It’s a familiar feeling: that flicker of guilt followed by full-on self-loathing when your latest acquisition fails to fulfill the promise of satisfaction you were expecting. Buyer’s remorse can make you feel bad about more than just your bank balance. Dissatisfaction, guilt and regret can ruin any pleasure you took in your original purchase, leaving your wallet light and your heart heavy.
Buyer’s remorse is a function of two competing systems, battling for dominance as we pose happily in the mirror in that must-have outfit or breathe in that new car smell. Whenever you’re at that purchase decision point, these two factors are at play.
First, our Avoidance System weighs all the risks and potential negative consequences associated with our purchase. Second, our Approach System advocates for purchasing what will make us happy, either in the moment or later on.
If and when the Approach System overrides the Avoidance System, the problem is that any critical thinking or negative thoughts toward the purchase don’t disappear - they’re just momentarily suppressed. Once the Approach System settles down after its victory, the Avoidance System has room to pipe up - loudly - making us question our choices when it’s already too late.
Today’s retail landscape makes buyer’s remorse a growing concern. With a world of choice at our fingertips, plus same-day delivery and one-tap payments, we’re inundated with opportunities to spend money on anything, from anywhere. On the one hand, this availability of unlimited choice would seem to help us be smarter with our purchases. We can do our research, shop around and compare prices. Ironically, though, it turns out that the more choices we have, the unhappier we can be, making it more likely we’ll feel bad about our decision, no matter what it is.
In his book (or TED Talk) “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less,” psychologist Barry Schwartz talks about how an abundance of choice actually leads to a tendency to think more about what we’re giving up, instead of enjoying what we choose. This results in emotions like dissatisfaction, regret, or disappointment. When surrounded by so many options, it’s inevitable that we’ll be hyper-aware of what we’ve lost out on by committing to what we’ve bought.
With so much digital advertising these days, we’re more susceptible than ever to impulse buys or high-pressure sales environments. The good news is that buyer’s remorse is a function of the way our brains are programmed to evaluate and prioritize information, which means there are some steps you can take to reduce the likelihood you’ll experience negative emotions associated with your purchases. So before you tap, click, or pull out some bills, try these tips to make sure your purchases will be filled with joy.
1. You see it, you like it, you want it...you sleep on it
A good rule of thumb is to give yourself enough time to evaluate whether you’re being unduly influenced by factors unrelated to the purchase at hand. There are lots of elements that can contribute to dubious decisions - who you’re with, how you’re feeling, even whether you’re hungry. Physiological cues can change the way your brain evaluates decisions in ways it wouldn’t if you were operating without competing priorities. Giving yourself time and space to properly evaluate your decision will let you really think about if it’s a worthwhile purchase, and reduce the odds of regretting it later. When you find something that catches your eye, give yourself a day (or ideally longer) to sit with it.
2. Compare it to something you’ve bought before
Close your eyes and put a hand up if you’ve ever opened your closet and not found a thing to wear. Oh, everyone? It’s a habit we all share, justifying a new purchase by thinking it will solve our problem of not having enough ______ (insert virtually any item here). The problem is, more of the same won’t solve the problem, and most of us will continue to experience the same problem, just with more of what we thought would fix it. If you’re thinking of buying something similar to something you already have (cough, shoes, cough) the sad reality is that you’ll more than likely feel exactly the same way about those ‘must have’ suede boots that you do about all the other discards taking up space in your closet. And ask yourself if the cost of the item is worth that limited-time newness.
3. Buy it, but buy it better
To proactively prevent any feelings of regret about your purchases, try and find ways to make them more meaningful. In his book Spent, Geoffery Miller tackles our motivation behind what we want and what we buy, but also recommends ways to reduce guilt (and waste less money) by taking a more thoughtful approach to how we spend our money, and what we spend it on.
So, before you reach for your wallet, see if you can find a better way to buy. Is there an opportunity to get what you need (or want) while making more of a positive impact, and potentially lowering your cost? Can you reduce your environmental footprint by renting it, borrowing it or buying it used? Can you support a small businesses by finding a version made locally? Adding a social lens to your purchase decisions will reduce the chances you’ll feel guilty about them later. You’ll be more confident knowing your money is still doing good, even after it leaves your wallet.
If and when you do decide to make a purchase, make a conscious decision to go all in on it. If you’ve bought it (and it’s too late to change your mind), you’ll be better off getting as much enjoyment as you can out of it. Before buyer’s remorse has a chance to rear its ugly head, you can decide to remember your pre-purchase reasoning, embrace your decision, and enjoy it for all it’s worth (maybe more).
That’s because, as psychologist Camille Preston explains, happiness, like buying your new sweater, is a decision - it’s up to you to choose first and experience second. If you’re deliberate in the way you evaluate what you buy before and after you’ve made the purchase, you’ll have more control of the feelings you’ll subsequently experience. So take care to mindfully enjoy it - take it out for a spin, give it with love and pride. Just make sure you take the time to recall and think through the good intentions you had at the cash register.
Amanda Ashford is a Brand & Communications consultant building brands with purpose and using business as a force for good. As a global traveller, Amanda is constantly inspired by the sounds, scenes and stories found around the world, and our shared passion for purpose that connects us all.
Amanda Ashford is a paid spokesperson of Sonnet Insurance.