This week I saw an aqua-colored patio table set. It called out to me. The color made me happy. That it was foldable and portable seemed kismet. The price was within my budget. And, after all, I did need a table and chairs. So, I bought it.
It was adorable, bright, and useful. But by the next day I’d confirmed what I really already knew. The cafe table was too small to hold more than my laptop and maybe a beverage. The chairs were a bit uncomfortable after more than a few minutes. Thoughts of the imperfections versus the cost mounted in my mind. There it was, classic buyer’s remorse. I searched for the receipt and sighed with relief when I saw I could return it.
We’ve all felt buyer’s remorse. It is that cognitive dissonance, that irritating dissatisfaction, which tells you that your decision, however justified, was not the best one. It’s certainly irksome.
But can you avoid regret in the first place? Experts think you can or at least you might be able to mitigate your unease by understanding why you might be experiencing it.
Avoiding buyer’s remorse: why does it happen?
Social scientists have been asking questions about satisfaction versus regret for decades, even before online purchasing took off and long before #FOMO (fear of missing out) was coined.
Studies looking into the phenomenon in the past 10 years have compared a person’s satisfaction when buying an object versus an experience. They’ve found people tend to regret purchasing material things but regret not having an experience, like a vacation, even more.
Goods are more or less interchangeable. And because we are constantly baraged with targeted advertising, we have plenty of opportunity to compare what we buy with what else is out there. So it follows. We also have plenty of opportunities to regret. It seems like there’s always an upgraded version or a better bargain. Whereas, a person’s experience is their own.
Cornell University researchers found in the 2017 report “Buyer’s Remorse or Missed Opportunity” that an adventure or an encounter is “singular.” The regret over a lost opportunity lies in the idea that we have missed out on something new or fine.
We can never know for sure due to the ephemeral nature of the experience itself. An experience is something unique, something we can express as part of our shared history with family, friends, and colleagues. It’s a celebration, a backstage pass, travel to a distant shore. It’s hard to quantify, but you know if you don’t go, you’ll likely be missing out.
It's also important to remember that buyer's remorse is relative. You may feel bad about an ill-advised credit card purchase of a meal you could have eaten at home. You will feel worse (and face bigger consequences) if you make a real estate mistake — something that many first-time home buyers do. The cost of your mistake and how it affects your life will greatly impact the feeling you get from making a bad buying decision.
Tip 1 on avoiding buyer’s remorse: what to do about it
It’s hard to ignore when an object, something you might even need, just clicks with your perceived sense of identity. Before you buy it, there’s the worry that another outlet might have a better deal. Then, after you get it home the item looks great, but isn’t as functional as you’d hoped, leaving you with a lingering sense of disappointment. For example, my patio set.
First of all, know that you are not alone. Multiple social psychological studies over the years show that regret following a purchase is a human condition. In fact, federal rules have been created because of it. What you are experiencing is real. A 2017 survey showed at least 82% of adults have at some point felt it.
In particular, the report notes, takeout food, and clothing purchases were at the very top of the regrets list. Do you ever order an unfulfilling takeout dinner? Do you buy clothes you end up never wearing? I have. Usually, it was because I was rushing from one thing to the next. I wanted to avoid the embarrassment of not looking current in a meeting or being grumpy because I skipped a meal.
I ended up with shirts I never returned and takeout food tossed after one bite because it wasn’t very good. A sense of worry throughout the week became regret as I looked at my checking account balance.
But, I’ve learned through experience that I have fewer pangs of remorse when I don’t feel as if I’m wasting money. Now I buy protein bars on sale and stash them in key locations. And I have a few suit jackets I can throw on like a uniform to become ‘professional me’ as needed without wasting money on pretty one-season blouses that sit in bags until it’s too late for a refund.
But, in more extreme cases, perhaps it’s a new or upgraded car that you desire. You got a raise. You think I deserve to drive something other than this child-toy strewn, food-encrusted minivan. So, you do a little research and decide on a popular four-door sedan.
The morning after that first drive on the highway, you begin to have regrets. There are storage issues. You read the measurements of the trunk in the car specifications, but hadn’t figured the angle of the trunk lid into your calculations. It’s one thing after another. What do you do?
Well, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s “Cooling-Off Rule,” you have 3 days to cancel the sale. In California, it’s 2 days.
There are a number of restrictions, but this federal rule applies not only to car sales but to sales made in homes, workplaces, or temporary sales locations, like trunk sales at a convention.
“You don’t have to give a reason for canceling your purchase. You have the right to change your mind,” the government website states.
Keep in mind you have to follow the rules promptly to qualify. Your cancelation form or letter must be postmarked. You have until midnight on the third day after the contract was signed to cancel the sale.
Of course, you can also put some checks and balances in place that slow down your buying process on big purchases. Maybe get a trusted friend or family member to weigh in on your decision-making process when it comes to purchases over a certain amount.
Tip 2 on avoiding buyer’s remorse: plan, skip weekend buying
What if I told you the time and the day of the week that you make a purchase might affect how you feel about it later?
Two researchers at Duke University's Center for Advanced Hindsight Data in 2017 tracked Millennial purchases, with permission, on a personal finance app. And the researchers found purchases made midweek were the most satisfying and weekend purchases were the least.
The research showed that the study group rated spending in bars, convenience stores, restaurants, and fast-food joints almost as low as they rated paying bank fees. And these purchases were more likely to happen spontaneously on a weekend.
The solution, the Duke data reporters suggested, was to avoid weekend blow-outs by preparing a strict weekend budget and sticking to it. They suggested taking out cash and limiting all purchases to be rationed from that amount. This might be fine for singles, but I can imagine there might be some conflicts for couples and families.
Keep in mind, the researchers were mostly focused on the small seemingly frivolous purchases that drain your bank account when you could be saving money. And in their idea, they suppose weekday purchases were likely the product of research and maybe even family discussion. Whether that’s true or not, whenever making a big decision, looking up the product’s reviews and finding the best option out there will factor into your satisfaction post-purchase.
Sometimes spending more money on quality will make your experience of the object far more pleasant. Especially if you hit a good sale.
And sometimes buying an app can help limit buyer’s remorse.
The Duke data also revealed that putting recurring bills like rent, utilities, and student loans on autopay via a banking app led to fewer feelings of dissatisfaction about having to pay them. No one enjoys paying those bills, so a means to soften the monthly financial blow can open the door to a healthier state of mind and improve quality of life.
Tip 3 on avoiding buyer’s remorse: make the best decision for you
Those Duke data wonks found that Millennials were most satisfied when buying gifts for others or spending money on personal enrichment activities involving education and entertainment.
Who doesn’t love being able to find the perfect gift or take friends out to a special meal? And for a certain set of friends, there are music festivals and group travels to exotic locations that are planned out at least a year in advance. Missing out for any member of the pack would be devastating. Those shared experiences are retold and re-lived for years afterward.
But, it’s not just Millennials. Experts have said experience wins over material for generations. It’s a culturally embedded idea, which is no less true for being a cliche. Take, for example, the dad who thinks of himself as a provider but regrets not tossing the ball with his son. The mom who makes partner, but misses her daughter’s recital.
If you are weighing your options on a big decision, such as whether to upgrade your car or take a two-week trip through the Serengeti, you know what the experts say. People tend to have fewer regrets about spending money on experiences and a higher sense of FOMO or feelings of regret, about missing out on something experiential.
So, if you have a choice, go with an experience. Rent that house on the lake. Take a painting class. Brew your own beer. But, if you do need a gas range, a car, or a table, maybe take your time, do research and make your purchase during the week. The experts say you’ll have fewer regrets.
Sometimes though, a purchase can be an experience.
It can’t be overlooked that sometimes material goods have the ability to bring a great deal of satisfaction to a person’s life. For example, I just bought an electric kettle. I needed it as I currently have no stovetop, a situation I hope will be soon resolved. But, in the meantime, this utilitarian object that I purchased merely to heat water has become an obsession.
I adore it. It just boils water, but so efficiently that I look forward to making my French press coffee in the morning. I’ve used it to make perfect hard boiled eggs and blanch green beans. Its unexpected versatility tickles me.
I took no more than half an hour to complete my electric kettle research. I looked at function, price, and consumer reviews on a Tuesday. I ordered it on Amazon and then moved on to more urgent matters. It’s an object, but it’s helping me to engage in my new living experience in a positive way. It’s a well made purchase.
This type of satisfaction has also been researched. The Cornell paper states, if you do get that object of your desire, it might help to lessen any potential regret by focusing on the experiences you might have with it. A new couch might provide a focus for family memories and a place for loved ones to gather together.
The purchase of a new roof might give you a sense that you have secured your property value. A lot of families spend significant time in a family car, so it too is filled with the possibility of experiences. If you can, why not stack the deck in your favor and get a vehicle that will make the most of that travel time for everyone.
And, if you’re savvy, you might find ways to enhance your property while getting a tax break. In Vermont, for a period of time, there was a tax incentive for building drainage culverts on private property to limit runoff into the lake. People had enormous satisfaction in building and beautifying these ditches with rocks, grasses, and flowers. The experience was a benefit to the community and private landowners. The only regrets were from those who missed out.
Personally, I think it’s time for some tea.
–-By Nic Desmet