Neuroscience and Spending


Have you ever noticed yourself getting rude and demanding when you are particularly hungry, and found yourself helpless to stop it?  Watching from the inside as you act in a way you know isn’t kosher, but do anyway?  This is your “hungry-self” making an appearance.

Most of us assume that we have one decision making part of our brain, our “self.”  But current research in neuroscience seems to point towards there being as many as a dozen different “selfs,” that take over our brain under different conditions.

This has profound implications for how we spend money.  Many people set up a monthly or weekly budget for themselves, only to break it, and they don’t understand why they can’t stick with it.  Science seems to be pointing towards the idea that it’s because we’re a different person at different times of day and days of the week, and the self that draws up that budget isn’t going to be the same self spending the money.

So how do you use this to your advantage?

Your “calm, rational planning” self makes your budget, usually at home, in a safe place, where you feel protected and like you have time to think.  But it’s a different you out there in the world, making financial decisions, responding to stimuli.

If you are the type that tends to overspend on things like food, either eating out in restaurants or buying snacks or making poor grocery store decisions, you are letting your “hungry self,” which tends to have very short term thinking, dominate.  Hungry self is an evolutionary leftover, going into a panic out of hunger and grabbing the nearest thing at hand in order to ensure survival.  When we lived in the cave, the nearest thing at hand didn’t usually blow your budget, but in modern society we are surrounded by food that is often overpriced (blowing our budget) and less than healthy.  How do you avoid that?

Don’t let yourself get hungry.  When you sit down and do your budget, plan out your food, and eat at a frequency that keeps you feeling “full” so that you don’t get hungry and end up making reckless choices.  This involves focusing on protein’s and healthy fats which increase the feeling of “satiety” so that we feel full longer.

If you love going to the movies, and always end up breaking down and buying the $10 popcorn when you promised yourself you wouldn’t, try stopping on the way for a healthy meal or cooking before you go out, letting your “full” brain make the decision once you get the movie theater about whether or not snacks are necessary.

Other recent research seems to indicate that we only have a certain number of self control units we can spend a day.  In terms of diet, if you are trying to not eat donuts, each time you walk past the donuts in the break room you need to spend a certain amount of self control to not eat them.  By the fifth or sixth time, you break and eat one, because you’ve already spent all your self control units for the day.

The same applies to finance: if you tend to overspend on beer, promising yourself “just one drink with the gang” isn’t likely to happen, especially since alcohol seems to lower our supply of self control units.  If it’s on gadgets, spending time reading tech blogs about the newest toys that you long for is likely to increase your purchasing.  Even if you don’t purchase the first time you read a review of the newest phone, by the 5th time you read an article on one of it’s features, you are nearly helpless.  Your self control is spent, so you end up spending.

So put your “calm, rational” self to use.  If you want to spend less on tech, block those tech blogs: while it might seem harmless to read reviews of the newest kit, that you can “resist,” every time your read another article about the newest tech toy it gets just a little harder not to buy it.  One trick is to have a 24 hour rule on your online shopping purchases: wait 24 hours and see if you still think it’s a necessary purchase., the popular online retailer, hopes to enable your impulse shopping with it’s “one-click” purchase feature.  But they have another feature that works to your benefit: a persistent cart.  You can add items to that cart that will still be there several days later.  One option to consider is giving yourself a “non buying things added today” rule, giving yourself a chance to reconsider whether or not there is an actual need or real persistent desire for the item you might otherwise impulse purchase.

And, if “hungry self” takes over and you spend more than you planned on dinner, forgive yourself.  Calm, rational you doesn’t have a lot of control of hungry you.  You can just try to do better next time.

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Meet the blogger

Charles Haine

Charles Haine

A long time artist and contributor to the Citizens of Culture print and web magazine. He writes to promote conscious consumption and the idea of thinking before you spend.The views expressed are those of a discerning young consumer, not a financial advisor and may or may not reflect the views of Logix FCU.