my two cents

How to Trick Yourself Into Shopping Less

Photo: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

I spend a lot of time on Instagram, partly because it’s fun, but also for work — I’m in marketing, so I have to stay on top of social media for my job. The problem is that I’m also using it to shop, and I need to rein it in. I like a lot of the stuff I buy, but I know I don’t need it. And I definitely can’t afford it. Today I spent $200 on new shirts during a work meeting, because I just happened to pick up my phone (and it took about 30 seconds). How can I make myself stop?

There’s a perverse pleasure in having Instagram serve up exactly what you want before you even know you want it. The downside is that you’re predictable, easily pigeonholed as a sucker for, say, neroli candles in minimalist packaging. But the upside is far more powerful: It’s a soothing, portable echo chamber of your own taste, only with better lighting and more possibility, where you can shop whenever you feel like it (and even when you don’t).

No wonder so many of us can relate to your quandary. One survey found that 57 percent of millennials spent money they hadn’t planned to because they came across new products on social media. This may be a relatively new phenomenon in the history of human weaknesses, but feeling powerless to stop is not. Our lizard brains are, in general, very bad at resisting temptation, especially when the bait is repetitive and easily accessible, like those ads for very expensive (pretty, silk, comfy-looking) pajamas that stalk me incessantly.

Of course, the most logical solution would be to quit Instagram entirely, but it seems like that’s not realistic for you (plus, Instagram is fun). Instead, you want to stop spending money on it — or at least spend less money. It’s a fine line, and a tough one to walk.

To figure out what you can do, I called psychologist Adam Alter, a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business and the author of Irresistible, which looks at why so many people are addicted to online behaviors (shopping and social media among them). He explained that part of what makes Instagram dangerous for your wallet is that it grooms you to want stuff. “You’re seeing the top one percent of interesting people doing the top one percent of the most interesting things in their lives, and that puts you in an aspirational mindset that leads you to shop for betterment,” he says.

Instagram also lulls you into mental state where spending money may not seem like such a big deal. “When you ask hardcore gamblers how they feel when they’re sitting in front of a slot machine, they usually describe a feeling of being sedated and pain-free, almost floating. It’s an effortlessness that isn’t true about the rest of life,” Alter says. “Instagram is similar — it puts you in a calm state. The problem is, most people can’t get enough of it, so they ignore cues that it’s time to move on to do something else, and sit there for hours and hours.” According to Alter, with each minute you spend on Instagram, the chance that you’re going to buy something goes up incrementally. Meanwhile, every additional “like” and swipe gives advertisers more information about you, so they can target you even more specifically than they already do.

Now for the good news: Knowing your weaknesses makes you better equipped to resist them. Think of Odysseus tying himself to his ship when he sailed past the Sirens. You have to anticipate your weak moments, because once you’re in the middle of one, you’re probably too far gone.

One way to build a buffer between Instagram and your bank account is to disconnect all payment methods from your phone. Having to manually type in your credit card number whenever you buy something is annoying, and that’s the point. You want to increase the “pain of paying,” a term used in behavioral economics to describe the uncomfortable moment when you hand over money to buy something (and perhaps question whether it’s worth it). Research has shown that this “pain” plays an important role in consumer self-regulation. It’s also reduced or totally absent when credit cards are involved — also known as the “credit card effect,” or that Monopoly-money feeling you get when you spend hundreds of dollars with two taps of your index finger.

Second, zoom out and take a look at your spending habits more generally. Are there certain patterns to your impulse shopping? Are you more likely to do it during certain times of the day or week, for example? Farnoosh Torabi, the host of the So Money podcast, says that she’s most likely to shop on Instagram right before going to sleep, so she makes sure to leave her phone in another room. I have a similar problem — I tend to buy things when scrolling through my phone before getting up in the morning — so now I put my phone in the kitchen at night. Another friend of mine told me she often overspends on Fridays, when she feels like she’s “earned it” by getting through the week, so she temporarily disables her Instagram account every Thursday night.

While you’re at it, look at your overall budget and see how much damage you’re actually doing. “You might say, ‘Oh wow, 23 percent of my discretionary income is going towards these impulse buys online. That’s alarming,’” Alter says. “Those epiphanies can be powerful, and motivate people to make a change.”

Taking stock of your finances could also make you realize that you don’t have to stop shopping cold turkey. Perhaps your budget can allow for one unplanned purchase, within a certain dollar amount, per week? “Anything you can do to minimize the amount of self-control you need to exert is a good thing,” Alter says. “If you can make hard and fast rules that guide your purchasing behavior, but also license you to do it occasionally, you may have an easier time keeping it under control.” Impulse shopping isn’t always bad, after all — just like Instagram itself, it’s only problematic when it gets out of hand.

How to Trick Yourself Into Shopping Less