my two cents

How Can I Shop a Sale Without Losing My Head?

Photo: Steven Puetzer/Getty Images

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I try not to follow or shop sales at stores I like, because I seem to end up purchasing things I don’t really need. However, when I do need something, it’s rarely on sale at that moment, and I wind up paying full price. I’m in my mid-20s and feel like I should be more thrifty. What’s the best way to shop wisely and get good deals on the things I buy?

“Sale brain” may not be the scientific name for it, but we’re all hardwired to do cognitive backflips when confronted with an opportunity that seems scarce. Sure, that dress isn’t your usual style, but if it’s 50 percent off, this might be your last and only chance to find out if it could be. This is basic consumer psychology; most people are well-aware that discounts are one of the most effective and widely used methods for brands to attract new customers, win back lapsed ones, or simply move merchandise that has failed to attract customers at its full price. Which begs the question: If sales are such an obvious trap, why do we still fall for them? And how can we keep from losing our heads?

Like you, I wish I could immunize myself from sale brain, but gaming one’s own prefrontal cortex is tricky to impossible. Even economists who study consumer behavior for a living still order dumb stuff on Amazon and come home from Costco with giant jars of cocktail olives that they’ll never use. But cultivating a healthy grasp of our own cognitive biases — which, left unchecked at the right sample sale, are capable of constructing a world where lace-up white rubber wedges seem like a totally reasonable use of money — can help save us from ourselves.

In the meantime, you’ve already made big strides. In realizing your sale bias, you’ve probably defended your wallet from more bad decisions than we’ll ever know. But if your favorite stores offer regular discounts and you’re tired of seeing the blazer you just bought get marked down a week later, then there are ways to shop more strategically.

One tactic is similar to what you’re already doing, but more proactive: When it occurs to you that you need something, create what psychologist April Benson calls “a shopping plan.” Write down what you’re in the market for, the maximum amount you can comfortably spend on it, and rate it from a scale of zero to ten, with ten being essential and zero being unnecessary. (If these categories seem too subjective, look at what’s worked in the past — if you’re looking for a new pair of jeans, how much did your previous favorite pair cost, and how often did you wear them? A quick “cost per wear” calculation can guide you in the right direction.) Then, decide how much time you’re willing to put into finding that item, and where you’re going to look. Armed with a physical blueprint of what it is you’re looking for, you’re “less prone to being buffeted about by your internal whims,” says Benson, who specializes in patients with compulsive shopping issues.

Meanwhile, suss your emotional state before you make a purchase. Are you hungry, tired, elated, grumpy, and/or bored? Studies repeatedly show that emotions and decision-making are inextricably linked; humans have a natural instinct to pursue pleasure and stave off painful and/or unpleasant feelings (a tendency known as “the pleasure principle”), and shopping provides a quick and convenient fix. Of course, it’s impossible to be emotionally neutral ever, let alone as you elbow your way through a sample sale or click on a promising special-offer link, so it would be unrealistic to put off shopping until you’ve reached a moment of detached equilibrium. Instead, try to keep larger goals in mind by returning to the aforementioned shopping plan and/or avoiding temptation when you know you’re particularly vulnerable (for instance, I use BlockSite to prevent myself from mindless shopping when I’m working on something difficult).

Also, get clear on your more general financial objectives. Do you want to buy better things for less money? Or are you looking to spend less money on the things you already buy? Either is fine; it’s the act of focusing on your intentions — and visualizing them — that makes you less likely to veer off, says Megan Ford, a therapist who specializes in finances and mental health. “Personally, if I’m going clothes shopping (or want to), I do a quick sweep of my closet and take inventory,” she explains. “If I’m reminded that I already have four black tank tops and probably don’t need a fifth, then I’m more likely to slow down that impulse in the moment.”

On a more tactical note, don’t let discounts blind you to hard numbers. Researchers have found that shoppers are easily befuddled by percentages and fractions, and thus prone to miscalculating the benefits of markdowns. For instance, people tend to be more attracted to double discounts (an extra 20 percent off something that’s already marked down by 20 percent) even if a single bigger one (40 percent off) is the better deal. This is partly because most of us just aren’t good at mental math; it also goes to show how unreasonable we can become when an opportunity seems surprising and novel.

Obviously, you’re not going to find the best price for everything, but if you buy things you like and need, the “price per use” often comes out in the wash, so to speak. However, if you want to be extra vigilant, a new app called Earny can help you get money back on online purchases if the price drops after you’ve bought it. The app works by scanning your inbox for receipts, matching them to current prices, and then emailing the original retailer to request the cost difference if they find one. As long as you’re okay with giving up some of your privacy, you’ll get checks in the mail for items you’ve already purchased (for instance, I got one for $5 last week for a body lotion I bought on Amazon a month ago).

And while it’s smart to shop carefully, I’m also a believer in going out on a limb every so often. Yes, I’ve made a lot of stupid decisions at sales, but I’ve also acquired some of my all-time favorite items because they were deeply discounted — a silk tuxedo blazer, a pair of gold-trimmed black heels, an olive wool coat — even though they weren’t “needs,” specifically. The appeal of sales is that they’re an exception to the rule, and sometimes it’s okay to follow suit.

How Can I Shop a Sale Without Losing My Head?