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How to add restraint to your arsenal when hit by the rush of a great deal

Retail analyst talks about the lure of a sale price and how to moderate your response
Eduek Brooks poses in this April 2023 handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - The Resolution

The drawers were overflowing with skin care products and makeup — three different blushes, many eyeshadows, a dozen different mascaras, foundation and serum samples sitting unused for years.

Still, Eduek Brooks counted on seasonal sales, especially for skin care, to grab the best deals. It was her retail therapy, chasing dopamine hits, she said.

“A lot of [my debt] stemmed from buying things because I thought, ‘Oh, I was getting a good deal,’” Brooks said. “It was a way I justified: ‘I’m saving money. I’m not spending money.’”

The anticipation of sales often led to overconsumption and left her drowning in almost $50,000 of debt.

Sales can be very tempting, said retail analyst Bruce Winder.

The value of a product is an equation, which is divided by its price, he said in an interview. The everyday price of an item becomes a value indicator. When the price drops, shoppers view it as being better value, explained Winder.

“When you see something go on sale, it sparks something inside you,” he said.

“You have to be careful because there’s a lot of marketing out there that hammers at us every day on social media and TV, trying to tell us we’re not good people unless we have this product.”

It’s more than just a functional exercise. Sales bring tremendous joy and can make people feel better with so-called happy hormones rushing through our body, Winder said.

Retailers rely on sales to draw more customers to the store and provide a revenue boost outside of regular sale seasons such as Black Friday, Boxing Day sales and spring sales, among others.

Sales create a psychological sense of perceived savings, says Ying Zhu, an associate marketing professor at the University of Guelph. Other times, sales with a limit on the number of units a shopper can buy also give the impression it must be a good deal, creating a sense of artificial scarcity, she added.

“(Sales) push people to make decisions before they can thoroughly compare and do the research and make a rational decision,” Zhu said. “They are just being pushed by the sense of urgency.”

Winder said the illusion of sales savings could dissipate quickly if shoppers put their discretionary purchases on credit cards — as they’re now paying interest on those purchases if the credit card bill isn’t paid off in full at the end of the month.

“You’re going to have a big problem because your disposable income will go to service debt from your previous purchases, and you won’t have enough for your essential items like food and rent and gasoline,” he said.

Brooks realized what was going on about six years ago. She then began her journey to break free from sales cycles and overspending. That journey ultimately led her to leave the engineering field and become a financial educator at her company Two Sides of a Dime.

“The root cause of the debt was overspending and a lot of it was consumer items — it was not a student loan or anything I could really justify,” she recalled, as she began paying off $47,000 in debt.

Brooks looked at how much she was spending, where the money was going and if it had any utility.

Then came a budget to establish strict boundaries, even when shopping for personal care, further breaking down it into categories — $150 for clothing and $100 for skin care, for example.

Brooks also began carrying cash or prepaid credit cards to avoid using the “bank’s money” and not exceeding her budget.

“I would take cash and not my credit cards because if I walk into Sephora, I’m going to be tempted — there’s always going to be something that you want.”

Brooks said she only buys items she knows are useful and not because it’s on sale.

“It’s about getting the use out of it and not just buying it for the sake of getting a discount and then it’s going to end up being wasteful,” she said. For items on sale at Walmart or Costco, looking at the cost per quantity helps too, she added.

Without a budget or discipline, a sales addiction can be dangerous. Winder said it’s important to ask yourself if you really need the item on sale right now.

“Am I going to use this, or is this going to sit in my closet and collect dust?” Winder asks himself every time he sees an item on sale. “By inserting that pause, that allows me to walk away from 95 per cent of those sale items that I would have potentially purchased.”

Shoppers should also look out for deceptive sales — hidden fees, service charges and add-on costs can reduce the amount of money you’re actually saving.

Zhu suggested making a list of items you need to buy, researching what they may cost and sticking to the list to avoid being impulsive.

If the item on your list is on sale, that’s great, she said, because “you already plan to buy it and it just happened to be on sale.”

But if the item on sale didn’t make it onto your list, don’t worry, there will be other chances, Zhu said. “Sales and discounts will come around.”

There are other ways to indulge in sales that give a sense of savings while still having what you want, Winder said.

“You can borrow products, thrift products,” he said. “Save the environment and you save your pocketbook.”