Cyber Monday: 5 Reasons to Ignore the Sales

It might be a national shopping day, but that doesn’t mean it’s smart to participate.

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Telling shoppers to avoid sales sounds crazy to people who live for the discounts featured on Cyber Monday. And it might sound hypocritical coming from someone who has reported on the best deals and discounts out there. But there are some very good reasons why you should turn and walk the other way rather than let yourself be sucked into holiday sale mania. Here are five of them:

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Many of the best deals have been available for weeks. Sears started offering its Black Friday deals on Fridays and Saturdays at the end of October and it’s not the only retailer to get a head start on holiday discounts. The early lead up to the biggest shopping days was designed to capture shoppers’ attention as soon as possible and hold onto it. Retailers are crossing their fingers for a stronger season than last year, and they want to squeeze as much out of it as they possibly can. But that doesn’t mean you have to give them what they want, because spending today might not be the best choice for your own cash flow.

The best deals are only available to a few people, and chances are you won’t be one of them. The big shopping days are known for featuring limited quantities of cut-rate discounts. That’s why TJMaxx and Marshalls featured a $399 iPad at some locations late last week and Toys “R” Us is throwing in 120-count boxes of crayons with purchases of $25 worth of Crayola products today, while supplies last. So unless you set your alarm for a disturbingly early hour, you probably won’t be one of those lucky early worms.

When you do score a discount, it often just leads to more spending. If you've ever impulsively bought a muffin to go with your coffee, or surprised yourself by buying a whole new outfit when you meant to get only a shirt, then you will understand why research shows that shopping leads to more shopping.

Shopping can be broken into two phases, researchers say. In the first stage, people question whether they want to make a purchase. When they decide that the pros outweigh the cons, the "buying phase" takes over. "Once that happens, a roller coaster of shopping can begin," says Uzma Khan, assistant professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and one of the study's authors. The researchers call the phenomenon "shopping momentum."

That means shopping sales can have the unintended consequence of leading to even more purchases, including ones that aren’t on sale.

[For more money-saving tips, visit the U.S. News Alpha Consumer blog.]

Sales that get you to buy something you wouldn’t have purchased otherwise are not good deals. It’s just like the old joke: A woman brags to her husband about how much money she saved on a pair of shoes, and then he points out that she didn’t save any money, she spent it, because she really doesn’t need the shoes. The bottom line: Only take advantage of discounts when they’re on items you would be purchasing anyway, even without the deal.

Frenzied buying almost never leads to smart shopping. One-day sales, midnight madness, and other sales techniques that spur quick decision-making tend to be disorienting and lead to over spending, says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of coauthor of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. "They're training [consumers] to purchase even though they may not be ready," she says. "If people are buying for fear or anxiety that it won't be available, then they're less likely to make good purchasing decisions."

Let’s reclaim Cyber Monday. Instead of a day of online shopping, let’s make it a day of easing back into work after a long holiday weekend, eating leftover turkey sandwiches, and finishing up the last few slices of pumpkin pie. Our shopping lists can wait.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional’s Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.