Are you really saving money by shopping so many sales?

There’s nothing quite like the rush of shopping a sale: You walk out of the store (or, perhaps more likely, get your email order confirmation) feeling like a money-saving champion. You avoided paying full price and bested the store in the process! Or did you? It’s so easy to get caught up in that sale rush that many of us don’t stop and think about whether we’re really saving money in the long-run. Let’s do that now.

What compels us to shop sales?

To an extent, our desire to shop sales is ingrained in us by the society we live in. “We’re a consumption-oriented society,” said Priya Malani, co-founder of Stash Wealth. “So stumbling upon a sale...fulfills our desire to consume [and] think we’re consuming intelligently.”

And then there’s FOMO: The fear of missing out can drive you to shop just as it drives you to drag yourself to a bar with your friends when you really just want to stay cozy on the couch. “Even if [we’re] not in the market for a given product, we’re often tempted to look and see how good the deal is,” said Kelly Goldsmith, Ph.D., an associate professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. “Then, once we’re looking, this opens the door for marketers to try and persuade us to buy, which often works!” It’s even more compelling, she noted, if stores use “scarcity marketing,” telling customers you only have a limited time to get in on the deal, or there’s a limited number of products available for shoppers to snag on sale.

But remember: As savvy a shopper as you think you are, the people running the show know what they’re doing. “Any time a marketer runs a promotion or a sale, they are doing it because they think that it will make them money,” Goldsmith said. “So for example, on Black Friday, the retailer may lose some of their margin on some of the heavily discounted products that are designed to get people in the door — but often what they’re hoping is once those shoppers are there, they can lure them into making other, higher-margin purchases as well. The house always wins!”

Can shopping sales lead us to spend more?

Put simply: Yes, and they often do. If you use sales only to buy things you need and were already planning to buy, you can certainly save money in the long run. But many sales shoppers take it beyond that. “Typically, we use a sale as an excuse to turn a want into a need,” Malani said. “‘I wasn’t going to buy XYZ, but it’s on sale!’ This rationale leads to spending more in the end...All those great ‘deals’ turn out to be a pretty big spending bill at the end of the day, more than you’d ever spend on shopping.”

She added, “Some people go in with the wrong intention (even though it feels right): to buy something simply because it’s an opportunity to save money.” If you’re shopping a sale purely for the purpose of shopping a sale, you’re spending money you wouldn’t have spent anyway.

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And then that behavior creates a spending cycle. As consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, Ph.D. explained in Time magazine, “Consumers fixated on deals and discounts often purchase things that aren’t truly satisfying — and because they aren’t satisfied, they continue to shop.” She also noted that the sale rush has an addictive quality, which further compels people to keep seeking it.

How can we avoid the pitfalls?

Of course, sales can work in your favor, but it requires some conscious thought and planning. “People mean well, but the effect a sale has on our brain prevents us from maintaining rational thought,” Malani said. “If you realize it’s a trap, you can be more aware and strategic about how to approach a sale.”

Above all, only use sales to buy what you need. “Stick to buying only those items that you’re planning to buy regardless of the sale,” Malani said. “Ask yourself the question, ‘Was I planning to buy this item even if it wasn’t on sale?’” If there’s something you particularly need or want, Malani recommended exercising delayed gratification, and waiting for a sale before making the purchase.

Before you go shopping, whether in brick-and-mortar stores or online, have a game plan and follow it to a tee. For example, in Time, Yarrow recommended imagining the sale price as the original, unreduced price: If you wouldn’t have paid that much at full price, don’t pay that much just because it’s on sale. Malani suggested a game she plays when shopping, which she dubbed “what it’s worth to me.”

“Before looking at the price tag of an item (and usually after trying the item on), I come up with a price in my head for what the item is worth to me,” she said. “Once I have a definitive number in mind, I look at the price tag. If it’s more, I won’t buy it — regardless of if it’s on sale. And if it’s less, I’ll buy it — no questions asked.” And regardless of all of that, she urged all shoppers to only spend money they have in the bank, and no more than you can pay off on your credit card, noting, “otherwise, the amount you will end up paying in credit card interest will eat into (or completely negate) your savings.”

The takeaway: Shopping a sale can be beneficial to your bottom line, but only if you do so thoughtfully.