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23 Top Psychology Tricks to Spend Less While Shopping

These science-backed secrets reveal why and how you spend to help you become a more mindful shopper.

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Seasonal decorations are a trap

Around the holidays, red and green store decorations may prime you to splurge, according to Kit Yarrow, PhD, professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and contributor at PsychologyToday.com. Red stimulates and energizes, she explains, noting that waitresses who wear red uniforms receive 14 to 26 percent higher tips than those in different colored outfits. And green is perceived as an optimistic color, associated with wealth and luck. As for those big, beautiful displays? Yarrow says retailers often put the priciest items toward the center, where you’re likely to look; research also shows you’re significantly more likely to buy something you touch. Stores may also use seasonal scents—pine, or peppermint—to encourage you to shop longer and spend more.

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Wear high-heeled shoes when you shop

One recent oddball study found that when consumers’ minds were focused on staying balanced, they were likelier to choose a mid-range product instead of a pricier or low-quality one. If that sounds too uncomfortable, shopping after a yoga class or even after riding an escalator had the same effect, the Brigham Young University study authors told HealthDay.

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Use new bills

People prefer crisp new cash to wilted, dirty, old bills, so they’re more likely to readily part with the latter, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Consumer Research. In studies, participants were willing to spend more money when they had old bills to hand out than when they had newer ones. Follow these 17 habits of people who are great at saving money.

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Take a “mindful pause”

Stifle an impulsive purchase by taking what psychologist April Lane Benson, PhD, author of To Buy or Not to Buy: Why We Overshop and How to Stop, calls a “mindful pause” before you whip out the credit card. On a PsychologyToday.com blog, she suggests you give the item to a salesperson, sit down somewhere away from it, and ask yourself the following questions: Why am I here? How do I feel? Do I need this? What if I wait? How will I pay for it? Where will I put it? “Then, only make the purchase if you’re very certain that it’s something you need and can afford,” she explains.

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Limit the number of stores you go to

The more stores you visit, the more you will buy, according to Forbes.com. You may tell yourself that you’re comparison shopping, but the more “legwork” you put in, the more you may feel the need to “reward” yourself for your efforts. Make sure you know these 11 secret store policies that will save you money.

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Woman chooses home flowers. Beauty Woman in Shopping Mall .

Ask a stranger

Think Dad wants a new cappuccino machine or a camcorder? One paper in the journal Social Influence found that almost 60 percent of holiday gifts were used less often than people anticipated. But strangers who guessed how often people would use something only overestimated 10 percent of the time. So if you’re unsure whether you really need that hot new gadget, ask a fellow shopper what she thinks.

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Sale signs in a clothing store.

Don’t go crazy hunting for bargains

It sounds counterintuitive, but getting too good a deal can backfire. When you feel like you’ve saved money on gifts for others, Yarrow explains that it’s common for you to then treat yourself—but you’re likely to wind up spending more than what you initially saved. Check out these 13 other shopping tricks you’ll wish you knew all along.

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Don’t make friends with the sales staff

The more you interact with them, the likelier you are to buy something, Forbes.com notes. Part of why is that you feel like you don’t want to let down someone who has helped you.

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Man Shopping Spending Customer Consumerism Concept

Make yourself walk away

The very act of shopping fires the pleasure centers of your brain. As the feel-good brain chemical dopamine flows through your synapses, a shopper’s high can hijack your mind, making you buy things you don’t need or even really want, according to the Wall Street Journal. To minimize this effect, health reporter Tara Parker-Pope suggests you walk away from a potential purchase and come back the next day to see if you still want it. She explains that this “will eliminate the novelty of the situation and help you make a more clear-headed decision.”

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Leave your credit cards at home

Research shows people are willing to spend more money with plastic than with cash. The less transparent the payment—and cash is the most visible form of payment there is—the more easily people will spend it. Make sure you also look out for these 32 ways stores trick you into spending money.

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Repeat an uplifting mantra

Staying positive can go a long way to reaching your financial goals. “People have a tendency to feel defeated because they don’t give themselves reinforcement along the way,” Benson says. “And that reinforcement doesn’t have to cost any money.” She recommends using what she calls meta tags, or positive affirmations, about yourself. These statements represent goals that you aspire to, such as “I’m putting money into savings regularly” or “I’m saving for important life goals.” Write them down on Post-It notes and place them around your house for an extra boost of inspiration.

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hand putting money bank note dollar into piggy for saving money

Set up automatic withdrawals

The best way to start saving is to automate it, according to Cathy Curtis, a certified financial planner and founder of Curtis Financial Planning. “As soon as your paycheck hits your checking account, have an automated transfer set up to your savings account,” Curtis says. “Or, schedule a deduction from your paycheck to go directly into a savings account.” You will be less likely to miss the money if you sock it away instantly. Here are 56 more almost effortless ways to save money.

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23 Sneaky Psychological Tricks That Will Help You Save Money
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Carry a photo of your financial goal

Whether it’s a vacation to the Bahamas or a brand new Porsche, saving up for a significant splurge is much easier when you can picture it, experts say. Benson suggests creating a vision board to give you something to aim towards. A photo placed inside your wallet or on your phone’s background can also create a visual (and motivational!) reminder of your goal, according to Curtis. Learn more easy ways to save money without feeling the pinch.

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Reward yourself

Tightening your belt doesn’t mean you have to sweat every purchase. “Just like denying yourself your favorite dessert while dieting, it ultimately backfires and your emotional mind will rebel,” says Carrie Rattle, MBA, CDFA(R), aka the Master Money Coach. As you save, give yourself a boost along the way—small splurges here and there can actually make your larger goal feel more achievable, according to Benson. Don’t miss more major mistakes you’re making when trying to save money.

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Box with pair of sparkly female shoes on floor, top view
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Think of prices in hours or number of uses

Dropping $300 on a pair of fabulous new shoes sounds like a great idea—until you think about how many hours you need to work in order to pay them off. If you make $10 per hour, for example, those shoes will require 30 hours of work. Or, “think like an economist and measure cost per use,” Curtis says. Are those shoes still worth it? By looking at purchases in a different way, you might rethink whipping out your credit card.

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Suck on a mint while you shop

Research shows that retailers use the magic of smell to trick shoppers into spending more money. In fact, one study found that pumping coffee scents into a gas station increased coffee purchases by 300 percent. Chomping on something mint-flavored while you browse can block out the store’s scent, helping you avoid any impulsive buys. These money-saving tips, on the other hand, don’t actually pay.

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Wear headphones when you run errands

Here is another little-known trick that retailers use to manipulate shoppers: Adjusting the speed of the music they play. According to a study published in the Journal of Marketing, slow-paced music can make shoppers slow down as they roam through the store, leading them to spend more money. Listening to tunes with a fast tempo via headphones can help you get in and out of the store quickly—and without burning a hole in your wallet.

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Separate your savings

If you are a chronic spender, make sure to keep your savings somewhere that is not too tempting and accessible. “You need to think of any money you can save as special and untouchable,” says Claudia Hammond, author of Mind over Money. You will be less likely to dip into your nest egg if you separate it from the rest of your income, simply because it’s easier not to.

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Take baby steps

Get this: One UCLA study found that nearly 30 percent of the participants said they could save $5 a day, while just seven percent chose to save $150 a month—despite saving the same value either way. Translation? While saving up thousands of dollars for a major renovation may seem like an impossible task, putting away just a few dollars each day sounds much more reasonable. And in the end, you still get the same result.

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Beware of starting a tab

Once you open a tab at a bar or restaurant, it’s all too easy to load up on beverages without thinking twice about the cost. But three or four drinks can add up fast. The Penny Hoarder puts it this way: “There’s no pain involved in ordering another drink, but there is pain involved in paying for it. Make yourself feel it.” Pay for each drink with cash to keep your spending in check.

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Calculate unnecessary costs

When trimming down her clients’ budgets, Rattle likes to ask one question: How many times do you pay for this each month and each year? In other words, do the math on the cost of that magazine subscription or gym membership you never use. “That year total usually catches their attention pretty quickly, and suddenly these expenses are open for consideration after that ‘ah-ha!’ moment,” Rattle says. Those extra bucks will be put to better use in your savings account.

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Track your spending habits

The hard truth to saving money is that you need to know where each and every dollar goes. Not only does this encourage you to keep track of your purchases, but it can also help you spend less. According to a report by researchers at UCLA, those who used a mobile app that tracked purchases cut back on their overall spending by 15.7 percent. Curtis recommends creating a budget to monitor your spending each month or quarter.

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Round up your purchases

No wiggle room in your budget to save? No problem. When it comes to building your nest egg, a little can still go a long way. Banking apps like Qapital will round up every purchase to the nearest dollar—and tuck away the extra cash into your savings. “You don’t notice it while you’re doing it, yet it adds up,” Hammond says. Try more creative ways to save money that you haven’t thought of before.

Brooke Nelson
Brooke Nelson is a tech and consumer products writer covering the latest in digital trends, product reviews, security and privacy, and other news and features for RD.com.