We assume discounts are a great way to save money, but stores don’t offer sales out of the goodness of their hearts. The language of discounts aims to make us spend more and save less.

Discounts may look good but, utilized unwisely, they can be terrible for our spending habits.

Money can buy happiness (at least for a little while)

As consumers, we get drawn into the short bursts of euphoria that come from getting what we (think) we want, with an extra boost from getting it at a lower cost.

This “coupon high” gets us to spend money on more expensive items that are “on sale” instead of buying off-brand items or forgoing the sale all together.

Math is hard, discounts make it easy (sort of)

Most people don’t enjoy having to do mental math.

So when the sales racks, instead of just saying 30 percent off, actually say what the price of that shirt was and what it is now, we’re so pleased we don’t have to do the calculation ourselves we almost want to buy it just for that. (Also: Those original prices? Often bogus. Retailers use something called “price anchoring,” where they create a really high “original” price, and then claim to slash it by 50 percent. Who can resist such a “deal”?)

As consumers, we put too much trust in these discounts. The math, after all, doesn’t lie!

The math may not lie, but the minute we see a discount like this, we stop searching for more efficient offers.

It’s all in the wording

Advertisers and marketers have one goal—to make us spend. Using strategic language, they get us to fall for discounts every time.

Take “the rule of 100,” for example. This rule states that a number closer to 100 makes you think the discount is larger.

Going from $20 to $15 is a 25 percent discount, but it’s also just five dollars off. To the shopper quickly passing by, 25 percent off may sound like a better deal because we know that 25 is larger than five and closer to 100. It doesn’t matter that the five dollars off discount is exactly the same. Chances are you’re more likely to stop and take a second look if something is 25 percent off rather than five dollars off.

Small amounts add up to big money

It’s easy to rationalize purchases by saying “But it’s so cheap!” A $10, $15, or even $20 purchase may seem like nothing, but that cheapness only encourages us to buy more cheap stuff.

I recently went to one of those big discount stores with my mother, and she only got five or six things, and it ended up costing $70. Other people had carts overflowing with bulk merchandise, which I’m sure ended up costing hundreds of dollars. Will they use all that stuff? Maybe. But it’s easy to be seduced by the cheapness of something into thinking it’s a good deal or right for you or your budget.

Stores know this, and that’s why they often have a bin of super-cheap stuff right by the entrance. (You know those shelves of cheap stuff just as you enter Target?) Even if you came in determined not to spend money, you’re taken in by the $1, $2, or $3 offerings, and, before you know it, you’ve moved on more expensive fare.

Discounts (and cheap merchandise) make you miss the forest for the trees, as you’re focused on the immediate “savings” or the relative cheapness of one particular item, and not on how much you’re spending total.

There are many discounts you should be avoiding

Black Friday

Is getting a plasma TV, cheap clothes, excessively expensive headphones, and other extravagant items really worth hours of waiting in a long line with overly aggressive people?

Personally, I say no, but since that argument continues to fail and most people still stand in those Black Friday lines, let’s look at why the discounts really aren’t that great.

Black Friday is all about overspending. You promise yourself you’re just going in to buy Christmas gifts, but you end up leaving, exhausted and angry, with a dozen things you weren’t planning on buying and will probably forget about within the next few weeks.

In reality, many Black Friday deals aren’t really deals at all. Studies find that most deals are also offered throughout the year.

President’s Day car sales

Car salesman prepare in advance for Presidents Day—it’s one of the biggest selling days of the year. Experienced car buyers that can wheel and deal just as well as the salesmen can save a lot of money on President’s Day, but the average car buyer is probably not getting the best deal.

It’s the same with every other discount, salesmen are trying to upsell–earning them more and making sure you save less.

Rather than be bullied into buying an overly expensive car on President’s day, try going to a car dealership during the week when it’s slow, or at the end of the month. If you’re one of the only people at the dealership, salesmen are more likely to go with the price you offer as long as you hold firm.

There are plenty of times when it’s better to go to a dealership than when it’s packed on Presidents’ Day. So when the holiday rolls around, try staying home, enjoy your day off (if you have one) and shop for a car another day.


Buy one, get one free is the basic principle of the discount world. The word “free” is music to our ears. The minute we hear it we forget that, in order to get the second item free, we need to purchase a product we had no intention of buying in the first place.

Most of the time you’re not really getting anything for free. The cost of the second item is often built into the first, or you’re fooled into ignoring the off-brand names that are a fairer price.

It is possible to make discounts work for you

It may seem like there’s no discount in the world that’s actually good. Don’t worry, discounts aren’t all bad. There are ways to go about saving money that actually save you money.

Coupon responsibly

Clipping coupons can actually make you spend more if you aren’t careful. Just because something seems like a deal, customers will buy it. Pairing coupons with frugality and learning how to spend wisely is the only way to get the most bang for your buck.

Start by making a list and don’t buy more than you know you’ll need just because there’s a sale or just because you have a coupon.

Related: Extreme Couponing

Shop in-store as much as possible

Many times I’ve ordered something, gotten it, and when it didn’t fit or wasn’t what I was expecting, I never got around to returning it. I’d make the excuse that it took too much time and effort to go to the store to return it, or I didn’t want to pay to ship it back when I inevitably lost the free return shipping slip.

As easy as it is to buy online, sometimes it’s best to go to the store. Going in allows you to try things on or see the product in person where you can know if it’s worth your money.

You also don’t have to pay for shipping if you go to a physical store!

Know when you can use your student discount

As a college student, whenever there was a rare occasion when I had a little extra cash, I was going to spend it no matter what anyone told me.

When you know you’re going to spend make sure you take advantage of your student discount.

To name a few—Amazon offers a discounted Prime account, Spotify offers a half off account, Apple offers $200 off laptops, and even cell-phone services offer discounts on new phones for students.

Be wary of store cards

Just like any credit card, if you use a store card wisely, it’s not a terrible thing to have. But don’t over-indulge. Store cards offer discounts and coupons to encourage you to spend when you don’t need to. They create a sense of urgency, convincing you that the sale won’t last forever and you need the product now.

If you want a store card, pick a store you actually shop at frequently. The Target Red Card is an example of a beneficial card. You can get 5 percent cash back on your purchases for the life of the card, but make sure you pay off the balance each month or else you could get trapped in debt.


Overspending is often disguised as saving, so always tread lightly when you see sales. It’s possible to make discounts work for you if you understand how to spend wisely.

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