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What to do about your stress spending, according to a behavioral research expert

Why you should try "stress saving," suggests Perry Wright of Duke University’s Common Cents Lab.

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It's no secret that we as humans often turn to stress spending as a way to cope and feel more in control during these uncertain times.

While satisfying our immediate desires may provide some temporary relief during the pandemic, these purchases can come with long-term financial effects.

Instead of stress spending, we could be "stress saving," says Perry Wright, a senior behavioral researcher at Duke University's Common Cents Lab, a behavior science lab that focuses on the financial well-being of low income people.

"The act of deciding to save can provide the same therapy that the decision to spend provides," Wright says, referencing research that found participants had just as much or more relief from thinking about saving money compared to thinking about spending it.

Below, Wright expands on why you stress spend and how stress saving can help you avoid it.

Why you stress spend

When you're stressed, spending money on something (no matter what it is) provides some sort of relief. The act of purchasing something boosts your mood and gives you comfort. Hence the phrase "retail therapy."

But this relief is short-lived, Wright explains. "Often, it can decay before an online retailer even has time to print a shipping label," he says.

The mental reason to why you feel eased when you spend under stress, however, is because you reached some sort of resolution. "It is the act of making a decision — not the receipt of the purchase — that provides a measure of control and delivers that temporary relief," Wright says.

How stress saving can help you avoid stress spending

What if you could take the same decision-making mechanism that you use to spend and apply it in a different way? Instead of stress spending, start stress saving.

Whenever you feel an impulse to buy something that's a not a basic need (like groceries), add up what that thing, or things, would cost. Instead of moving forward with the purchase, move the exact cost of your item(s) over to your savings account.

This way, you are still satisfying that desire to make a decision, but you're doing it in a way that will help you financially in the long run.

"It is likely to give you an even bigger spark of relief from having asserted some control without taking any money out of your pocket," Wright says.

The high-yield savings accounts you should consider for all your stress saving

High-yield savings accounts earn you more interest (and have lower fees) than traditional savings accounts.

CNBC Select reviewed and compared dozens of accounts and found that Marcus by Goldman Sachs High Yield Online Savings is the best overall for being straightforward, offering no fees whatsoever and easy mobile access.

For those looking to open an account from a big bank, consider the American Express® High Yield Savings Account. This account offers users above-average rates, is easy to use and has 24/7 customer service with good reviews.

American Express National Bank is a Member FDIC.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.