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How to talk yourself out of getting into debt

Your inner spender wants to go on a spree? Try these snappy comebacks

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If you're battling credit card debt, your own inner voice might be making things tougher, whispering "you deserve it!" and other seductive phrases as you reach for the plastic.

Next time your inner spender wants to go on a spree, try using these snappy comebacks and expert tips to make smarter money choices:

Your inner spender: "Oh, come on. You deserve it!"

How to talk yourself out of getting into debt

The talk-yourself-out-of-debt comeback: "What you really deserve is peace of mind."

What to do: Remind yourself there's nothing you can buy that will feel better than a clear conscience, says Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. "Say, 'I'm going to give myself that by not overspending,'" Yarrow says. If you do decide you want to indulge in shopping, you should plan and budget for it, says Art Markman, professor of psychology and marketing at The University of Texas at Austin, and author of  "Smart Thinking: Three Essential Keys to Innovate, Solve Problems and Get Things Done." He recommends you set a budget, pick a day and time to go shopping, and invite a friend. That makes it a social occasion and more of a treat, and also can help keep your spending in check. "If you know you're prone to overspend, let your friend know you can only spend $100," he says.

Your inner spender: "You've had a hard week. This will make you happy."

The talk-yourself-out-of-debt comeback: "Something else would, too. How about a workout?"

What to do: Find a healthy substitute for shopping. "A lot of times, when people spend money, it's kind of like Prozac -- it gives them a little lift, a little boost. It's a mood elevator," says financial consultant Denise Hughes, who has a master's degree in psychology and blogs at DeniseHughes.org. She recommends that people ask themselves if they're looking for a mood boost, and why. Did you clash with your boss, have a tiff with your spouse or care for a cranky child that day? To prepare for the inevitable hard days, Markman suggests finding a healthy, stress-relieving activity that you really enjoy, such as going to the gym, yoga or a walk. He says: "Make that your reward."

Your inner spender: "Everyone else has one."

The talk-yourself-out-of-debt comeback: "You can, too -- after you save up for it."

What to do: Don't beat up on yourself. It's pretty normal to want to buy that new iPhone because all your friends have one or a Lexus because all of your colleagues drive them, says Brad Klontz, a clinical psychologist and director of research at H&R Block Dollars & Sense, which provides personal finance education to teens. "It has a lot to do with the animal brain," Klontz says, noting that some parts of our brains still react as if we were in the Stone Age, when getting ousted from the tribe meant being eaten by predators. In that world, "If I see somebody in the tribe seems to have a lot of power, it's in my best interest to get close to and emulate that person," he says. People will always have these impulses, but they need to channel the powers of their prefrontal cortex -- the rational, decision-making part of the brain -- to help override them. So, make a plan to save up for something you want, Klontz says: "It's not about not getting something, it's about getting it in a way that's not going to hurt you."

Your inner spender: "It's only $50 -- what a great deal!"

The talk-yourself-out-of-debt comeback: "Not really, when you add on the cost of interest and stress of getting the bill."

It's not about not getting something, it's about getting it in a way that's not going to hurt you.

-- Brad Klonz
clinical psychologist

What to do: Look past the price tag and think about how much the item will really set you back, Hughes says. (You can plug the numbers into a credit card payment and payoff calculator.) For example, if you go to a big sale and spend $300 on a few pairs of price-slashed designer jeans and a shirt, using a credit card with an 18 percent interest rate, you could end up paying an extra $100 in interest over more than three years. You might still be working to pay for those jeans long after you've worn holes in them, Hughes says. She tells her clients who use revolving credit, "Do you realize you're borrowing time and energy from your future self in order to pay for this?"

Your inner spender: "You can always take it back later."

The talk-yourself-out-of-debt comeback: "Will you really take it back? If so, why buy it in the first place?"

What to do: Don't buy something with the idea that you can take it back later. You probably won't, experts say. Once you start to feel what it would be like to own something, it's as good as yours, Markman says. That's why car dealers eagerly hand over keys for test drives. "The same thing happens in a store. You try on this great shirt and you look in the mirror and you look good -- and that's far more important than numbers that are going to show up on a credit card bill later." Once you actually get an item home, you're unlikely to spend the time and gas or shipping money to return it, Yarrow says. As part of her consumer research, she says she gets invited to peek in homes and often sees unused items, price tags still on: "I ask people about it and they say, 'I meant to return that.'"

Your inner spender: "There's only one left. If you don't buy it now, it'll be gone."

The talk-yourself-out-of-debt comeback: "That might be true. But maybe you'll find something better when you have the money."

What to do: Step back and realize that you're experiencing fear. "The fear of missing out is huge," Yarrow says. "People hate regret. They'll go through all sorts of mental gyrations to avoid regret." Retailers capitalize on this fear with tactics such as limited-time offers. When you're feeling an intense emotion, it can cloud your decision-making skills, so Yarrow suggests taking a short timeout. "Just carry the item around with you for 20 minutes without buying it and distract yourself with something else. Or put it in your basket online and go away" from your computer. After a short cooling-off period, she says, you might decide more calmly. She also suggests doing a quick mental inventory of other times you've bought something out of fear, and how important the item ended up being in your life.

The best thing you can do to avoid overspending, however, is to try to stay out of tempting situations where you'll face an inner struggle, Markman says, noting that once your brain goes into "go" mode, such as when you move toward making a purchase, then willpower is required to hit the brakes.

He says: "Then you're not putting yourself in the best situation because you're fighting against yourself."

See related: How your girlfriends can ruin your credit, Help for bad credit: Dealing emotionally, Home-shopping channel addiction: A fast path to credit card debt

Published: September 13, 2012



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