A sad woman regrets purchases as she holds her hand against a glass window displaying a coat in the city.

Why do we regret purchases after we make them? How can we make better buying decisions?

When you regret purchases, it’s because your desire for something blinded you from thinking through the decision rationally. Often we think rationally only to justify these purchases after the fact.

Learn why we get buyer’s remorse and why rationalizing purchases doesn’t help.

Understanding Buyer’s Remorse

We often regret purchases. Sometimes these purchases are small and harmless, like a marked-down sweater in a color you’ll never wear or a novel you’re only buying because everyone else is reading it. These aren’t great decisions, and they’re a waste of money. But they’re small enough that you can laugh about them later—after you’ve found a new home for the sweater or book. Sometimes, though, the purchases you regret are bigger. For example, you might buy a car that costs far more than you budgeted or book a vacation that costs more than you can afford. These decisions involve large enough amounts of money that they can become setbacks from your financial goals.

(Shortform note: Psychologists say that we often rationalize our choices so we can avoid buyer’s remorse, the feeling of regretting a purchase. A group of Yale researchers, which included Against Empathy author Paul Bloom, also observed this tendency in capuchin monkeys. They offered the monkeys red, green, and blue M&Ms. If a monkey chose a red M&M over a blue one, he would rationalize that choice by devaluing blue M&Ms and rejecting them in the future. We do the same thing so we can avoid wondering if we made the wrong choice, including with our purchases—especially those that cost a lot more than a pack of M&Ms.) 

Whether what you buy (and later regret) is big or small, you talk yourself into the purchase because it’s something you want. The feeling of really wanting something wins out over the knowledge that you don’t need it or can’t afford it. And it’s only later, once you have a bit more perspective, that you regret it. 

(Shortform note: When we explain that we make regrettable decisions because we want something and ignore the downsides, we’re describing motivated reasoning—the same phenomenon that experts say led people to prioritize their desire for normalcy during the Covid-19 pandemic. I Contain Multitudes author Ed Yong lists “the normality trap” as one of the cognitive errors that tripped up Americans’ intuitive response to the pandemic. As the virus disrupted the status quo, people wanted so badly for life to return to normal that they behaved in ways that let the virus spread—a decision some of them would later regret.)

Do You Regret Purchases? Explaining Buyer’s Remorse

Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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