10 Ways Emotions Control Your Spending and Waste Your Money

Fry holding money
Fry engages in a little emotional spending after he tripped one of his triggers. | Fox

Trying to save money: It’s one of life’s biggest difficulties. Sometimes, we can only stash away $10, $20, or $50 in a given month. Still, that’s better than nothing, and over time it adds up. But life is expensive. We have to eat, pay rent, and fund transportation. But there are a number of questionable purchases we all make that we can do without.
The question is how to know what is actually necessary. We all have different wants and needs. But sometimes, we can be tricked by our own psyches into thinking our wants are actually needs. In other words, we’re triggered into making a purchase we otherwise might forego.

Spending triggers

What do we mean when we use the term “trigger”? It’s become a fairly ubiquitous word over the past few years, typically used as a way to describe something that rubs us the wrong way or that spurs some sort of behavior. For example, someone saying something insensitive about our weight might trigger us to eat (or not eat) certain foods. Or seeing certain images might trigger underlying psychological issues that can make us emotional.
We can also be triggered to make certain purchases or splurge. This is something we’ve all experienced, whether we’re aware of it or not. For example, if you’ve ever gone to get gas and noticed you’re hungry, you pop into the store for a candy bar. Your hunger triggered you (we’ll dig into this later) to spend money.
If you’re trying to stick to your budget or save money, this can be a problem. How are you being triggered in your everyday life? Are there ways you can save more money by being more disciplined? Here are some of the most common spending triggers you should watch out for.
We’ll start with something we all experience every day.

1. Stress

squeezing an anti-stress ball
An anti-stress ball could help you deal with your triggers. | iStock.com/RobertoDavid

Stress can cause a lot of problems, including some that have nothing to do with your finances. In fact, your finances are probably the source of a lot of your stress. And when you’re feeling particularly stressed out, spending money can be therapeutic. It’s why we spring for sugar or cigarettes or sometimes splurge on an hour-long massage when you should really be stashing money away. Learn to cope with stress without breaking the bank, and you’d be surprised how much you can save.
Closely related to stress? Anxiety — another bank breaker.

2. Anxiety

making a sundae
An ice cream sundae can help you calm down, but it can be pricey. | Lionsgate

Anxiety can be crippling. For those who are prone to panic or anxiety attacks, it can stop you dead in your tracks. Or even if you’re just anxious about everyday life — a job interview or first date, for example — you might go out of your way to spend money to relieve it. Again, this is one of those ways that you can be triggered into spending. It might be worthwhile, on occasion, to blow off some steam and make a purchase. Just don’t make it a regular habit.
One of life’s biggest mistakes? Grocery shopping while you’re hungry.

3. Hunger

On 'Stranger Things,' Eleven steals waffles from the grocery store
Eleven was clearly triggered by hunger in Stranger Things. | Netflix

Restaurants use an advertising trick called “appealing to the senses.” It basically entails showing you pictures or video of delicious foods in order to get you into their restaurants. You see a Taco Bell ad, and suddenly you want tacos. So you go get them. Easy peasy.
And yes, being hungry can cause you to spend money (or more money than you wanted) on food. An easy trick? Make sure you’ve had a full meal before grocery shopping.
Another mistake? Shopping when you’re upset.

4. Anger

A woman yells at her boyfriend.
A woman yells at her boyfriend. | iStock.com/Deagreez

Like many of our other triggers, anger is an emotion we experience every day. The key, though, is to find a way to control yourself when you get angry, and don’t lash out with your wallet. We find creative ways to spend money when we’re not thinking clearly. And when you’re mad, spending can manifest in funny ways. How else do you justify $20 at the batting cages on a Tuesday night when you can’t afford to pay your rent?
Next is another trick advertisers have latched onto to get you to open your wallet.

5. Nostalgia

Getting slimed
Would you get slimed just for nostalgia’s sake? | Donald Bowers/Getty Images for Nickelodeon

How do you get someone to spend money? Appeal to their childhood. An adult probably wouldn’t buy a Surge soft drink, but if you see one for the first time in 20 years you might not be able to resist. That’s right. Nostalgia is a potent way of triggering people into a purchase. And it’s incredibly effective. It’s why we have so many Transformers and super hero movies, for example.
What’s another way you can be triggered into splurging? Jealousy.

6. Envy

man feeling jelaous of woman hugging another man
Do you spend money out of jealousy? | Fox Photos/Getty Images

It might sound like we’re working our way through the seven deadly sins. And there is definitely some overlap. That includes envy, or jealousy. Have you ever bought something out of jealousy? Perhaps a friend got a great new game system or car, and you just had to have one for yourself. It happens, but just like all of the other spending triggers on our list, you can dodge wasteful purchases if you’re careful.
What about when you have a big event coming up?

7. Anticipation

girl with dog ready for the travel
A special occasion could trigger ample spending. | iStock.com/wojciech_gajda

Anticipating a vacation, graduation, or wedding? All of these can be excuses to go buck wild when it comes to your finances — or maybe just do a little splurging on something nice. Anticipation, as we’ll call it, can be yet another spending trigger. Sure, it’s OK to spend some money here and there when something’s coming up, but make sure you’re making a clear-headed decision if you’re on a tight budget.
Also, you don’t want to get caught up in a bout of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

8. Competition

Lifted Chevy
Do you need a bigger, badder truck than the next person? | Micah Wright/The Cheat Sheet

What happens in your brain when you see someone who has something nicer than what you have? You want to outdo them. You want a bigger, faster truck than the next guy. Or you want a greener, lusher lawn. Competition is encoded in us, and it can lead to wasteful spending. There’s a phrase for this: “keeping up with the Joneses.” This is closely related to envy, naturally, but getting caught up in these types of battles can be financially draining.
Another way to save money? Learn to be patient.

9. Impatience

Cartman froze himself because he couldn't contain his impatience
Cartman froze himself because he couldn’t contain his impatience. | Comedy Central

Can’t wait for the price of something to drop? You’ll have to spend more now to get it, so you might be better off learning to be patient. This applies to just about every purchase you can think of, excluding food. New cars are more expensive than used cars, a new video game will drop in price in a few months, etc. If you can learn to be patient and put off getting the new iPhone for a few months, you’ll come out ahead.
Next we see how mother nature can spur useless spending.

10. The weather

stylish young woman
Some people buy new gear for every season. | iStock.com/jacoblund

New bikini, new sunglasses, SPF 100 (for the gingers), and why not a new kayak? It’s nice out. It’s easy to justify spending money when nicer weather rolls around. Or even if it’s cold, some might use that as justification to buy a new coat or winter wardrobe. Track your spending, and see whether you fall into this trap. Remember that last year’s swimsuit or parka might not be on the top of the trends list, but it’s still functional.