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How ‘Holding It’ Can Help You Save Money

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Your morning coffee may do more than wake you up. It might help you save, too. According to a new study, people who need to urinate, but have to hold it, are better able to hold off on impulse purchases.

This study got me chuckling, but it also got me wondering: I mean, who the heck gets these ideas, and why would there be any connection between one’s bladder and shopping? But before you dismiss the results, it helps to understand the background.

[Related: Eight spending splurges we make]

We may not like to admit it, but our emotional state can play a big role in our spending decisions. Previous research has found people who are hungry or tired have clouded judgment and poor impulse control. The interesting part is this state of mind lends to reckless spending decisions. One study found that hungry people take bigger financial gambles. Evidently the poor self-control of being hungry has a spillover effect into spending.

If some states of mind lead to impulsive purchases, might others help with self-control? This was the idea that struck researcher Mirjam Tuk. As the story goes, Tuk found herself in class after drinking several cups of coffee and holding off on a bathroom break. She wondered if exerting self-control on her bladder — an act of inhibition — might also have a spillover effect to inhibiting spending behavior.

Tuk and her two co-authors were in fact able to demonstrate the inhibitory effect. The study included four experiments that examined how people would choose between small and immediate rewards versus larger and delayed ones (such as the choice between $16 tomorrow, versus $30 in a month’s time). Participants were primed by taking part in an unrelated water taste test 45 minutes prior, in which some had to drink lots of water and others just a little. Researchers found people who drank a lot of water, and indicated on a survey a higher desire to urinate, were more likely to choose the large and delayed rewards. Inhibiting a bodily function can in fact help one curb spending.

So how might one put this tip into practice? A footnote from the study has some practical information. An average adult bladder is full at about 500 mL or 17 ounces, and takes as little as 20 minutes for liquid to reach the bladder. So one might try drinking coffee or a couple glasses of water an hour before checking Groupon or some other deal website. It sounds like a strange thing to do, but it can probably help people resist the urge to spend.

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