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Impulse buying is the arch nemesis of every budget — it slows down our progress, keeps us from attaining our financial goals, and perpetuates the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle. Learning how to stop impulse buying, on the other hand, can drastically change your life and put you on the fast track to financial freedom.
You know what I’m talking about when I say impulse buying, right?
You’re perusing the interwebs and come across a super cool gadget or that too cute pair of shoes that would go perfectly with the top you bought last week.
One click and two days later $100 worth of stuff you don’t need shows up on your doorstep.
(Curse you, Amazon Prime!)
We’ve all done it. With the convenience of technology combined with tempting ads, it’s nearly impossible not to fall victim to an impulse purchase at least once.
But if it gets out of control, impulse buying has the potential to seriously hinder our financial success.
That’s why I want to help you stop impulse buying once and for all.
However, before we can change something, we first have to understand it. So let’s start at the beginning.
What is Impulse Buying?
Consumer researchers have been studying the phenomenon of impulse buying since the 1950s. The most comprehensive definition breaks it down into three parts: 1) unplanned, 2) exposure to a stimulus, 3) decided “on the spot.”
In our previous example, you were browsing the Internet, not planning to make a purchase, when you stumbled upon that thing.
Maybe it’s on sale, or maybe the marketing just speaks to you — These shoes are sexy and powerful, you want to be seen as sexy and powerful. Ergo, these shoes were made for you! — an example of a stimulus.
You think about it for a few seconds before deciding (on the spot) — ah, what the heck. You’ll totally wear them!
You check out and feel an immediate sensation of relief, perhaps even euphoria. But thirty minutes later the high is gone and in settles buyer’s remorse.
That’s an example of an impulse purchase we can all relate to (myself included!).
But what about when you went clothes shopping with your girlfriends over the weekend?
You didn’t plan to buy that specific cami in that exact color (or in all three colors…), but you did budget for $500 on some new summer pieces. Does that still count as an impulse purchase?
Since you already planned to spend the money on clothes, it doesn’t fit the bill for an impulse buy. However, purchasing a new blender on that same clothes shopping trip is a different story.
Impulse Buying Examples
Impulsive spending doesn’t only include large purchases. In fact, many impulse purchases are small items here and there, which makes them easier for us to justify.
I’ll give you an example of one that still gets me to this day: freakin’ Larabars.
I love Larabars (my favorite is the peanut butter chocolate chip!). Every time I go to check out at the grocery store, I have to walk by the display of Larabars up front, and every single time I at least think about grabbing one —
Hm, that’d be a nice snack. I can just grab one and eat it on the way home to hold me over until dinner (even though I’m not even hungry, but that’s beside the point — chocolate!).
I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t still get me from time to time.
You’ve probably done the same thing with candy bars, sodas, trail mix, that magic eight ball that reminded you of your childhood. And believe me, that’s no accident.
Those strategically-placed items in checkout aisles, endcaps, etc. are there to encourage you to make those spur-of-the-moment shopping decisions.
Social media adds a whole other level of complexity to the mix.
How many times have you been scrolling through your Facebook feed and come across the most beautiful dress you’ve ever seen in your entire life — for only $8 if you buy today!
Eight dollars?! I mean, how could you not?
Causes of Impulse Buying
Scientists have found that 95% or more of our behaviors are driven by the unconscious mind, and our purchasing decisions are no exception.
Businesses are well aware of this fact. Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman says that advances in technology have provided businesses with insights to the cognitive unconscious of consumers, including memory, attention, information processing, and more.
What does that mean for consumers like you and me?
Basically, large companies know how to access a potential buyer’s unconscious mind in a way that provokes them to make a purchase.
So in order to stop impulse buying behavior, we need to become aware of the unconscious thoughts and emotions that influence our impulse buying decisions.
Buying things feels good
Just like drugs, shopping can be addictive.
For someone who gets enjoyment from buying new things, every time you make a purchase, your body releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. Evolutionarily speaking, dopamine’s responsibility was to make us feel good for doing certain things, which motivated us to continue performing the actions that kept us alive (eating, having sex, etc.).
Just like any other drug, the more we shop, the more our brains get used to these “hits” of dopamine, and the more we need to spend/shop to experience this same high.
This chemical rush is why we’re more likely to succumb to impulsive spending when we’re feeling sad, angry, frustrated, or generally bad about ourselves or our situation.
We feel connected to the product
Association is one of the biggest and baddest marketing tactics of them all.
Think of your favorite clothing store. What’s their “image?” Are they hip and trendy, boho, eco-friendly, shabby chic, stylish and edgy?
Whatever it is, there’s a good chance you shop there because you identify with their brand, and you feel some sort of positive emotion associated with it.
Take the clothing brand Lululemon for example. When you think of Lululemon, a few words probably come to mind — yoga, fashionable, trendy, expensive, exclusive, among others.
The more associated or connected you feel to that message — that’s totally me or that’s who I want to be — the more likely you are to get out your wallet and make a purchase.
We don’t like missing out
Loss aversion is a principle in behavioral economics that refers to our tendency as a species to prefer avoiding losses over acquiring gains. For example, most people would prefer to not lose $10 than to gain $10.
Some studies have even suggested that losses are twice as negatively impactful as the positive impact of gains.
This is one of the driving forces behind FOMO, or fear of missing out.
When it comes to impulse buying, this can appear in several ways: buying things because your friends are buying them, there’s a sale going on, it’s only available for a limited time, etc.
It seems like a great deal
Discount retailers love this one.
You know how at TJ Maxx the sticker always says “compare at $x.” In other words, other stores would make you pay this much, but we’re giving you a really good deal.
And who doesn’t love saving money??
The same goes for when we see a discount — 25%, 15%, even 5% off — and we convince ourselves we’re spending money to save money.
We’re wired to collect
Earlier in our evolutionary history, stockpiling resources helped us attract partners and survive when supplies were low. Thus, we’re genetically programmed to gather and collect.
Today, most of us don’t have a need to stock up that much, but the fear of scarcity still remains. Which may explain why I feel the need to buy the whole shelf of Larabars every time I go to the grocery store…
Competing is in our nature
In the animal kingdom, whoever has the best _____ wins. The prettiest nest, brightest tailfeathers, loudest battle cry, impressive dance. In nature, you have to compete for the opportunity to pass along your genes.
That means as humans, the evolutionary drive to compete is within us all. So we try in vain to “keep up with the Joneses” by making purchases to assert our status in society.
Effects of Impulse Buying
When we make impulse purchases, we don’t often think about the long-term effects they can have on our lives and finances (hence why they’re impulsive).
But that’s not to say there aren’t real consequences to impulse shopping. For one, the high you may feel right after making a purchase doesn’t last, and you’re likely to experience buyer’s remorse (i.e. regret).
In addition to this feeling of regret, impulse buying can cause problems in your relationships, such as with your partner.
And perhaps most detrimental of all, impulsive spending hinders your success and keeps you from developing good financial habits that help you accomplish your goals.
That’s why it’s important to become aware of the motivations behind your impulse buying so you can use the methods below to prevent impulsive spending in the future.
How to Stop Impulse Buying Once and for All
Now that you know what impulse buying is, what causes us to spend impulsively, and the effects it can have on our lives, let’s talk about how to beat it. Choose the method that works best for you or combine them to kick impulse buying to the curb for good.
Get organized and create a system
I’m all about money mindset, but it’s also incredibly important to find a system for organizing and tracking your finances that works for you. When we feel disheveled and disorganized, we’re more likely to act on impulse.
That doesn’t mean you need to track every single penny, but I recommend at least creating a spending plan and checking in once a week.
Determine your Why
One of the first exercises I do with many of my financial coaching clients centers around determining their big Why.
Beyond creating a budget or paying off debt, what will those things allow you to do? What are the real things that matter to you in life?
It could be traveling the world, buying your first home, spending more time with family, taking care of a disabled loved one, starting a business — something that moves you to your core. Whatever it is, it should make you feel emotional — excitement, joy, gratitude, love — every time you think about it.
Figure out your Why, write it down/create a vision board, and look at it every day. Not only will it help curb your impulse spending; it will motivate you to keep reaching for your financial goals even when the going gets tough.
Create a priority list
Another exercise I use with my coaching clients is creating a priority list.
We oftentimes tell ourselves we need all these things — a new car, an ergonomic computer chair, a dress for our tiny dog — but we’re not distinguishing between our wants and actual needs.
For the things that you don’t absolutely need right at this very second, put them on the priority list.
Write down all the things you want to buy along with how much each one costs. Then choose your top three and set a date for when you’d like to purchase them.
From here, you can incorporate these items into your budget/spending plan and set up sinking funds for each (i.e. save a certain amount each month until you reach the savings goal).
Recognize your triggers
If you know you’re prone to impulse shopping, you probably have an idea of when you’re most susceptible to the behavior. Is it when you’re sad? Bored? Out shopping with friends? See a sale or an ad on Facebook?
Becoming aware of when you feel the urge to buy on impulse can help you avoid these types of situations in the future (e.g. implement an ad blocker and don’t go shopping with your friends).
If your triggers are emotional in nature, then look for healthier ways to deal with your emotions. When you’re sad or depressed, talk to a friend or consider seeing a therapist. If you’re bored, pick up a new hobby.
Substitute it with a good habit
For most people, impulse buying is a habit — a bad one. And habits typically develop as a way of dealing with two things: stress and boredom.
James Clear, habit and productivity master, says that one of the best ways to break a bad habit is to replace it with a good one.
When you get the urge to impulse buy, try doing your new habit instead. That could be breathing exercises, yoga, meditating, running, jumping jacks. It doesn’t have to be huge like running ten miles. In fact, the smaller it is (e.g. running for five minutes) the more likely you are to stick to it.
Create small amounts of friction
This is another habit-breaking tactic I learned from James.
It turns out, we really don’t like inconveniences. And I’m not talking about traffic backed up for seventeen miles on the highway with the nearest exit ramp twenty miles away. I’m talking about the I don’t want to walk to the other room to grab my water bottle so I’m just going to sit here and be thirsty kind of inconvenience.
As it turns out, that’s great news for breaking a habit.
The more friction you can put between you and the habit, the more likely you are to stay away from it.
A few ways to create friction between you and impulse buying: delete your shopping apps, disable one-click checkout, use a browser extension like StayFocused to block your favorite shopping sites.
That goal of sales newsletters is to do just that — sell you more things.
It’s much more difficult to stop impulse spending when you’re constantly receiving messages about new products, sales, and other pretty, sparkly, eye-catching goodies.
Go to your inbox and unsubscribe from the most tempting retailers. Every time you receive a sales email going forward, open it but DON’T LOOK. Scroll to the bottom immediately and unsubscribe.
I know this one stings a little, but I promise it’s for your own good!
Keep a spending journal
I love this exercise for creating more awareness around your spending.
It’s not difficult or time-intensive — all you need is a notepad and pen. Every time you make a purchase, record the date, item(s), amount, and how the purchase made you feel.
The goal isn’t to judge yourself. Rather, we’re looking to build awareness and gain clarity around your spending. However, it only works if you keep up with it and review/reflect on your entries at least once per week.
Switch to cash only
I’m not going to lie, I used to hate the idea of using cash.
But then I joined a financial coaching mastermind program and one of my mentors told me that if I wanted to see as much success as possible with my financial goals, then I needed to use cash.
I was skeptical at first, but then I realized there are over a dozen millionaire coaches in our mastermind group, and they all use cash.
Okay, maybe there’s something to this, I thought.
As it turns out, researchers have found that handing over cash actually feels painful, whereas “credit cards effectively anesthetize the pain of paying.”
So there you have it; you are actually less likely to spend money when you use cash versus a credit or debit card.
Take a list to the store
When shopping in person, one of the best ways to avoid impulse buying is to make and stick to a list.
Every time I go to the grocery store without a list, I’m pretty much guaranteed two things: I will absolutely without a doubt forget at least one of the essential items I came for, and I will leave with either chips and salsa or a Larabar (my guilty pleasure foods).
Shopping with a list, however, is a different story. I can be in and out in fifteen minutes with a week’s worth of groceries.
If you go in with a well-thought-out plan, you’re less likely to stray from the essentials.
Build fun into your budget
This is a mistake so many first-time budgeters make — they don’t plan for fun!
First of all, I don’t even like using the word budget; it feels so restrictive and limiting. That’s why I like to call it a spending plan.
Secondly, if you don’t plan for fun, you’re going to hate the process of using a spending plan. And most of us aren’t likely to stick to something if we hate it. Unless you’re a masochist, but I’m assuming you’re not.
Leaving out fun is setting yourself up for failure. Even if money is tight, find $10 or $20 for something here and there — tea, a new book, a trip to the arcade.
It doesn’t have to be extravagant, it just needs to be something.
Try gratitude journaling
The benefits of gratitude are endless.
Beyond enhancing empathy and improving relationships, a regular gratitude practice can improve our psychological health (less envy and frustration) and self-esteem, increase mental strength to help us deal with trauma, and even improve our physical health.
Impulse shopping often stems from a feeling of lack or scarcity. When we recognize all the things in our lives we have to be grateful for, those feelings begin to dissipate and are replaced with a sense of gratitude and abundance.
Beware of the Diderot Effect
The Diderot Effect is a fascinating social phenomenon with two parts: 1) We (consumers) purchase things that align with our identity, and 2) When we purchase something that doesn’t align with our identity and is therefore different than the rest of our belongings, it creates a consumption spiral where we buy more and more things in order to construct this new identity.
You’ve probably seen this play out in your own spending numerous times:
- Buy a new dress and then you have to buy shoes and jewelry to go with it.
- Pay for a gym membership and all of a sudden you need a yoga mat, exercise ball, and that band thing that goes around your arm to hold your iPhone.
- Buy a new microwave and then upgrade the rest of your appliances to match.
It’s a slippery slope. However, if you’re aware of it, then you’re better equipped to avoid it.
Hang out with the right people
You’ve heard the Jim Rohn quote that “we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.”
I’m not telling you to ditch your current friend group. However, it is important to surround yourself with people who support your goals as well as those who’ve already accomplished what you want to accomplish.
If you want to pay off your debt, stop impulse buying, and be more intentional about your spending, then find people who have done/are doing those things and spend more time with them.
For some, breaking the cycle of impulse buying is easier said than done. There’s no shame in needing or wanting support along the way.
If you have a friend or family member you trust, consider soliciting them to be your accountability partner. Whenever you feel the urge to buy, give them a call and talk through it.
A financial coach is another great resource for accountability, as well as practical and behavioral guidance to help achieve your financial goals.
If you believe your impulse buying is the result of an addiction, consider speaking with a therapist who can provide you with the best options for overcoming it.
Be Easy On Yourself
Changing your behaviors and habits usually doesn’t happen overnight. You’ll probably have slipups along the way, and that’s okay!
The important thing is that you’re now aware of your impulsive spending habits, you know what triggers them, and you have actionable methods to prevent yourself from impulse buying in the future.
So be kind to yourself, and give yourself the credit you deserve for taking these steps towards a life of financial badassery. 🤘🏼
Which tips did you try and how did they work? Do you have other ideas on how to avoid impulse buying? Share them in the comments!
I’m a financial coach and author + owner of Goodbye to Broke. I love all things personal finance, money management, and healthy living. And I talk to my dog way too much, if we’re being honest.