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By Carol Church

This post is part of an ongoing series to support our annual upcoming three-day learning event. The Personal Finance Virtual Learning Event will be held June 5-7 and this year will focus on the soft skills financial professionals need to effectively meet the needs of their clients and students. Learn more and register for sessions here.

If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably heard people joke about “retail therapy”—that is, using shopping as a way to cope with sad or negative feelings. You may have even engaged in it yourself. Of course, if we find shopping to be a fun diversion, it may sometimes be a harmless way to enjoy ourselves on a day when we need a bit of cheering up.

But there are some less comfortable truths behind the phrase. For some people, emotionally difficult times, like grief, depression, a break-up, or stress at home or work, are what is known as “spending triggers.” And at times, these triggers can cause us to spend far too much, when there are healthier ways to handle stress and sadness.

Of course, stress isn’t the only spending trigger out there (though it is a common one!) A spending trigger is really just a factor, feeling, or event that causes us to spend money….often on things we can’t really afford or may not really need. At some times, we may be very aware that we are being “triggered.” At others, the process may happen at a subconscious level.

In order to rein in unwanted spending, it’s important to learn about common spending triggers and to think about what our own might be. That way, we may be able to recognize these behaviors and prevent them. Read on to find out more.

Common Spending Triggers

Following are some common emotions, situations, and experiences that may tend to trigger unwanted, excessive, and/or unnecessary spending.

Stress and unhappiness

This is well known as one of the most common spending triggers. For many of us, spending can give a quick high that distracts from or seems to alleviate feelings of stress, frustration, and aggravation.

Holidays and special events

The emotional pressure of special events like Christmas, birthdays, and weddings commonly causes people to spend more than they want or intend to.

Promotions, raises, windfalls, and changes in status

It’s obviously tempting to celebrate a graduation, promotion, or pay increase with a purchase or two. Over time, though, these changes may tend to lead to what experts call “lifestyle creep”—adjusting the way we live and what we buy to “match” a higher income. When we do this, our savings may not increase. We may even end up worse off than we were before.

Feeling weak or disempowered

Spending money makes people feel strong and powerful, so if your work or home life is making you feel just the opposite, your subconscious may urge you to go out and make a purchase, perhaps especially a high-status luxury one.

Being reminded of past deprivation

For those who grew up in need, or who felt ashamed of their family’s economic status, thinking about or being reminded of those feelings can trigger an urge to spend. We may want to prove that we are past that and that we have “made it” by visually signaling our achievements to ourselves and others. Purchases may also make us feel secure.

Desire to please or impress

We may buy gifts for children, spouses, family members or partners in an effort to make them happy or impress them, especially when feeling vulnerable in the relationship.

Social pressure

If our social circles are big on luxury items, brand names, going out, expensive trips, and so on, it may be difficult not to resist the desire to fit in and participate by spending money.

Sales, deals, excitement around buying events

Many of us are very susceptible to the excitement and time pressure of events like Black Friday, Cyber Monday, major “sales” and so on. We may purchase items we don’t need due to the feeling that we can’t pass up a “great deal.” Retailers know this very well and create false discounts so we can experience the thrill of “saving.”


Don’t underestimate the danger of boredom—for some, being left alone with nothing to do in an interesting shopping area, or even just with an open computer browser, can result in unintentional purchases made out of boredom.

Happiness/celebration/feeling good

Just as sadness can trigger spending, so can happiness or excitement. Some people tend to spend money whenever they’re in a good mood, have had a good day, and so on. The concept of “being worth it” or “deserving it” may come in here.


Research shows that material purchases may seem to decrease feelings of loneliness, creating a dangerous feedback loop.

Having cash on hand

The simple fact of having cash in one’s wallet can incline some people to spend when they otherwise might have refrained.

Defeating Spending Triggers

So, you’ve identified or at least thought about your spending triggers, and want to know how to stop yourself in the act. Simple awareness may be a big part of the solution, but there are some other steps you can take.

  • Automate your savings

This is especially important after a raise. Increase the amount of money going to savings so that you don’t automatically raise your standard of living and spend up all the extra money you are now earning, just because it’s there.

  • Make it harder to spend the money

If you have cash on hand, do you “blow it”? Then don’t visit the ATM before hitting the mall, or take out a nominal $20. On the other hand, if you tend to overwork your credit cards, leave them at home or bring the one with the lowest limit. The old trick of freezing your credit card in ice (so you have to wait till it melts to buy) still works, too.

  • Delay purchases

See something you feel you can’t live without? Put it on layaway, leave it in your online cart, or just write down the info and leave it on the shelf for a week or a month. Then see if the urge still remains.

  • Find other ways to cope with stress

If stress or other negative feelings are what push you to spend, make a plan for other ways to handle these emotions. Exercise, spend time with friends, enjoy hobbies, or find other enjoyable activities that can take the place of spending money.

  • Set savings goals

It may be easier to rein in spending when you set savings goals, including for worthwhile but smaller spending goals like a new sofa or a vacation. Money that otherwise would have trickled away on small purchases can be put to a higher use.

  • Ask for help

If you’re not happy with your spending habits, let those around you know. Friends who ask you out for dinner may be just as happy to get coffee, go for a walk, or do something less costly. Family members will understand if you let them know that holidays can’t be extravagant (they may welcome the excuse to ramp things down, too).

If the situation is more serious and you feel you can’t control the problem, seek counseling.  Spending triggers don’t have to exert control over your life.



Curtis, J. (n.d.) 7 Psychological Triggers That Cause Spending – How to Deal With Them.

Foreman, G. (2013). Know the 8 emotional spending triggers.

Greenwood, H. (n.d.) My Money: Lesson 2, Spending Leaks.

Huddleston, C. (2016). 9 Spending Triggers That Can Leave You Poor.

McGrath, M. (2016). Anger, Hunger, The Thrill Of The Hunt: What’s Your Spending Trigger?