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We All Have a Retail Flinch Point

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It’s the moment when a purchase turns painful, and it varies more widely than you might expect.

Close-up of a credit card being swiped through a reader. Photo: Martin Barraud/Getty Images

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Over the summer I spent close to $200 on new bras. The transaction took less than 60 seconds, but I’m still trying to rationalize it months later. Whenever I feel uneasy about that $200 day, I recite my talking points, which I’ve memorized like a set of sad affirmations:

The bras were on sale for a good price. You’d spend that money anyways throughout the year. And you needed those bras. Your old ones didn’t fit!

But still. Two hundred dollars. At one time! On something that nobody will even see! I had officially surpassed my retail flinch point: the moment when a purchase turns painful, requiring significant effort to justify the expense.

The retail “flinch point” is not yet a well-documented consumer psychology phenomenon, but it should be. I credit my friend Meryn with coining the term. When I texted her in a panic about my bra overhaul — two hundred dollars, Meryn! — she sympathized. At the time she was high off her own recent retail win, where she discovered not one, but two Holy Grail pairs of shorts from Loft. Lucky for her, that purchase hadn’t exceeded her $50 retail flinch point. Once the total hits more than $50, Meryn told me she starts to question the purchase. My own flinch point is generally around $75 — anything that inches too close to the triple digits makes me queasy.

I thought we were being melodramatic in likening our retail flinch points to a type of physical pain, but a 2007 study in the journal Neuron showed that when we see high prices, it activates the same part of the brain associated with pain processing — which means that visceral pain some of us experience upon clicking “complete order” is not only in our heads.

I found plenty of similar-yet-different concepts in behavioral economics that could be related to this idea of the flinch point, but none that answered the question of what determines the magic dollar amount that makes us wince: Why is one person’s point $15 while another’s is $500, and how much does our access to disposable income affect that number?

“There are no good ways to describe it, but using ‘flinch point’ sounds appropriate,” said Nancy Wong, a professor of consumer science and marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Wong was one of several experts who responded to my interview request with interest but uncertainty on how to define the phenomenon.)

It seems logical to assume that as a person progresses in her career and earns more, her flinch point will rise. But a flinch point that goes up may also come down, especially when we’re faced with factors like unforeseen illness, childcare costs, or losing a job. John Rodrigue, a 30-year-old musician living in Nashville, says his flinch point is usually around $20. But when his dryer broke and his car battery died last summer to the tune of over $300, his regular $20-and-under trips to the bookstore and the movies became a little more painful. “If it’s beyond $20, I’m going to spend at least a few good minutes thinking about it,” Rodrigue said.

For parents, the flinch point math gets trickier. Ashley Abramson is a 29-year-old mom of two living in St. Paul, Minnesota, and she’s comfortable spending several hundred dollars at one time on new clothes or makeup; she waits long stretches between purchases, so she doesn’t find a higher dollar amount too flinch-worthy. On the other hand, she buys clothes more often for her kids, but tries to spend less on those purchases.

“Because they’re always growing, it’s hard to justify buying new, name-brand clothes. A lot of times, I’ll buy their clothes used or borrow from other moms because kids grow so fast,” she said. “Overall, I’m willing to spend more money on my clothes but shop more often for my kids.”

For some of us, it’s tough to put a precise dollar amount on the flinch point. “Basically any amount of retail spending makes me flinch,” said Alaina Leary, a 24-year-old editor living in Boston. Growing up in a low-income household with disabled parents and sparse spending money has translated into a low flinch point as an adult, Leary says. “I make myself wait hours, sometimes days, after seeing something I like to decide if I actually like it and will use it, even for products costing $10 or so.”

Personally, even as I’ve taken new jobs and earned pay raises, my flinch point hasn’t increased much. I’ve become more willing to spend my money on those so-called investment pieces, like a good pair of leather boots or a down jacket for winter. But I still find myself buying mostly fast fashion, mostly on sale, and mostly for the same prices I was willing to pay at the start of my career. Wong explains that’s because even as our income changes, our values generally don’t, and our flinch points are intrinsically tied to those entrenched values.

“It’s not a question of whether you could afford to spend the money,” Wong said. “We all have some internal value system, like when I look at something and comment to my husband that it’s ridiculously priced, and even if I could afford it, I don’t care.”

Wong and other experts also pointed me in the direction of Richard Thaler’s research on mental accounting, which is the concept that “people think of value in relative rather than absolute terms.” In his 1999 paper in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, Thaler discusses the ways we frame gains and losses, explaining that “transactions are often evaluated one at a time, rather than in conjunction with everything else.” This helps explain why it’s easier for me to rationalize a monthly $30 splurge on nail polish and tchotchkes at Target than it is to justify a one-time $200 purchase of a wardrobe staple, like new bras. Those Target trips are ultimately far more expensive than the bras, but I think of them in terms of the one-time cost rather than a lump sum.

Thaler points out another (somewhat depressing) component of how we view gains and losses: “Losing $100 hurts more than gaining $100 yields pleasure.” No wonder it can be so painful to swipe our credit cards, even on pay day.

So what’s the dollar amount that makes you flinch? There’s no reliable way to predict what that number might be, since socioeconomic background and access to money have less influence on our willingness to spend than do our values. Based on past research, it also looks like some of us may not have a flinch point at all — for better or worse.

In a 2007 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research titled “Tightwads and Spendthrifts,” researchers found that “an anticipatory pain of paying drives ‘tightwads’ to spend less than they would ideally like to spend. ‘Spendthrifts,’ by contrast, experience too little pain of paying and typically spend more than they would like to spend.”

Although a part of me longs for an existence where I could make big-ticket purchases without anxiety, Wong thinks us tightwads are probably on to something.

“I think it’s good to have a financial flinch point,” she said. “It’s helpful for people not to get into financial ruin.”