What is Impulse Buying? And How to Stop It

By Zina Kumok
Published on: 12/22/2020

As financial technology progresses, buying things keeps getting easier and easier.

These days, all you need to do is press a button or swipe your phone in front of a scanner to buy just about anything you could want.

While these developments are a win for convenience, they've led to an increase in impulse buying. When everything you want is a click away – and credit cards allow you to buy things you can't really afford – it's only natural to find yourself struggling with an impulse shopping habit that feels more like an addiction.

Thankfully, like any habit, impulse spending can be curbed with a little mindful effort. Here's how to do it.

What is impulse buying and how to tell if you’re an impulse shopper?

According to financial therapist Erika Wasserman, the difference between unplanned spending and impulse buying comes down to whether or not you can afford the purchase.

For example, unplanned spending is when you add a few extra items to your Target cart, but you can still pay off the credit card bill in full.

There's also a difference between the occasional unplanned purchase or impulsive purchase and a full-blown impulsive buying habit.

If you're racking up credit card debt or overdrawing on your debit card, however, that's when it turns into impulse buying.

Another red flag for impulse purchasing is if you're hiding purchases from your significant other, or downplaying how much you spent on an item.

Wasserman says that emotional issues can often lead to overspending and impulse buying. If you're depressed, you may impulse buy even though you can't afford it because you feel hopeless about your finances.

In this case, retail therapy may lead to instant gratification, but it could hurt you over the long run.

"When you impulse buy to replace your feelings, that's when it can lead to problems," Wasserman says.

Tips to minimize impulse purchases

Struggling to limit impulsive buying? Here are 11 useful strategies to implement:

1 - Create a plan

Allison Baggerly of Inspired Budget overcame a huge impulse spending problem and paid off $111,000 worth of debt in the process. These days, she doesn't shop anywhere without bringing a list of the items she needs.

If you only need to buy five things, write those five items down and stick to the list. Don't go down any other aisles – not even to check out what's new or available.

This helps keep you from making an impulse purchase.

"If it's not in your budget, don't go into the home decor aisle or the clothing section," she said. "Go for exactly what you came for and avoid the rest."

When she goes into a store like Target, Baggerly only uses a basket and not a shopping cart.

"When you're going into a store where you're tempted to overspend, the cart is welcoming you to put something in it," she said.

2 - Be mindful of social media

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that people who spend more time on social media end up spending more money. Social media shows our friends going on vacation, wearing new outfits and having beautiful homes.

"That's the keeping up with the Joneses problem," Wasserman said. "We just have it at our fingertips now."

When you're on Instagram and you get jealous that your friend is on a European cruise, remind yourself that you don't know the full story. They could be funding the trip with a credit card or skimping on retirement contributions to afford the ticket.

3 - Have a goal

Having a financial goal in mind makes it easier to avoid impulse purchases, because you have a bigger payoff as motivation. It's easier to say no to a new purse if you're saving for a Disney World trip with your family.

The goals should be small and attainable. Paying off your $200,000 mortgage isn't as realistic as paying off your $5,000 auto loan, for example.

Keep the goal close to mind as you work toward it, imagining what it will feel like when you've made that last payment or contribution. Wasserman even recommends speaking it aloud as often as possible.

"The more you vocalize it and say it, the easier it will be," she said.

Wasserman also encourages clients to keep a visual aid of their goal, whether it's paying off debt or saving for a kitchen remodel. Sites like Debt Free Charts have a variety of charts you can use to mark your debt payoff.

"You might find that you want to reach your goal more than you want to keep up with the Joneses," she said.

4 - Find an accountability partner

An accountability partner reminds you of the goals you’re working toward when you forget.

Wasserman said an accountability partner should be someone who believes in you, won't make you feel stupid for asking questions and will call you out when you're making excuses.

This could be a friend, a coworker or even your kids. If you tell a child that you're trying to save money for a vacation, Wasserman said they may remind you not to buy something because they want to go on the vacation.

Competing with your accountability partner is also a fun way to stay on track. If your accountability partner is also trying to get out of credit card debt, for instance, you could decide that whoever gets out of debt last has to buy dinner for the other one.

5 - Avoid temptation

Anyone on a diet knows that ignoring that stash of Oreos in the pantry is impossible. The key is to not buy the Oreos at the store in the first place.

Impulse shopping is the same. Figure out what your triggers are and try to eliminate them as much as possible.

If you always end up spending more at Sephora, Wasserman says you should either not go to Sephora, go with an accountability partner or only bring cash.

Many people also impulse shop when they're stressed, tired or just had a bad day at work. Everyone has their own emotional triggers and uncovering yours can reduce your impulse purchases.

6 - Imagine "future you"

A good way to curb impulse spending is to ask if that purchase will help a future version of yourself, or if "future you" will be happy you made that purchase. Imagine yourself as old and gray. Will that version of you be happy that you bought this item?

"When you're impulse spending, think to yourself, 'Will this benefit me in the long run?'" Wasserman said.

7 - Minimize online spending

Online shopping is a breeding ground for impulse purchases. According to research compiled by Invesprco, about 40% of all online transactions are impulse buys.

Wasserman says a few key strategies can reduce this habit. First, remove your saved credit card information from Amazon and other online stores so you have to get up and find your wallet.

Before buying something unplanned, Wasserman says you should wait at least 24 hours. Don't put it in your cart ahead of time, because the store may send you an extra coupon code. This could incentivize you to purchase something you don't really want.

Try to unsubscribe from retailer emails or have them automatically archived. Unfollow companies on social media and download ad blocking software so you see fewer product ads.

8 - Touch the item as little as possible

Research has shown that the longer you touch a physical item, the more likely you are to buy it. So if you see something you want, don't pick it up right away. Check out the price, read some reviews on your phone and ask yourself if you really need or want it.

If possible, don't put it in your cart or shopping bag. Much like with online shopping, you’re more likely to keep an item once it’s in your cart.

9 - Ask these questions before buying

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I need this? If so, can I borrow it somewhere?
  • If I don't need it, is it something I've wanted for a long time?
  • Do I already have a similar item?
  • Am I buying this because I'm stressed, tired, hungry, sad or anxious?

People often justify impulse purchases because the item is on sale, but buying something just because it's 50% off isn't a good reason.

10 - Make a list of items you don't need

If there are particular items you end up buying over and over again, make a list and keep it in your wallet or next to the computer where you shop online. Make the list as personal and as specific as possible. Include items that you justify buying for others, like new clothes for your kids or toys for your dog.

11 - Forgive yourself

If you're trying to curb an impulse spending habit, it's easy to beat yourself up every time you buy something frivolous. The problem is, putting yourself down almost never leads to sustainable changes.

The best thing to do is to accept you made the purchase and figure out what you can do differently next time. Give yourself the same advice you would give to a friend.

Also, see if you can return the item. Many stores have generous return policies, especially if you bought the item online.

About the author

Zina Kumok is a Financial Health Counselor and Credit Counselor certified by the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors who writes extensively about personal finance.

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Written on December 22, 2020
Self is a venture-backed startup that helps people build credit and savings.

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