How “Bargain Brain” Can Tank Your Finances

Bargain hunting can save you money, and who doesn’t love a bargain? Of course, we all do. But for some people, looking for the next “great deal” becomes an addiction. The call of the clearance rack wins out over practical matters like common sense and whether you need or want what you found. You may not even have a place to put it. I’m almost positive you have some things hanging in your closet right now that still have the tags on them from way back when you got “that great bargain”.

If you're addicted to bargain hunting, you may have what is known as Bargain Brain. Endlessly shopping for bargains you don't need will ruin your finances.


Getting a “bargain” on something that you will never need or use is a complete waste of your time and money!

Studies show that almost 18 million adults have a shopping addiction and it’s often associated with CBD, Compulsive Buying Disorder, which I wrote about here last year.

But “bargain brain” is a little bit different because it’s even more specific and troublesome as it focuses on the thrill of the bargain and not just the urge to shop itself.

What is Bargain Brain?

Experts say it’s as powerful as any drug or alcohol addiction and can leave people drowning in debt. So, here’s the question: What are the reasons “bargain brain” and its addiction are so common?

Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, says bargain brain is a way for people to ease insecurities, and feel more competent and in control. Over the last decade he has been especially focused on studying “materialistic values” i.e., being wealthy, having many possessions, being attractive, and being popular. He is the author of numerous scientific articles and several books including “The High Price of Materialism” and “Psychology and Consumer Culture” (co-edited with Allen D. Kanner).

Kasser writes that shopping addicts often don’t realize they have a problem, even when the bags and bills start stacking up. It usually takes a big event to bring it to their attention, like a divorce, a new baby, unemployment, or retirement. Or more often than not, when they simply max out their credit cards and have no more spending power. So, how can you tell if you are a bargain junkie?

5 Tell-Tale Signs You Suffer from Bargain Brain

  1. You hit the sales and clearance racks when you feel angry or blue.
  2. You feel guilty after shopping and hide your purchases.
  3. You spend more money than you can afford because you see sales as opportunities you just can’t pass up.
  4. You spend so much time tracking down deals that it intrudes on your time with work, family, and friends.
  5. You often forget what you bought and then find things in your closets you’ve never used.

Why You Cave in to Bargain Brain Strategies

As soon as we enter any store (online or offline), we are bombarded with psychological tactics in an attempt to get us to buy more and more products (such as selling products that have a price ending in $.99).

Those prices are used to convince you that you are spending less than you actually are. A price reduction on top of that makes it even more tempting. The bargain price is appealing to you because it challenges the status quo. The retailer appears not to be in complete control of the final price of the product, maybe even desperate to sell, and this makes you feel that you are now in control. Because of that you feel you can negotiate the final price that you have to pay, whether that is the sale price or even a buy one, get one free deal. Brain studies have shown that when we are excited by a bargain it interferes with our ability to clearly judge whether it is actually a good offer or not. Thus, bargain brain has taken over.

Is It Really True That “The more you buy, the more you save”?

When it comes to bargain brain, what people buy isn’t as important as how big the price reduction is. In fact, the bigger the price cut, the more tempting a purchase is. After all, if something’s 80% off the original price you’re saving 80 percent, right? What you may not consider is that by not buying you’ll save 100%. So, my version of that old saying is really this: “the more you buy, the more you spend!”

Bargain addicts even make illogical purchases like grabbing up sale-price auto parts for cars they don’t own, or even buying bargain kid’s clothes for children they don’t have.

So Why is This Bargain-Hunting Addiction so Common?

Some warning signs of bargain brain tap directly into the core components of addiction. But, many of the criteria have nothing to do with addiction whatsoever. Using bargain hunting as a way of making oneself feel better mirrors what is found in other addictions, but characteristics such as not being able to pass up a bargain, and forgetting what has been bought are not core signs of addiction. They are idiosyncratic consequences that specifically relate to bargain hunting.

Survey Findings from Consumer Reports

According to Consumer Reports, 23% of women say they sometimes buy things they don’t need just because they’re on sale. For most of us, getting a discount is enough of a reward but others would say they would hunt for a bargain even if money weren’t an issue for them. In general, the survey found bargain shopping has increased significantly, from 76% of our shopping in 2011 to 83% today. One reason may be due in part to the growing use of smartphone coupons which has increased from 11% in 2011 to 24% today.

Human psychology may help explain the irresistible allure of a discount. Research suggests that people tend to enjoy bargains, regardless of whether any financial gain is involved. You might even be able to blame your bargain hunting on Mom and Dad, because some experts say genetic differences make certain people predisposed to finding pleasure in raiding the sale rack. Not only might they have taught you the lessons and skill of bargain hunting but you may have the genes passed through them to do it!

How Can You Fight Off Bargain Brain?

Having lived inside retail stores for over half my life (in retail management, not as a mannequin), I can advise you on a few good ways to combat bargain brain short of locking yourself inside your home and never shopping again.

  1. Try to avoid stores that play really loud music. This can confuse and distract you from judging what is or is not a real needed bargain.
  2. Take a minute and ask the salesperson to explain sales details in a clear and slow manner and if possible ask him/her to write them down for you to avoid misunderstanding.
  3. Before you make any decision to purchase, take a break, count from one to ten, and think again about the benefits and need for this purchase. If possible, even wait 24 hours.
  4. Can you shop alone? Peer pressure has been proven to be a key indicator for individuals buying products that they do not need.
  5. Never shop when you are feeling emotionally upset. Purchasing to overcome any bad mood or depression is not beneficial for you or your wallet. Shop when you are in a good and clear minded mood. Shopping when you’re down makes you spend more than you intended.
  6. Check out professional help on sites like Shopaholics Anonymous or Debtors Anonymous for tips and help.

Are you falling victim to bargain brain? Is bargain hunting an obsession for you or just the way you use to save on things you actually need and use? Are you so into being a bargain hunter that it actually causes you to dig a deep hole of debt? What are you doing to make sure this never happens to you?


  1. I use your tip #3 to avoid bargain brain. I try and not buy things on impulse, and delay the purchase until later. Often common sense kicks in and I realize I really don’t need the item. My oldest son informed me that he plans to go out shopping on Black Friday with a few of his friends. I asked, what are you shopping for? He wasn’t sure. My advice to him, have a plan. This way he avoids bargain brain. 🙂

  2. I have friends who bargain hunt, and I definitely spend more money when I shop with them. But in general, I’m not a huge shopper. I love to browse and then put everything back. 😉

    Come to think of it, I should remind Hubby what a catch I am. haha!!

    Anyway, love your tips. I hadn’t thought about those stores that blast music in this way, but it makes sense that it would cause you to spend more.

    And confusing sales always make me crazy. Buy one get one half off but you have to spend at least $X and then you might be able to use your coupon, but you might not. Ugh!

  3. Wow, those are some huge numbers! It’s this time of year that gets me when I fall victim. If there’s a closing Kmart, I’ll stop in because all the cheap Christmas gifts! But I walk out with things for me too because they were a buck each. The sales are so short–they’re really good at placing a sense of urgency on them!

    I have a good stash of gifts I’ve built slowly and thoughtfully throughout the year this year, so hopefully I’ll dodge the holiday-induced bad decision making in 2017

    1. It’s a great strategy to buy all around the year rather than concentrate solely on the big holiday shopping season. That can avoid feeling the pressure. You may have to stay on guard for those spectacular “sales” at store closings. Unfortunately there are more of those on the horizon. Thanks for your comments, FF.

  4. Our family friend was so into “bargain shopping” she couldn’t resist a good clothing sale – even if it was for little kid clothing when she had no little kids!

    I stay out of Target because of their bargains. I find myself suddenly needing things.

    How do you feel about Costco, BJs and Sam’s Club? Do you think anyone saves money shopping those?

    1. It’s a good question about the warehouse clubs. I remember telling one of my friends who shopped at one that she was spending so much more than she needed to based on the size of her family, but she couldn’t resist because of the “bargains”. I personally feel that unless you have a very large family, buying multiples/cases of items is really unnecessary and it’s more than stocking up, so I’m against it. Thanks for the question, Mrs. G.

  5. I agree with this, I never try to bargain shop. When I really want something I save up and go get it, if there is a 20% off deal I can find for something in particular the day of so be it. I just make sure I really want what I get and limit myself in buying things altogether. Most of the time when I bargain shop I never end up using what I buy so I avoid at all costs, along with shopping in general.

    1. It’s refreshing to hear someone say exactly what you’ve said, DM. Although it’s almost impossible to never go shopping, going with a plan and a goal, and knowing what you want, puts you way ahead. I’ve always shopped with a specific item in mind and although I like a bargain, I’ve learned the hard way over the years that it makes me spend way too much. Thanks so much for your comments.

      1. Agreed Gary, I would say today it really isn’t necessary to go and shop. Some people enjoy going through the stores which is all good but amazon can deliver anything to your door how amazing! So really when I want something I can hop on and have it shipped within two days.

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