We overestimate the pleasure our purchases will bring us, which eventually leads to disappointment and severe buyer's remorse. In a world driven by savvy marketing, it's now that much more important to know how to avoid buyer's remorse.
One of my fond memories of growing up was the local corner shop—a tiny but colorful mom-and-pop store that sold everyday conveniences and homemade snacks. Kids would routinely stop to buy little treats but, more often than not, wouldn't have the cash on hand to pay for the stuff.
It was a 1-nod purchase. The shop owner could see what the kids picked and nod his approval. And that was that. The owner didn't care that the kids hadn't paid. He knew the kids' parents. Eventually, when the parents stopped by, they'd be presented with an "invoice" of sorts—an itemized inventory of what their kids had consumed.
Goods and payments were exchanged, albeit by different parties at different times. It was an almost perfect system. And it didn't cause much grief because:
a) The store had no high-value inventory. The rare imported chocolate bars were the prized item, but even the kids knew those were reserved for special occasions.
b) The store didn't have delivery personnel. All the kids had for transportation was their own two legs. They only bought what they could physically carry, which, to be honest, considering the developing limbs, wasn't a lot at all.
Life was good.
A decade later
In the late 90s, a hitherto online book store decided to diversify into selling products other than books. In 1999, this company, Amazon (you may have heard of it), quietly filed a patent for a seemingly innocuous ordering system—the 1-click system.
The premise was simple. After you add a product to an online shopping cart, instead of spending precious minutes keying in your address and card numbers, you click on a button that will enable the system to use previously used and stored shipment and payment details.
The 1-click system, it turned out, was a game-changer. Sure, it made it easy for the customer to order stuff they needed. But mostly, it enabled people to buy things they didn't need. Or want. The result: an endless cycle of buyer's remorse.
It hasn't stopped there, though. Over time, technology has evolved even further. First, online shopping extended from the desktop to the handheld phone (for most of us, our extended arm), so you didn't even need to be in front of a computer. Then, finger sensors helped speed up the process—you didn't need to type in your login details.
Eventually, someone decided even touching something was too much work. So now we just stare at our screens, and our phones are clever enough to identify us using facial and retinal scans.
Back to the start
Essentially, we are back to square one; we are back to the 1-nod system. Except now, we nod at our screens. However, unlike the corner store where the impact of impulse-shopping was minimal, technology has enabled us to use the 1-nod system to buy everything from a pack of gum to the 1884 Silver Morgan Dollar (priced at a million dollars). No wonder we are all haunted by buyer's remorse.
Falling into the buying trap
It's easy to fall into the buying trap.
You're bored and scroll through social media when you see a picture of your friend holding a cute bag. Next thing you know, you're on a google image search. After some skillful searching, you locate the bag on a retailer's website. Your image search also uncovers a few celebrities fashionably posing with the bag. More validation for your keen eye. You've serendipitously found the "It" bag for the year!
Now you just have to have it. But, oh, the price! It's unreal how much the bag costs. And, also, out of nowhere, an uncomfortable question rears its head—do you need it? Ugh! Wrong question.
Anyway, you add the bag to your online shopping cart and leave it sitting there. TBD. Because, of course, you are the epitome of self-control. You've decided to sleep on it and make an "informed" decision in a couple of days.
Bag or a puppy?
Then when you go online the next day, the bag follows you around. On. Every. Website. Like a puppy. You ignore it for a while. But now, it's entrenched in your subconscious. Without your permission, your mind has started, on its own, to debate the pros and cons of owning the bag. Ultimately YOLO kicks in. What's a little bag in the grand scheme of life? You buy it.
The package arrives a few days later. Yes, your shiny, new bag is in your hands. You hold it with joy. But you find out soon that it has brought with it a surprise companion—a hefty dose of buyer's remorse.
Buyer's remorse is the sense of regret following a purchase. It is the anxiety over whether you made the right decision when you buy (or sign up) for something.
Regardless of what you're buying—a bag, a car, a house, a gym membership, a timeshare—most material acquisitions can spur that sinking "why did I get that?" feeling. The bigger the purchase, the larger the remorse.
Psychologists (those people who are paid to explain every little quirk in our personalities) credit buyer's remorse to a theory called the Approach-avoidance conflict.
I guess you could say all decision-making is inherently conflicted. There are pros and cons to consider—whether you are buying a new home or debating whether to eat the cookie in the break room.
The approach-avoidance conflict, in particular, alludes to the fact that opposing forces control our brains. One force that makes us eager to approach the goal—we are keen to buy the bag, and the other force wants us to avoid — asking us to ignore the bag. These forces dominate our brains at different times. Which one (approach or avoidance) is in play at any point in time depends on how close we are to the goal in the decision-making process.
Typically (and unfortunately), this means when we're in the throes of a purchase decision, the object's appeal makes us want to approach it even more. After the purchase is made, however, is when avoidance sets in, resulting in, you guessed it, buyer's remorse. A bit late in the game, if you ask me.
Is there a solution?
How do we turn the tables on this inherently unhelpful process? In other words, is there a way to actively learn to avoid buyer's remorse by making regret-proof decisions?
Note: For the record, like many people before me, I tried an alternate strategy. Instead of trying to avoid buyer's remorse, I reasoned, why not simply learn to cope with it? Like how you put up with an unwanted house guest, you know? Unfortunately, this out-of-the-box thinking got me nowhere. It wasn't successful, nor was it the least bit pleasant. So, let's move on.
Back to square one then—can we avoid buyer's remorse? First, it’d be helpful to understand what causes the problem.
What leads to buyer's remorse?
America's retail industry runs on one maxim. The lure of "buy more, save more." Now, add the power of billions of dollars in savvy marketing to this concept. Unless your name is J. Christ (or insert your own divine/non-mortal entity here), it is hard not to succumb to the pull of materialism around us.
Here are three key factors that make it worse.
Laura and her husband Tom considered buying a home for a while. The real estate market started to get red hot; all their friends seemed to be buying houses. The couple, caught in this frenzy, made an offer for a new home.
As soon as the offer was official, Laura started to cry. But, not, like you'd expect, from relief, but instead out of regret. The home was overpriced and didn't have the square footage they wanted. They realized a little late it wasn't even the home they wanted. Result: a case of severe buyer's remorse.
The story ends well, though. Laura and Tom were outbid on the home. A happy ending for them in a situation that could have turned out quite poorly.
Doing something because everyone else seems to be doing it is the textbook definition of Fomo (the fear of missing out). The examples are everywhere. Laura and Tom got caught in it. People flocking to r/wallstreetbets to buy meme stocks fell into the same trap.
Fomo, like fuel to the fire, is a catalyst for buyer's remorse to set in. Almost always. And Fomo isn't related to material possessions either. It covers the whole gamut of human experience—we are afraid of missing out on vacations, careers, relationships – you name it.
You know the saying, "if it were easy, everyone would be doing it."
Getting caught up in Fomo is easy, which is why most of us tend to get afflicted. Avoiding Fomo, on the other hand, is hard, hence our struggle.
Fomo creeps up on you when you least expect it to, even if you're pretty content with your life.
And, oh yeah, ignorance is bliss. You won't have the fear of missing out if you don't even know there are events or things you are missing out on. Trust me, it works. Check it out for yourself by turning off your social media and news feeds for a few days (okay, a few hours).
2. The thrill of a deal
I'll be honest. There have been more times than I care to remember when I've bought stuff online but then just don't seem to be in a hurry to open the packages when they arrive. I like to call this the "Unopened box syndrome."
These buying decisions are typically spurred by finding a good deal, especially if it's a limited-time deal.
Hearing words like one-day-only-sale or watching a countdown clock timer on the deal creates a positive hormone rush and activates the same part of our brain responsible for addiction. We are enticed by the thrill of chasing and landing a great deal, especially if it means we get to beat fellow deal-mongers.
The thrill is in the chase, not the capture.
But it's not so much the item on sale but the process of beating others to the finish line that excites us. After the adrenaline rush wears off, we are usually left with a product we don't need or even want. Cue: buyer's remorse.
So next time you notice your hallway littered with unopened packages, at least you'll know why and how they came to be.
To avoid falling for the thrill of bargain hunting,
a) Stop to ask yourself whether you really need (or even want) the item on sale.
b) Then ask yourself if you'd be willing to pay full price for it. This is usually a great indicator of whether you value the product or not.
If the answer to these questions is "No," run for your life. Exit the store (or the webpage). You have no business being there. Lucifer is in charge and has way better odds of succeeding than you do.
3. The ease with which you can buy
The entire commerce industry is united on one front. Getting you to open up your wallet.
As I alluded to at the beginning, technological innovation is focused on minimizing the friction in the purchase-to-pay process for goods and services. Which is well and good when you actually want to buy the stuff you need.
To stop ourselves from buying stuff we don't need and prevent the subsequent buyer's remorse, we need to go back to the most fundamental principle of habit-change.
Every successful habit change works on this principle:
- To get rid of a negative habit, increase friction.
- To inculcate a positive habit, reduce friction.
To stop buying, introduce friction into the buying process to make it harder.
For physical purchases: Don't go to the store when hungry, tired, or emotional.
For online purchases: Don't automatically sign in to retail apps. Unsubscribe from promotional or marketing emails. Don't leave your credit cards stored on the retailer's website. Have long and complicated passwords that will take time to recall, let alone type in.
These strategies are not complicated, but nevertheless, they are very effective.
Ultimately, the only way to subvert a process designed to be easy is to find ways to make it hard.
If you buy things you don't need, soon you'll have to sell things you need – Warren Buffett
I'm no saint, and I like shopping (especially online shopping) as much as everyone else.
But at some point, even if the financial aspect of buying doesn't fill you with buyer's remorse, the mere physical presence of stuff will. Having boxes and boxes to sort through, maintain, dust, and make space for is a massive drain on your time and mental bandwidth.
Instead of "Buy more. Save more", I'm going to try to "Buy less. Be more."
Care to join me?