5 Tricks To Control Your Spending Without Using Willpower

December 27, 2018

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Isn't it exhausting sometimes, trying NOT to spend money? It can be something that you have to think about constantly, or, all of a sudden - in the blink of an eye - you've overspent. Will you ever be able to control your spending, so that you can save for the big stuff, and stop getting back into debt?

It's too easy to spend money, it’s too hard to control your spending 🙁

Having such easy access to your money doesn't help. These days it can be as simple as a tap of a card or a press of a thumb and BAM, just like that, your money is gone.

Then, there are all the strategies that retailers use to get you into a buying mood, or to make you think you're getting a deal you just can't miss.

Related (on Quora): What psychological tricks do retailers use to get people to spend more money?

Also, doesn't it seem like marketing has gotten really really smart lately? Sometimes I swear, I've just had a conversation about a product I've never even known about before, and HELLO there it is in my Facebook feed. How? I can't even. Is my phone listening to me? Is it reading my thoughts? 

There's no doubt that your intentions to avoid spending money are great... and you really WISH you could save money, but saving money seems a long way off when you consistently can't control your spending.

I had a spending problem

Overspending money is a problem that many of us suffer from at some time in our lives.

A few years ago I had to admit it to myself: "I have a spending problem".

I was spending money that I didn't have, on things I didn't really need. I was living beyond my means and my debt was growing every day.

Many, many times I thought 'how do I stop overspending?' or 'How do I stop spending money on unnecessary things?'

My help with overspending came in the form of some major self reflection. I knew that I needed to go from spending money foolishly, to spending money wisely - and it wasn't going to involve just 'trying harder'. To control my spending, I had to get smarter.

But, I learned from my failures

I'd already tried to spend no money at all. I'm not alone in this bold quest, for example, at the time of writing this there are 3.9k people in the "NoBuy", how to stop spending money reddit - just one of many many self help groups for over-spenders.

Trying to not spend any money at all failed pretty quickly. It was WAY harder to do than I imagined. So that's definitely not going to be my number one suggestion for how to have self control with money (it's boring anyway).

But as you do, when you fail at something you usually learn something. I ended up discovering something really useful in relation to how to control spending:

Using willpower to not spend money doesn't work

The reason it's so difficult to prevent yourself from overspending, is because you may be relying on willpower to control your spending. You're constantly exercising self control to avoid overspending.

When you depend on willpower to control your spending, you're setting yourself up to fail.

Willpower is not enough to stop spending money on things you don't really need.

Willpower is NOT ENOUGH to control overspending. Try these 5 spending tricks instead. No willpower required.

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Because willpower is a limited resource

That's because willpower is a very limited resource. It helps if you look at it like a battery with limited charge.  Every time you use it, the energy depletes a little. Depending on your own life goals, you'll be using it in different areas all day long.

On a daily basis you might be using your willpower to:

  • Say no to that piece of cake at morning tea
  • Get yourself to the gym in the morning
  • Avoid snapping at an irritating colleague
  • Try not to lose your cool when your child is losing hers
  • Not stopping into the home store when something catches your eye in the window
  • Etcetera, etcetera...

It's no wonder that by the end of the day, you have little to no willpower left to resist any temptation that comes along.

If you try to make any decisions at the end of the day with an empty willpower battery - you'll run into trouble.

The MORE you rely on willpower to get yourself to complete tasks, or avoid behaviours, the less likely you are to carry out what you intend to.

You already know the answer here don't you? You got it - you need to find other ways to control your spending, that are not dependent on willpower alone.

How to control your spending without using willpower alone

With these five clever spending tricks, you won't need to rely on willpower to control your spending.

Let's take a look at 5 strategies you can put to use in your life today. We're going to dive deep into using each of the strategies later in the article, so don't worry too much if they aren't 100% clear immediately! 

Tip #1: Use the cash envelope system

If you want to try and control your spending with the Cash Envelope System, you withdraw all your cash for the month, and put it into envelopes that correspond with your budget.

If you have budgeted for $20 for buying your work lunches, you have $20 cash in an envelope that says "Work Lunches".

Once you've spent that $20, it's gone. 

If you spend a lot on credit cards or store cards, this could be a good pattern interruptor for you to try.

Tip #2: Put barriers in place

A simple barrier, or a number of barriers, might be enough to stop you unconsciously spending money.

For example, keep your spending money in an account separate from your debit card. Manually transfer it to your spending account only when you need to.

The extra effort required might give you enough time to catch yourself, and question your spending - allowing you to be mindful about it and better control your spending.

Once I gave all my monthly spending money to my husband to look after, and had to ask him to transfer money to me when I needed it! Radical I know. Ask me how that worked out!

Tip #3: Have less cash available

Studies have shown that the more money you have available to spend, the less likely you will be to keep track of your spending.

If you have a credit card with a high limit this is dangerous. If you can't stomach cutting up your credit card (or credit cards) altogether, at least reduce the available limit.

If you keep all of your spending money for the month in the account you can access with your debit card, this is also dangerous!  

Keep it separate, and only transfer across small amounts so that the available balance is smaller. It will be WAY easier to control your spending this way.

Tip #4: Limit your spending days

Decide on a limited time period that you're 'allowed' to spend money, to help better control your spending. It could be one day each month, one day each week, or whatever suits you.

Firstly, you have less time in which to spend money, but the biggest impact you'll make here is just by being conscious about your 'no spend days' decision.

You'll also need to carefully plan what you need to purchase, instead of just whipping out your wallet whenever the desire hits you.  

Don't beat yourself up if it doesn't work for you - everyone is different!

Tip #5: Identify your spending triggers & manage them

Identify your spending triggers and make a plan to manage or avoid them.

What do you spend your money on, that you wish you didn't? Think about what the triggers are that causes this type of spending, and make a plan to manage it, or avoid it altogether.

Are you ready to put these strategies into action with a typical example of overspending?

How to stop spending money on clothes

Alright, let’s use this example to figure out how to control your spending on clothes.

Use the Cash Envelope System

Spend some time at the end of every month planning out your next month's clothing spend - what do you ACTUALLY need?

Then do some research and price up a few options. When you're happy with the amount of money you decide on, ask yourself this final question:

Am I happy and aligned with spending this amount of money on clothes this month? Does this make me feel good about my spending?

Once you've settled on an amount you're truely happy with, put exactly this amount of cash into your 'clothes' envelope.

But I'm not done yet...! 

What I want you to do now is DELAY buying the clothes AS LONG AS POSSIBLE.

If you have a spending problem, it's likely that you feel quite gratified after you've made a purchase. Delaying this gratification is going to do a few things:

  1. It gives you more time to look for good deals - and not just be swayed by clever marketing tactics
  2. It also gives you more time to decide you don't actually need or want something
  3. And finally, it gives you LESS TIME at the end of the month to seek further gratification or make accidental impulse buys!

Combined with having to plan your spending, get physical cash out and place it into envelopes, and then delay gratification - I think this particular trick to control your spending is a really good one. 

I'd love to know if it works for you!

Put simple barriers in place to reduce mindless spending

This is going to depend on if you're shopping in store, or shopping online.

When trying to avoid shopping in-store

If you're trying to avoid shopping in store, try leaving your credit cards or store cards behind when you're out and about.

Or walk a different way so that you don't casually pass tempting shops on the way to your destination.

The trick is to STAY OUT of the stores - in fact you might need to avoid even looking in the windows.

40% off! Sale today only! They're temptations you don't need.

When trying to stop impulse buying online

If you're wondering how to stop impulse buying online, try these tricks:

  1. Unsubscribe from all retail store mailing lists
  2. Install an ad blocker to prevent targeted ads appearing when you're online
  3. Install a website blocker (Chrome extension) and specifically block the sites that you are usually tempted by.

You don't want to be caught in a weak moment, getting targeted by an ad from your favourite store.

Have less cash available to spend at once

Keep a minimum amount in your spending account, and make it slightly difficult to transfer more money into your account. You might go so far as to remove your internet banking application from your phone. 

Cut up your credit cards...... or at least, reduce the limit on your credit card to only a couple of hundred dollars more than your outstanding balance. 

Limit your spending to certain days

Make a rule that you'll only buy required clothes on certain days of the month, and you must plan your shopping.

Plan exactly the items you want or need to purchase.

Map out the shops you'll visit (in person or online).

Put a maximum limit on the amount you'll spend.

Finally, prioritise the items so that if you go over budget, you've bought the item/s you really want first.

Identify & manage your spending triggers

This requires a little bit of self reflection.

First you'll need to ask yourself the right questions, in order to understand what's triggering your overspending.

Think about your last clothing purchase and do some self reflection - try some of these questions:

What purpose will the item fulfil?

What purpose does the item fulfil?

Do you already have something that performs much the same purpose?

If so - why do you NEED to upgrade it?

There's a great article on mrmoneymustache.com about how small lifestyle upgrades give us a wee happiness bump, but it doesn't last - because the need was already being acceptably fulfilled in some way. He found that the longest lasting happiness bump came from buying items that met a purpose that addressed a shortfall in his lifestyle. 

On mrmoneymustache.com: Hacking Hedonic Adaptation to Get Way More For Your Money

Applying this to our clothing example - if you buy a good winter coat and you don't already have one, you'll get a longer term happiness boost than if you bought another good winter coat. 

Side note: if you bought the item to replace something that was in need of repair, or to be adjusted, could you have done that instead? Do more repairs to help control your spending.

Were you overly influenced by marketing tactics?

For example - if you bought it at a reduced price, would you have still bought it at full price?

Did you shop around for it, or were you drawn in by some marketing of some kind? Do you remember what that marketing was? An email? Advertising on a shop window?

Were you influenced by someone you admire - either in person or a public figure? (This is what influencers get paid for! They will not help you control your spending!) 

Did your emotional state cause you to shop?

While researching this article, I found an interesting reference on forbes.com, to a study that looked at whether shopping alleviated sadness. 

The researchers maintain that their study subjects got happier not because shopping or buying treats distracted them but because it gave them a greater sense of control

A sense of control may be gratifying but I don’t think you should discount the value of simple distraction. 

The researchers also note the downside of retail therapy: When your credit card bill comes due, the extra charges may make you feel like you’ve lost control, especially if you don’t have enough in your bank account to cover the bill. 

How that affects sadness, they say, “remains an open question.” Is the solution, even then, to just put more on your credit card?

If you were doing a spot of retail therapy, is there another way you could distract yourself...? This point definitely deserves a bit more thought!

From this self reflection you will get some insights into what's triggering your spending.

If any of your answers surprise you, look deeper into that particular area.

Once you've identified what triggered you to make an unnecessary purchase, write it down in a notebook (you'll add to this list over time).

Then ask yourself - what steps will you take to acknowledge this spending trigger before it leads you to make a purchase? Get a better understanding of your spending triggers, to help better control your spending.

In conclusion - there are many ways you can help to control your spending, without willpower alone!

I'm not going to lie, this stuff is HARD. And honestly, it's probably easier just to bury your head in the sand and pretend that you don't have a spending problem.

But that's not going to help you reach your financial goals. So, as hard as it might be, I encourage you to feel proud of yourself for any steps you make towards improving your personal finance situation!

The first step is acknowledging that you may have a spending problem. The next steps are right here in this post.

You may still be thinking:

How do I strengthen my willpower?

Remember that willpower is a limited resource, and it's depleted every time you need to make a decision.

While you may not be able to strengthen your willpower, you can be choosier about when you use it.

If you want to preserve it for when you really need it, make less decisions.

Decide ahead of time what you'll do, and stick to it.

On a final note, remember that spending habits - any habits - are easier to establish than they are to break. Take small steps and allow yourself some room to fail. You may even like to treat yourself with a bit of retail therapy occasionally - so that you don't go completely cold turkey! (But plan it out! Spend your hard earned money wisely!).

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  • Everything mentioned here requires willpower!

    #1 The envelope system what is stopping just taking from a different envelope or using a credit card that I have partly paid, willpower.

    #2 Putting a barrier in the way is another form of willpower. 1 i would need the willpower to put the money in to that account in the first place. 2 I would need will power to not transfer more then I need. 3 maybe you dont have a partner or maybe your partner is worse with money and is happy to give you more then you need.

    #3 this is the same as the above. I have maxed my credit cards. So am not sure who this is aimed at but it sounds like you are targeting people who already have good spending habits!

    #4 Limit days you can spend money! Total willpower!! Its just like intermittent fasting, sounds great but I want that burger for lunch!

    #5 Spending Triggers. My are waking up, work, boredom, hunger, reading, looking in the mirror. Everything is a trigger so trying to avoid those triggers is willpower!

    • Hey Angie thanks so much for contributing your thoughts here! Hmm i guess it helps if you look at these methods more as pattern interrupts, and making it easier to avoid overspending. It’s still hard at times, I agree. I hope you can take something away from this post. Best of luck with your debt free journey!!

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