It’s easy to overspend – perhaps even more so during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of us have turned to “comfort shopping” – buying stuff we don’t need to cope with the nagging fear and uncertainty we’ve had to endure for more than a year.

And young adults’ finances are in especially dire straits right now: Nearly 6 out of 10 Americans ages 18 to 34 have been forced to postpone at least one major life event like getting a car, pursuing further education, getting married, buying a home, or having a baby during the coronavirus pandemic because of financial problems, a recent survey found.

But with society about to reopen and headlines declaring that it’s time to shop, how can we regain control over our finances?

Cognitive science research can offer useful insights that will help us stick to our budgets, build our savings, and invest wisely. Here are just a few to put into practice right away:

Recognize and combat decision fatigue – Retailers use all the psychological tricks available to encourage you to spend money. Decision fatigue refers to how carefully analyzing all the various pros and cons takes effort and wears you down little by little as you make choice after choice. After hundreds of decisions about what to buy or not buy, our willpower reserves dry up toward the end of a typical shopping trip, and we struggle to make smart choices. That’s why grocery stores, for example, try to create a relaxed atmosphere that encourages customers to take their time and let their guards down. Popular staples, such as milk and eggs, are often placed at the back of the store, so you’ll encounter many other enticing items along the way. And by prominently displaying beautiful flowers near the entrance, pumping the smells of fresh-baked bread into the air, and playing soothing music, they’re able to put customers into a tranquil, suggestive state of mind. When finally confronted with impulse buys in the checkout line, like candy and magazines, it’s no wonder that many of us go for these unintended purchases. The fix? Create a list of what you need before you start shopping, and stick to it!

Don’t be tempted with introductory offers – Credit card companies are especially notorious for taking advantage of the fact that many people are stressed out by the prospect of crunching numbers (about 93% of Americans report at least some level of math anxiety) and our eyes tend to glaze over when we see fine print. That’s why it’s very easy to fall for the zero annual percentage rate (APR) teaser rate, where, after just a few months, the credit card companies can raise it to 20% or even higher. And if you’re not careful about paying off your bill in full each month, you could end up owing more in interest than you do on the principal. The solution is to let your income, not your credit limit, have the final say when building your budget. 

Avoid envy-inducing social media channels – Desire to keep up with the Joneses is nothing new, but staying plugged into social media channels that constantly show you lifestyles just out of reach will easily contribute to overspending. Instagram influencers, for example, have been blamed for putting some young people in huge debt as they try to mimic an insta-perfect life. But even without major brands paying social media influencers, including celebrities, to promote their products and blurring the line between content and advertising, we’ll always have the problem of stretching budgets to fit in with peers. A 2019 survey found that the vast majority Generation Z and millennials are influenced by friends’ showy social media feeds, with 72% and 74%, respectively, wondering how their friends can afford the pricey experiences that their peers have posted about online. The best course of action might be to limit your time on channels that trigger your envy. 

In summary, there’s a great deal you can do to get your finances back on track if you understand the basic psychology of what’s leading you astray. If you’re a college student, see if your institution offers any financial fluency workshops. At Barnard College, we’re prioritizing financial well-being as a part of wellness by giving young women the knowledge and tools they need to take control of their finances and make smart decisions about money in our new Francine A. LeFrak Foundation Center for Well-Being. Until financial literacy becomes part of the standard curriculum in public schools – there are two dozen state legislatures currently considering bills on the subject – and everyone can learn these skills before reaching adulthood, it will need to be something young adults prioritize.

It takes work and discipline to stick to a budget, build savings, and invest wisely, but the rewards in reduced stress and better mental health are well worth it.



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