Why it feels good to buy things on sale — and how not to fall into the trap of buying more than you need

Psychology of shopping and getting a good deal
The hunt and score of shopping scratches an innate itch and keeps feel-good dopamine flowing. (Illustration by Nahuel Bardi for Yahoo News) (Illustration by Nahuel Bardi for Yahoo News)

Whether or not you believe in braving Black Friday crowds to score holiday savings, you have to admit, the flashy ads work to get people in the store.

In 2023, according to research from Finder, an estimated 132 million Americans will participate in holiday sales events, each individual racking up receipts for an average of $708 worth of merchandise. Meanwhile, we’re all feeling the effects of rising prices, and past analyses have found that the majority of Black Friday sale items are the same prices or even cheaper at other times of year. So the question is: How much of that is money well spent?

The answer is a subjective one. As it turns out, shopping sales is less about saving money and more about cashing in on that sweet, sweet feeling of satisfaction — whatever that means to you.

Why shopping — and sales especially — gives people a mood boost

“Shopping is not a rational process. If it were, we’d buy strictly what we need,” Pauline Wallin, a licensed psychologist based in Camp Hill, Penn., tells Yahoo Life. “Instead, we generally purchase what we want, and justify it afterwards.”

In that case, a good deal is defined more by emotion than by actual numbers, Wallin adds. It all depends on what you value. You’ve heard of “retail therapy” — the act of shopping to feel better — this really is no different, Dr. Chris Pagnani, psychiatrist and medical director of Rittenhouse Psychiatric Associates, tells Yahoo Life. “It's all about dopamine,” he says.

Dopamine is the lead singer in your brain’s band of feel-good neurotransmitters, which also includes serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins, Pagnani explains. Dopamine’s job is to reward you with a rush of pleasure after doing something that heeds human survival — eating, drinking, reproducing. And although shopping certainly doesn’t keep you alive, something about the hunt and score scratches an innate itch and keeps dopamine flowing, LaNail R. Plummer, a licensed therapist and chief executive officer of Onyx Therapy Group, tells Yahoo Life. “It’s like playing a game and winning,” she explains.

If you shop with a sidekick, Black Friday can also be a bonding experience, with the money spent being an afterthought. “As humans, we like to do things in groups or feel like we are part of a shared experience,” says Plummer. “It gives us an opportunity to bond, to laugh, to compare, to consider, to make new shopping plans or simply, to just listen and share space with someone.”

All of these factors explain why hitting the mall or pressing “add to cart” can be addicting, and why those who have participated in previous Black Friday events are more likely to return, Wallin and Plummer add. “Feeling that one has ‘earned’ or ‘found’ a good deal is a natural high,” Plummer says. “But, with all highs, there are some unexpected drawbacks — like crashing, which can look like feeling bad after exceeding a budget, shame for overshopping or forgetting what was bought and why.”

7 ways to keep shopping habits better under control

To help you avoid buying things you may not need just because they’re on sale, here are some expert tips to arm yourself with:

1. Ask yourself if you really need XYZ

We’ve all fallen into the trap of buying The Thing because it’s on sale, not because we actually need it. As humans, “we are more motivated to avoid loss than to pursue gain,” explains Wallin. “Thus, if something is on sale for only a limited time, and if we anticipate that it might enhance our lives in some way, we feel a sense of urgency to get it now, rather than ‘lose money’ by paying more for it later.”

The catch here is, not buying The Thing at all is the most efficient, money-saving tactic — especially if it doesn’t serve an immediate need. A good question to ask yourself to avoid this conundrum: “Would I still like it or buy it if it wasn’t on sale?” If the answer is no, skip it and relish in your freedom from remorse.

“There’s actually a cost to owning stuff that you don’t need,” points out Wallin. “It takes up space and gets in the way. Once you’ve owned it for a while, your thrill of procuring the item will fade, eclipsed by annoyance at having to store it and move it.”

2. Don’t let your competitiveness win

You’ve read about stampedes of cutthroat parents fighting to get their kid the year’s best-selling toy — and that urgency trickles down to online shopping when you feel pressured to check out after reading: “Only three left!” or “Limited time only!” When a product is framed as scarce, we get competitive and tend to desire it even more, Wallin explains. (Think: The great toilet paper shortage of 2020.) In other words, we get major FOMO (fear of missing out), but that doesn’t mean we should buy it.

3. Don’t be tricked by the word “free”

Buy one, get one free deals are one of the oldest sale tactics in the book. But if you think about it, Wallin says, the same offer could be written as, “Buy two, get 50% off of each.” Of course, that doesn’t sound as catchy, though. “The idea of getting something for free is more compelling,” Wallin explains. So again, if you’re faced with BOGO sales – which you likely will be on Black Friday – ask yourself: “Would I pay for it if it weren’t ‘free’?”

4. Double check original prices

Wallin advises going into any sale event with a healthy sense of skepticism, especially when comparing sale and list prices. “There are laws against merchants posting misleading reference pricing, such as listing the regular price of an item as $100, when it was never sold at that price,” she explains. “However, this practice continues despite the laws.”

Karla Dennis, a personal finance expert and tax professional in La Palma, Calif., adds that many retailers may increase prices prior to Black Friday and then drop the price, giving the illusion of a discount. Wallin recommends using cost-verifying apps like Honey to scan price history before sealing the deal. “Be prudent and do your online research,” Dennis adds.

5. Keep a list and a budget — and stick to them

Retailers’ Black Friday game plan is to offer discounts on specific items in hopes to lure you into buying more, once you’re in the door. Making a list and setting a budget will, hopefully, keep you from getting too far off-track. If you know you’re prone to impulse buys, Pagnani recommends creating a separate budget for them because: “Let's be honest, they're going to happen,” he says.

6. Gift experiences instead of items

Amit Kumar, an assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas, is a researcher whose work focuses on the study of happiness and its intersection with consumerism, among other things. And what years of research, performed by him and many others, have deduced is that “people tend to derive more satisfaction from their experiential purchases” such as travel, restaurant dinners and live performance tickets than they do from material ones, such as those made on Black Friday, he tells Yahoo Life.

Why? Because experiences enrich our lives, becoming fodder for social connection and, therefore, positive relationships. “And anyone who studies happiness seriously can tell you, the thing we know about happiness, from a scientific perspective, is that positive relationships with other people are essential for happiness,” Kumar says.

So, with that being said — and considering current economic and supply chain climates — it “could be wise,” Kumar says, to prioritize your Black Friday purchases accordingly.

7. Take breaks often

Bopping from store to store, or even aisle to aisle, tossing items in your cart with no breaks for rationalization creates the perfect storm for overspending. “Dopamine levels are spiking when you decide to buy something, not actually when you're at the register,” explains Pagnani. “Once you know that an item can be yours, stop, take a breath, review your budget and if you still want that big screen TV, head to checkout.”