Can Tech Overcome Our Urge to Spend?

by Anna Johansson
Published 05/01/2018
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MoneyCan Tech Overcome Our Urge to Spend?

As human beings, we tend to have trouble controlling our impulses. Our brains and bodies developed over the course of millions of years, in response to an environment that was trying to kill us. Now that we live in an era of relative comfort and abundance, the urges that kept us alive are now leading us to make unhealthy decisions.

In some applications, technology is responsible for making this problem worse; it enables us to make more impulsive decisions, and connects us to resources that aren’t always good for us. But could tech actually help us learn to control and master these urges instead?

The Urge to Spend

Let’s take a look at one specific example: the urge to spend money. While you may not have a psychological disorder-level urge to spend money, chances are, you’ve been afflicted with at least some unhealthy spending tendencies.

  • The shopper’s high. Research suggests that buying something new, or taking advantage of a sale, can give you a temporary boost in mood—a kind of shopper’s high. After experiencing this feeling a few times, it’s natural to keep pursuing it, buying more frequently as a way to feel good.
  • Retail therapy. People also turn to shopping when they experience hardship, such as in periods of excessive stress or depression. This “retail therapy” serves as an outlet for negative feelings, but rarely provides more than a few moments of relief.
  • Perception of value or opportunity. Some people appreciate the thrill of the hunt, seeking new purchases if and when they represent valuable opportunities. For example, some people get the urge to spend if they notice a limited-time sale or discount on an item they’ve been eyeing.
  • Boredom. The urge to spend can also kick in when people are bored. If left alone to their thoughts, they might think of some new gadget or purchase that could temporarily occupy their attention, and move to buy it.

Spending money isn’t problematic, but if it exists as an uncontrolled habit, it could prevent people from building financial stability or wealth for the long-term future.

Tech Possibilities

Technology is stepping in to help consumers overcome that urge. The solution to most financial woes is establishing a proper budget; if you adhere to a strict budget, you won’t be tempted to spend money you can’t afford, and you’ll be less inclined to succumb to the short-term mood-boosting potential of a rogue or impulsive purchase.

The problem is, budgeting and saving aren’t inherently rewarding in the same way that shopping and spending are. You don’t get the boost in feel-good chemicals from putting your extra money in the bank that you do by investing it in the stock market or putting it in your savings account.

Technology could have the potential to overcome this hurdle. Apps like Qapital and Acorns make saving automatic and less visible; they round up your change to the nearest dollar and save it for you. That way, you won’t have to make the conscious decision of whether to spend or save your money; it’s saved for you automatically. Other apps may give you short-term rewards or bonuses for saving, such as in-app notifications, or congratulations when you achieve your goals.

The two available routes are to bypass the availability of the urge to spend, or to create an urge to save. Either way, consumers can benefit.

The Complications

There are some complications to this path of development, however. For the most part, companies and researchers can benefit more by feeding into consumers’ urges to spend, rather than save—both because it’s the path of least resistance and it’s the path that gains access to consumers’ money.

Accordingly, future technology will make it even more tempting (and easier) to spend money, so the push and pull between spending-focused and saving-focused apps will likely continue indefinitely.

No single tech solution will be able to help consumers completely overcome an urge that took millions of years to develop. But improving your own awareness of those urges and complementing your efforts with apps that support your goals can lead you to greater mastery.