Sales can be a fantastic way to access expensive items you might not be able to afford otherwise, but they can tip you right over the edge into buying items (at any price) you don’t actually want or need. Retail marketing tactics are super-savvy, and our damn brains—we fall for it all the time, even when we objectively know better.
Reasons the sales get you, numbers 1, 2, and 3: your brain is irrational.
🤷🏼♀️ Telling it like it is! But seriously: I love knowing the why behind how I act. It makes me feel a little less irrational (even if the behavior is still irrational!) And the biggest reasons we do irrational things (like buy a 100% wool super-thick sweater on sale just to get to free shipping even though it costs twice as much as the shipping... and we live in a hot climate...) is that our brains are really susceptible to marketing tricks. (That's why they use 'em!)
Reason #1: loss aversion.
We HATE to lose out. This is basically FOMO. It's like this: we are more upset about losing $10 than we are happy about finding $10. We're more responsive to a price increase than a decrease, meaning we're more likely to buy if we think the price is going to go up. We're sooo determined not to lose our money, or to lose out on something we could have had. This means that we're more driven by the desire not to lose out than we are actually getting the thing.
Reason #2: we're kinda bad at math.
It's simple, but it's not. We're really compelled by a discount (see loss aversion!), but the difference doesn't always make sense. Let's imagine a $200 sweater. If you get a 15% discount, you save $30. If you get a 20% discount, you save... $40. Is that $10 what will break the bank? If not, then by waiting for maybe the possibility hopefully of it going on sale more???? and being driven by the fear of losing an extra $10... idk about you, but for $10, I’d rather keep my peace of mind and know that I made a decision to buy or not buy that sweater because it really belongs in my closet.
Reason #3: we like the shopping more than we like the clothes.
Hear me out. This is about dopamine, everyone's favorite brain molecule. One study measured dopamine release in monkeys: "The monkeys received a treat as soon as they pressed the button 10 times. Surprisingly, the dopamine release started as soon as the signal arrived, and ended at the end of the button pressing." Meaning: they didn't get the dopamine hit when they got the treat... they got the dopamine hit while they were doing the action that anticipated the treat.
What we're really after when we shop a sale
We think what we're excited about is the clothes... but what really gets us going is the anticipation. We get the hit of dopamine when we do the action that creates anticipation: when we make the decision to buy, when we hit the purchase button. That sweet sweet rush of relief/excitement is what we're really after.
This is why there's all that advice to "make 3 outfits you'll really wear" and "sleep on it" — we're trying to remind ourselves of the value of the purchase itself, not just the value of the loss, or the dopamine hit.
But it's not always that easy, I know. We get caught up in the moment, in the sales email, in the urgency. Our brains work these little tricks even though we try to be logical.
So instead, let's make a plan that doesn't involve "sleeping on it" or "just trying to resist." Because it's sales season—and the best gift is acting in accordance with what you really value.
What to do when you're feeling compelled to shop a sale.
I talk a lot about how getting satisfied with your personal style means you get the mental space back to not do things like spend three hours in an afternoon looking at clothes online. Confession, though: I still do it sometimes.
A while back I looked at a pair of straight leg jeans that I thought might, from the photos, be a fit for me and my body. I did my research: I emailed about their measurements, I searched secondhand, I tried to find alternative model photos. I’m curious about them, but I’m 80% sure they won’t fit. I had decided, nah, probably not these.
This entire week I’m being aggressively retargeted by those damn jeans. They are everywhere I go online. This retailer is working hard to get me to buy in their weekend sale: ads everywhere, an extra-on-top-of-sale-price discount code this weekend only!... My brain is on overdrive going, “what if they are the straight-leg jeans that finally fit me the way I want?” (I hope you can hear my internal self’s eyes rolling from here, because: I saw those measurement numbers.)
It took a while, but I finally realized three things: a) I absolutely don’t need more jeans, b) even though these are a style I am searching for, the hard, cold numbers of the measurements tell me they’re not likely to be the ones, so I definitely don’t need more jeans that don’t even fit me the way I want, and c) half the reason I’m still looking is because I’m envious of how the model looks. And worst of all, because I had gone down the rabbit hole of online shopping, now I was starting to look at other stuff, too. Yikes—none of this is good.
If you’re feeling the same thing, here’s five ideas to stop it, quick.
Six Ways to Escape Sale Madness
1 — Turn on your adblocker!
Getting ads for items you’ve recently looked at is called retargeting. Retargeting is a way for a site to track what items you’ve looked at, and connect that with other sites where they advertise. As this explainer says:
“Retargeting helps remind someone of your product as they continue browsing the internet, whether they're on social media, their favorite news site or researching your competitors.”
Wow, thanks, exactly what we needed! But it works: statistics on retargeting show that someone who clicks on a retargeted ad is more likely to buy the product by 43% — and probably to buy more than just what they were looking for, too.
My first strategy is to get rid of the ads, quick. That means busting out the adblocker. AdBlock Plus is the most well-known adblocker (and what I use, #notsponcon), but there’s a lot of options for various browsers. I don’t usually leave it on, or if I do, I turn on “Acceptable Ads,” which are clearly labeled, don’t disrupt website reading flow, play music or launch popups — and ads are a huge part of how online retailers make money. I’m okay with supporting smaller companies and sites I like with their ads.
But… sometimes I need a break! So turning off all ads for a big sale weekend means a little bit of space between those jeans and the dopamine high of shopping. As a bonus, it makes the Internet look a lot nicer. Imagine your favorite blogs without all those cursed flashing ads!
This doesn’t help with Instagram ads, of course—but if they’re really getting to you, it might be time to get off Instagram for a few days til the intensity subsides.
2 — Block the websites themselves.
I can literally hear you typing "www dot my favorite shopping site dot com" right now. Ad blockers are great, but unfortunately, we still know the URLs of our favorite shopping sites.
If you really need a forcing mechanism, using a website blocker can keep you away for a bit. Typically, website blockers like this are described as “for productivity” — get off Facebook and get back to work! They’re equally effective for shopping, though.
I like Cold Turkey, because you can create customized block lists. Over time, you can build up a pretty impressive (or depressing?) list of sites—or even apps—you want to avoid. You can set a timer for hours or even days, or give yourself a daily allowance. It’s super effective.
Turning this on for the weekend, so not only am I avoiding the ads, I can’t go directly to buy those jeans in a moment of weakness.
3 — Unsubscribe from brand emails.
This might not help you today, but I recommend periodically going through and unsubscribing from brand emails. Your inbox is cluttered enough without getting ads in your face constantly.
There are some brands I like getting emails from: friends who own businesses, because it supports them; newsletters from some brands that are less ads and more interesting stuff; and the occasional brand I actually do stay subscribed to.
For example, one of those for me is AYR. Their emails are short, often funny and witty, and I know pretty well what items from them I will and won’t like, so I’m rarely tempted into buying something I don’t actually need or want.
Over time though, the emails pile up. First, you sign up for one to get a discount code for something you actually do want. Later, something you want to keep an eye on when they restock. After that, maybe some of your information gets sold and something you didn’t even sign up for is in there. Then, a brand giveaway and suddenly there’s eighty-five brands in your inbox all doing a sale. Argh!
Usually I get right on that Gmail Unsubscribe link as soon as I get an email I don’t want. Here's a great article on how to unsubscribe straight from Gmail! This is super useful for those newsletters that have hidden their unsubscribe links so damn tiny it's almost impossible to find without a microscope.
Got too many go to thru manually? Try tools like Unroll.me and Unsubscriber. Note that these apps work by collecting data about your purchases, which it can get from your email, and then typically they sell to marketers. If you’re okay with this, they’re extremely effective. You can also revoke access later. If you’re not down with that, and willing to shell out a little bit of cash, Clean Email is a paid service (#notsponcon) that unsubscribes you and doesn’t share your data, because you pay for it.
Either way: get that stuff out of your inbox!
4 — Delete your credit card information from your devices.
I know, I know — it’s soooo convenient to have your credit card information stored in your password manager, browser, and Shopify cart. It just makes it so easy…!
Maybe too easy.
If you’re impulse buying, especially on sale weekends, maybe make it a little bit harder. Delete your saved credit cards, so you have to get up off the couch to go find the number. (If you’re one of those weirdos who have your credit card number memorized, I’m sorry, this obviously won’t help you!)
If you have a partner you trust — really, genuinely trust — let them take your physical card for a while, or change the password to your saved information. I’m definitely not advocating that you have to get permission from your partner to shop all the time, but if you’re struggling with impulse buying, even one extra barrier between you and a bad decision can make a big impact.
I had to do this for quite some time to curb a pretty bad shopping addiction. It wasn’t pretty, and I felt a ton of shame by giving my male partner “control” over my finances. But I trusted him, and I wanted it, and it worked. I got my card info back when I felt like I could trust myself, not when he felt like it. You know your relationship, so use your own judgement.
5 — Do a closet try-on of similar items you already have.
Okay, a little bit more of a fun one. Go shop your own closet! I know, that sounds so cheesy!
In my example, I have jeans, and even if they aren’t exactly like the ones I was looking at on sale, trying on the ones I do have and making some outfits with them helped remind me how great the jeans I already have are.
When I was looking at those jeans, I was the middle of a #may30x30 capsule wardrobe challenge. I realized that part of what I was missing in my capsule was a jeans shape I didn’t have. Shopping for a new pair of jeans isn’t going to add variety to this capsule (it’d be over by the time they arrived anyway), and more importantly: I can play with different shapes and proportions without shopping.
Warning: sometimes this backfires, because if you really don’t have anything like what you’re shopping for, shopping your closet can just remind you of that. If that happens, try just getting away from it for a while. Bake something. Go for a walk. Read a book. Distract yourself until the impulse passes.
And if you are shopping…
6 — Make strategic purchases
First, sleep on it. Sales tempt us because they’re time-constrained. Buy it now before your size sells out! Quick, before the weekend is over!
How often do we hear or say, “it was the last one, and it was in my size, and it was on sale, it was just meant to be!” Guilty, I’ve done it too.
But really, try to sleep on it. It will, most likely, be there tomorrow. And if it’s not? What’s really going to happen?
Next, reference your wishlist and get objective.
For example, Jaana of thismomsgonnasnap’s has a set of what she calls 4 I’s: IDENTIFY / INVENTORY / IMPULSE CONTROL / INVEST.
Identify what it is about the piece you want. Is this item actually, exactly, really, what you want? Inventory things you have that are similar, and where this new item fits in to your wardrobe. What outfits or combinations would you wear it with? Then comes the hard part, the Impulse Control. Spend some time thinking critically and clearly about the purchase, and then go back if you’ve made an informed choice. If you can’t get clear on this, and your brain is just repeating, “but you want it! They’re so cute! Treat yourself! Why not!” — it might be time to dig in to what’s triggering that shopping.
As Janna writes in this Instagram post:
Deep down it’s likely an emotional filler for boredom, sadness, self-esteem issues, etc. (Bigger topic) But do you struggle to control your spending on makeup? Accessories? Online shopping? During sales? Clothes in general? At the peak, I got specific and identified that my trigger was specifically jeans on sale. (I owned 75 pair back in the day!) Make a list and decide where you want to cut back.
(What is it with jeans!? 😅)
For items you aren’t sure about, try saving it to a note or a wishlist. Include as much info as you can, like the item name, any measurements you can find, fabric content, the original price, and a photo.
This is all useful for shopping later, so you can reference secondhand sellers’ measurements, original and secondhand prices, and look at photos and be able to tell details (like wash, seaming, and shape) without being distracted by the model.
Sometimes the best secondhand finds are the ones with bad photos and no info, because the person doesn’t know/care/isn’t familiar with reselling, but you can tell it’s the right item. These are often cheaper than the highly polished, experienced resellers with all the info, who know they can charge a higher price.
Buy clothes, not a feeling.
When you get down to it, sale shopping gets us because we aren't really trying to buy the clothes—we're trying to buy a feeling. Maybe it's satisfaction, maybe it's effortless, or thinness.
That's why it's so important to know what our style is, so we don't just fall for every marketing trick for every cool new pair of jeans.
As a personal style coach, I help my clients #insidetheunfolding define their personal style and learn to shop strategically. Shopping strategically—instead of based on what's cute, new, or on sale—is a key skill in having great style.
Imagine if you felt like this when you went shopping:
I feel very at ease while browsing online. Like... I know what I'm looking for and I can pass by pieces that I know won't work. It's refreshing. It obviously doesn't mean that I'm 100% sure that I'll love everything I get (because of the risk of buying online vs buying in person) BUT I think the probabilities of actually getting pieces I'll love are way higher than the last time I was shopping online.
When you're ready to feel that kind of confidence when shopping (and even learn to shop sales strategically), head on over to unfolding.style and apply now to see how The Unfolding can transform your relationship with shopping. See you there!