Experts Explain Exactly Why You Spend Too Much Money at Target and IKEA

updated May 1, 2019
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She was standing in front of me in the IKEA checkout line. Dressed casually chic in cute jeans and carrying a brown leather purse just the right amount of broken in. In her hands was one item: a rolled up rug. (It was the LOHALS, a $140 jute area rug.) The key words here being “one item.”

This woman had the power to brave the housewares temptation juggernaut that is IKEA and emerge with a single purchase. I had deep and immediate admiration for LOHALS lady.

I, too, had come in for one thing — a $27-shade, the BUSKTOFFEL, for my living room picture window. I had even checked online to make sure the size I needed was in stock. But my cart — yes I had one — also contained rechargeable batteries (so cheap compared to CVS!), a pillow cover, and four glass tea lights (the shape said Simon Pearce but the price whispered IKEA). There would have been even more, had my husband not come along for the ride and functioned like a retail cowboy, prodding me away from the sweet smell of 79-cent dishtowels and herding me toward the door.

Related: The Best 79¢ You’re Going to Spend at IKEA This Year

When I got home and the pillow cover didn’t seem right and the candleholders superfluous, I thought about the woman with the rug again. I talked to Matt Johnson, a professor at San Francisco’s Hult International School of Business, who researches the brain science behind economic decision-making, and Laura MacLeod, a Manhattan therapist who treats shopping addicts to find out how to be more like the LOHALS lady and less like a lättlurad. (That’s Swedish for sucker, FYI.)

First, a Bit on the Human Brain

“This isn’t an aberrant type of behavior, ” Johnson says. “[The stores] are designed by IKEA and Target to push us in this direction.”

He explains that our brains make two kinds of decisions: System 1 and System 2. System 1 are reactionary and simple — our default. You are hungry, you eat an apple. “Naturally, humans are sort of cognitively lazy and we prefer to be in System 1,” he says. System 2 decisions are deliberate and controlled — the kind of choice you make when you have spent a lot of time researching a big purchase like a car or vacation.

“Any individual, given the time, given the circumstances, given the environment, can be more System 1-oriented than System 2-oriented,” Johnson says. At the end of a long day of shopping, System 1 kicks in. “It’s metabolically draining having to think about every single purchase, so we revert to our default setting which is System 1.” Put simply, when you’re pooped, you make bad selections.

Great! Aren’t we all always pooped? Of course we are — life is busy! Luckily the experts gave me some pointers on how to be a little more System 2.

1. Mind the time of day.

You know not to go food shopping when you’re hungry, but it turns out shopping for anything on an empty stomach is a bad idea. “They’ve done these really interesting studies where they will study somebody’s decision making at different times of the day, either before a meal or after a meal, and people are much more likely to make impulsive decisions — more System 1-oriented decisions — right before lunchtime than right after lunchtime,” Johnson says.

(Image credit: Olga Miltsova)

2. Feed your brain.

Because many of us tend to end shopping trips by going to lunch or dinner, it seems weird to do the opposite — but you should. Meals high in glucose, like IKEA’s famous meatballs with lingonberry jam or a sweet yogurt parfait from the Starbucks in the front of your Target, will give you the type of power your brain needs. “Glucose is what we break down to make ATP [adenosine triphosphate], which makes our brains work and avails us of these cognitive resources to make deliberate decisions,” he says.

3. Clear your mind.

A worried or preoccupied mind can also trip you up. Our working memory is our ability to hold different pieces of information simultaneously in our mind. “When we have lots of things on our mind, we are much more likely to make an impulsive buying decision,” Johnson says. While everyone thinks they’re good at multitasking, Johnson cites a study where people who were asked to remember a seven-digit number while shopping made more impulsive decisions than those who were not asked to hold a number in their mind.

4. Try to look at prices objectively.

“We never process any amount of money in isolation,” Johnson says. You may think you know the value of say, $10, but in shopping situations Johnson says it all becomes relative. “At the end of a long afternoon of shopping if you have $400 worth of stuff in your shopping cart, a lamp that costs $15 doesn’t seem like anything.” This also works in situations where IKEA has baskets of $15 throw pillows next to a $1,000 sectional. Against the backdrop of the couch, you stuff three of those pillows into your big blue IKEA shopping bag. A bargain! But did you want to spend $45 in the first place? Ask yourself that question before you load up.

(Image credit: The Kitchn)

5. Beware when returning to the scene of previous retail binges.

Context matters, too. Johnson quotes a study from 2011 at the University of Southern California where people who habitually eat popcorn at movie theaters will eat popcorn at movie theaters even if the popcorn is stale and they are not hungry. This principle can transfer to retail shopping as well, making you more likely to splurge at stores where you’ve splurged before. Just something to keep in mind when you plan a trip to a store.

6. Bring a list.

Like Johnson, MacLeod insists that her clients shop with a list. Johnson recommends two lists, one in your hand and one in your wallet tucked around your debit or charge card, so you’re forced to confront any overages at the point of purchase. MacLeod suggests having a specific list, annotated with prices and a spending limit. “Let yourself go $5 or $10 over,” she says, but not much more.

7. Visualize, visualize, visualize.

If you’re eyeing a bunch of glasses at Target, think about your cabinet. Is it already super crowded? Are these glasses like ones you already own? When do you picture yourself using them?

MacLeod also recommends bringing along a notebook with paint samples or other color schemes for matching items and measurements for a reality check. Think about where you’ll put that waffle iron or canister set. “Even something as simple as the length of the countertop, the width and the depth of it, because that’s where things are going to get set up. These numbers can really bring you back to reality.”

8. Plan something after shopping.

A post-shopping plan is two-fold MacLeod says. “First, you can’t browse around Target all day if you have to go somewhere else.” Make plans to get a manicure with a friend or even an appointment you cannot cancel and you’ll be accountable for your time. Secondly, it gives you something to do beside shop. “So I do my thing, I check off my items, and I feel good about that. Then, I push myself out and I feel good about that, too.”

I’m guessing LOHALS lady already does all of these things. How about you? Are you able to make it in and out of a store like Target without going way over budget? How do you do it?