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A simple mental trick you can use to save money during the holidays

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During the holidays, the expectation to spend a lot on gifts combined with the pressure to find the perfect present for everyone on your list means you might find that you're more prone to impulse shopping. The average U.S. consumer already spends $5,400 each year on impulse buys.

But the spirit of giving doesn't mean you have to splurge. One way to save this season is by taking a step back and implementing the 72-hour rule before making a purchase.

Ed Coambs, licensed marriage and family therapist at Carolinas Couples Counseling in Matthews, North Carolina, says that if you can become more self-aware about your spending habits, you're better positioned to cut down on impulsive purchases.

Here's how the 72-hour rule can make a huge difference to your mindset — and your budget.

The strategy

When you find yourself eyeing a sweater at the store or a pair of sneakers that are just out of your budget, don't immediately get in line. Put the item back after making a note of it, including size, color, and where you can find it. Plan to return in three days if you're sure it's the right buy.

Giving yourself time to think over your purchases is a good way to cut back on impulse spending. In practice, though, it can be difficult, especially when you're shopping for the people you love.

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"When you're thinking about purchasing during the holiday season, there's a lot at stake for people in terms of their relationships. So there's the psychological process of, 'I want to stay connected with this person, or family member, I'm worried that if I don't do the purchase correctly, then I'll experience relational disconnection,'" says Coambs.

Still, slowing down and developing awareness about why you're feeling the urge to buy can help you make sure you're buying the right gifts for the right reasons.

Why it works

Coambs says these last-minute impulse purchases are fueled by strategic marketing tactics and even your brain chemistry.

"Dopamine is one of the neurochemicals that is a feel-good chemical, and oxytocin, known as the love hormone, is another feel-good hormonal chemical that can be released in the process of purchasing," says Coambs.

Taking the time to mull over a purchase stops the release of those neurochemicals and can help you make a more informed decision about your purchases. Giving is about the thought behind the gift, after all, rather than the satisfaction of the splurge.

Even your developmental history plays a role: Coambs suggests that impulsive shopping can stem from negative childhood experiences that make it harder to self-regulate and make decisions in line with your best interests.

When you're thinking about purchasing during the holiday season, there's a lot at stake for people in terms of their relationships.
Ed Coambs
marriage and family therapist

While the occasional impulse buy that fits within your budget isn't cause for concern, if you find that your credit card bills are piling up and your impulse purchases are causing you financial distress, it could be time to seek professional help.

"Another exercise that's in line with the 72-hour rule is the body check-in," Coambs says. Before making the purchase, close your eyes, take several deep breaths, and scan for feelings of discomfort that can signal psychological distress and mean that perhaps you're shopping for the wrong reasons.

"Is there a host of emotions like sadness, jealousy, anger, etc., that can tell you you need to put on the breaks, get recentered and then decide, 'Is this the right type of purchase for me?'"

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