shop: “Treating” yourself to a retail reward can provide some temporary stress relief. A 2011 study in the journal Psychology & Marketing found “retail therapy” did give a boost to shoppers’ moods. But it’s not likely to last—especially if you spend compulsively, which can result in overspending.

How to fight it: Try relieving stress first with a simple exercise like deep breathing. Breathe down into your stomach (think Buddha belly), and focus your mind on the present by listening to the sounds around you. Why? When you breathe deeply, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which tells the brain everything is okay, Cannon says. Or try physical activity, which can boost production of endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, and has been shown to aid in relaxation. Even a 20-minute walk can be as effective at relieving stress as a shopping spree—and it’s a lot cheaper.