Willpower, finances and spending

Willpower, finances and spending

It’s probably not a surprise to read that money and the economy are top causes of stress for Americans, as shown in APA’s most recent Stress in America Survey. Whether it’s thinking about paying the mortgage, buying groceries or saving money a lot of brain power is devoted to making financial decisions. These financial decisions, big or small, require willpower.

One way to understand willpower is that it is like a muscle that can become tired. As you exert your willpower, it begins to lose its strength. Recent research indicates that people whose willpower is run down are more likely to spend an increased amount of money and purchase additional items than those who haven’t recently exerted their willpower. Low willpower, research suggests, can lead to less control over spending.

People who are constantly faced with tough financial decisions, such as those who are less financially stable, more readily deplete their willpower. One study suggested that shoppers with less money, who often use more willpower than richer shoppers because they face more frequent and difficult spending decisions, are less likely to resist consuming food and drink while shopping. Therefore, it appears that having to devote willpower to difficult spending decisions can deplete willpower in other areas.

Research shows that certain strategies can help build up self-control around spending and saving money:

  • Make one financial decision at a time. When people are faced with multiple, back-to-back decisions that test willpower, research suggests that willpower can easily be depleted. Space out your financial decisions instead of making too many at once and overwhelming yourself.

  • Track your spending. Research shows that tracking can be an effective tool. Keep a daily list of how you spend your money.

  • Save automatically. Set up bank or investment accounts that draw funds automatically from your pay check. This will prevent you from devoting limited willpower resources to deciding whether to spend or save money. Look for accounts that require you to wait a certain amount of time or reach a certain target before you can withdraw the funds, which recent research indicates are effective in helping people save greater amounts.

  • Avoid temptation. Staying away from shopping malls and stores can help you manage spending. Choose an alternative social activity over shopping. Avoid opportunities for impulsive spending by leaving credit and debit cards at home and only carry the amount of cash you can afford to spend.

  • Ask for support. Research shows that having a support system can help you reach your goals. Surround yourself with people you trust who will be supportive of your financial goals and willing to help you succeed.

How a Psychologist Can Help

If you need help building your willpower, consult with a psychologist or other licensed mental health professional. He or she can help you identify problem areas and then develop an action plan for changing them.

Practicing psychologists use a variety of evidence-based treatments — most commonly psychotherapy — to help people improve their lives. Psychologists, who have doctoral degrees, receive one of the highest levels of education of any health care professional. On average, they spend seven years in education and training following their undergraduate degrees; moreover, psychologists are required to take continuing education to maintain their professional standing.


Ashraf, N., Karlan, D., & Yin, W. Tying Odysseys to the Mast: Evidence from a Commitment Savings Product in the Philippines. (2006). The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 121(2), 635-672. doi: 10.1162/qjec.2006.121.2.635.

Spears, D. (2011). Economic Decision-Making in Poverty Depletes Behavioral Control. The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy, 11(1).

Vohs, K.D., & Faber, R. (2007). Spent Resources: Self‐Regulatory Resource Availability Affects Impulse Buying. Journal of Consumer Research, 33(4), 537-547. doi: 10.1086/510228.