Tackling Spending Habits

And Reprogramming Your Brain

We know we must take certain steps to reach our financial goals. For me, taking those steps comes with two big problems: it’s not fun, and my brain prefers things it likes. I like food, video games, and anime.

In this money meme gif, we're lamenting that I need to save money but also me - buying stuff is fun.

My brain also likes to spend money on things it enjoys. In fact, I can think of at least ten things I want to buy right now.

So, how do I enjoy the fruits of my labor and achieve my financial goals without busting my budget? More importantly, how do I not hate managing money?

Reprogramming your brain to improve your spending habits

Tackle spending habits by getting to the root of it all: your relationship with money and money mindset. We’ve discussed this before, but your spending habits are rooted in your money mindset.

What is that?

Glad you asked.

Your money mindset is your set of beliefs and attitudes towards money. It shapes how you think about money, how you feel about it, and most importantly, how you use it.

You’re more likely to make smart financial decisions if you have a healthy money mindset. You’ll be able to save money and spend it wisely. On the other hand, if you have an unhealthy money mindset, you’re more likely to make impulsive and careless decisions with your money. This can lead to debt, financial stress, and other problems.

Many factors contribute to your money mindset. It can be influenced by your family, culture, personal experiences, and more. But regardless of where it comes from, you can change your money mindset.

If you want to improve your spending habits, working on changing your money mindset is important. Here are some tips to get started:

Be aware of your money mindset.

The first step is to become aware of your current relationship with money. Do you tend to spend impulsively or save diligently? Do you think about money as a means to an end, or do you see it as something that can be used to achieve your goals?

A woman lying on the couch with ten and twenty dollar bills in her hands covering her face. The over laid text reads How to Improve Your Relationship with Money. The read now button links to the article Why You Need to Improve Your Relationship with Money.

Challenge your beliefs about money.

Once you’ve identified your current money mindset, it’s time to start challenging your beliefs about money. Why do you believe you need to spend money to have fun? Can you find other ways to enjoy yourself that don’t involve spending?

One of my biggest problems is seeing things and thinking they would improve my quality of life. The problem: another anime shirt to add to my collection didn’t improve my quality of life or my wardrobe.

Create new, positive beliefs about money.

Once you’ve challenged your beliefs about money, it’s time to create new, positive ones. Start by thinking about all the things you can do with your money if you save instead of spending it. Developing a healthy, positive relationship with money results in being more mindful and responsible with our spending.

Put your new beliefs into action by forming new habits.

Here’s a brief look at my spending habits and how I changed them.

Before this journey, I was a greedy hunter of things to buy. New games (whether full price or less expensive indie games), lunch from a local sushi spot, a new T-shirt featuring one of my favorite anime characters, etc., were all financial fodder for my wallet. I would go for it if I saw it and had the money. It became my habit. 

My second step in improving my spending habits: Identify Spending Habits

In this money gif meme, sometimes we have to wonder what we were thinking when we made a purchase - like where was our headspace when we were buying?

This took a little bit of work for me. For starters, most of my behaviors around money weren’t just one-offs. They were habits.

Social Change UK has an excellent paper about habit theory that helped me understand what I was doing and how to break the habits that ruined my budget. First, I came to understand exactly what a habit is.

Habit. A learned ‘stimulus–response’ association whereby a given stimulus, such as a particular situation and its contextual cues, triggers an impulse to act in a particular way.

Social Change

Basically, I was trapped in a “see it, buy it” cycle. I would be on the Playstation store or Instagram, not even looking for anything particular. My fingers would become possessed the second something caught my eye. Within seconds, and usually, with very little conscious thought, I purchased another game I probably wouldn’t get to for years or another shirt I didn’t need in my ever-growing collection.

Figure Out Your Trigger

Next, I tried to determine the stimulus or trigger that had me spending money as if I had just won the lottery. I’ll spare you all the psychological whys of it all, but I had a generally good life as a kid. As a young adult, there was a noticeable dip in my quality of life. Now, as a full-fledged adult (whatever that means), I feel I owe myself the things I deserve, as if I’m making up for lost time. See part one of tackling your money mindset.

While revenge spending has been a real issue for me, that wasn’t my trigger. My trigger was seeing something I liked.

Now, you could say I need to avoid certain ads or apps, and I should be good. I won’t be triggered to buy if I don’t see the product. I learned that it helps me avoid the triggers but doesn’t tackle the habit of spending as soon as I see something.

Habits and stimulus

Habitual discontinuity disrupts the stimulus–response process by targeting the ‘stimulus’ element. It means to discontinue someone’s exposure to the situational context and cues (the stimulus) which trigger the behavioural impulse to act (i.e. the response). However, this method targets the habitual behaviour and not the habit. Although reducing exposure to a situational context will stop the instigation of the habitual behaviour and seemingly inhibit the habit process, this does not mean that the habit is gone or changed; it simply goes dormant.

Social Change

In normal-people speak, avoiding the trigger doesn’t actually get rid of the habit. To be more to the point, you would never REALLY know if it was gone. It would likely just be asleep until you come across the trigger again. Whether it’s a day, week, month, or even a year, you’re highly likely to fall right back into your habitual response when you stumble across that trigger.

Considering that my personal issue was buying on sight, having a dormant habit like this would be like a landmine in my head. At some point, sooner rather than later, I was going to come across another ad. Because of algorithms and my love of all things Google, it would likely be something I would buy. Excusing myself from digital society was just not an option, so this couldn’t work for me.

Be Response Focused

The real issue isn’t the outside stimuli but my response to them. The ads themselves are not inherently evil (though many might disagree). I developed a mix of patterns and behaviors that put me here.

I concluded that the fix needed to be on my end: I had to change my response to the stimulus.

The Wrong Way

Initially, I just tried to stop myself when I realized I was unconsciously clicking down that familiar path to purchase. I would try to logic my way out of it and convince myself, “you don’t really need this.” I was focused on the response, coming close to the edge but not figuring out why I got so close. After a while, the gatekeeper of my mind was less and less effective. when buying something I knew in my heart of hearts I didn’t need, I would convince myself, “you’re good; you get paid next week.” I had the right idea, but as is explained here, I had the wrong approach.

Reprogramming your brain for better money habits

When spending money, we often fall into the habit of mindlessly splurging on things we don’t really need. This can leave us frustrated and stressed, especially when trying to save up for something important.

By taking some simple steps to reprogram your brain, you can improve your spending habits and get your finances under control.

Understand why you spend.

The first step to changing your spending habits is to gain clarity: understand why you spend money in the first place. What need or desire are you trying to fulfill by spending? Once you identify what drives your spending, you can start looking for other ways to satisfy that need or desire.

Be aware of your triggers.

What are the things that trigger your spending? Is it seeing a sale sign in a store window? How about getting an email from a favorite retailer? Identifying your triggers can help you be prepared to resist the temptation to spend when they occur.

Make a plan.

Once you know why you spend and what triggers spending, you can start to make a plan to change your habits. Decide what you need or want to spend money on and set a budget for yourself. Then, when you’re tempted to spend on something outside your budget, remember your goals and stick to your plan.

Find alternative activities.

If you find yourself struggling to resist the urge to spend, it may help to find alternative activities that fulfill the same need or desire. For example, if you love to shop, try going for a walk in nature or taking up a new hobby instead.

Seek support.

Changing your spending habits can be difficult, so it’s helpful to seek support from loved ones or a professional if needed. Having accountability partners or a money coach to help you stay on track can make all the difference.

And now, action!

With effort and commitment, you can reprogram your brain to make better spending decisions and improve your financial situation.

Headshot picture of the writer of this article, Kenneth Medford III, with a muted black and white filter.
Kenneth Medford III

Writer, rhymer, gamer: the easiest way to define the man known as Kenneth Medford. I’m a simple man who loves to learn and loves to help and I wander the digital world trying to find ways to sate my hunger for both. Basically, I’m Galactus but helpful.

Check out my other work here or reach out to me on LinkedIn.

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