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Dec 18, 2023

How To Stop Impulse Buying

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Ever feel like you can’t resist the urge to reward yourself with a little treat, even when it’s not in your budget? That’s an impulse buy. How about the overwhelming desire to snap up a sweet deal, even if you don’t need whatever’s on sale? Another example of impulse buying. And although it feels pretty great in the moment, unchecked impulse buying can add up quickly and send you into a spiral of overspending, and even a mountain of debt. However, once you understand what triggers your shopping itch, you can implement strategies that help you learn how to stop impulse buying. 

In this article, we’ll cover:

What is impulse buying?

Impulse buying occurs when you make an unplanned purchase, large or small, frivolous or necessary. We’ve all done it. A couple of grocery items that aren’t on your list, an afternoon coffee, a new sweater, or even a new car can all be considered impulse buys when you don’t plan or budget for them. Generally, impulse buying is based on emotion rather than reason. Retailers and marketers know this. That’s why advertisements, store layouts, sales, and other tactics are designed with your emotions in mind. But the little hit of dopamine you get from a moment of retail therapy wears off quickly, especially when you look at your credit card statement or checking account balance. 

4 types of impulse buying

You may find yourself making impulse purchases under a variety of circumstances. Some experts categorize impulse buying behaviors into these four different types. 

  • Pure impulse buying: You buy something completely novel that you hadn’t even thought of until you saw it. This impulsive buying behavior is often way outside of your typical purchasing patterns, like coming home with a pair of shiny new tap shoes even though you’ve never danced a day in your life. 
  • Reminder impulse buying: You see something that reminds you of an item you need to buy. Perhaps you see fabric softener, and that reminds you you’re out of stain remover. So you purchase the stain remover even though it wasn’t on your shopping list. And maybe you buy the fabric softener too, just in case you’re running low at home.
  • Suggestion impulse buying: You see something for the first time and find it so appealing that you come up with a reason to need it. For example, “My health will improve if I buy this fancy high-speed blender because I will make nutritious smoothies at home every day.”
  • Planned impulse buying: You make a purchase based on discounts or coupons. Say you’ve been thinking about buying a new TV for a while, but prices have been prohibitive and you haven’t built it into your budget. But one day you get an email announcing a 24-hour flash sale of 40% off everything at your favorite electronics store. It seems too good to pass up, so you buy a new TV on the spot.

Examples of impulse buying

As a consumer, you’re susceptible to impulse spending whether you’re already shopping for a planned purchase or trying to fulfill a pressing need. You may even be tempted to spend money when you’re not in shopping mode at all. Impulse buying can happen at any time; here are just a few examples:

  • Making in-app purchases when playing video games or using mobile apps
  • Going off your list at the supermarket or big box store
  • Getting unplanned items for yourself while shopping for gifts 
  • Buying things you don’t need just because they’re on sale
  • Shopping for new clothes when you feel bored with your wardrobe
  • Swinging through the drive-through or ordering delivery instead of cooking the meal you’d planned
  • Buying something when you see a celebrity or influencer showing it off on social media
  • Signing up for a new streaming service to watch one movie and then forgetting to cancel it
  • Adding an item you don’t really need to your online shopping cart so you can get free shipping
  • Switching your economy ticket to first class because there’s a special offer on an upgrade

Common triggers for impulse buying

Both internal and external factors can trigger impulse spending, and there’s almost always an emotional component that makes it feel even more urgent. Common triggers for impulse buying include:

  • Fear of missing out: FOMO is real. Your brain might tell you you’re missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity if you don’t buy those expensive concert tickets now, even though you know you can’t afford them.
  • Peer pressure: Your friend wants to go out for a nice dinner and they urge you to splurge along with them. You go, despite having already blown through your entertainment budget for the month.
  • Advertising: Marketers love to tell you that “this deal won’t last for long,” or that you’ll miss out on something amazing if you don’t purchase now. Ads are engineered to make you feel a special sense of urgency.
  • Lack of planning: So you forgot to plan dinner, there’s not much in the fridge, and your kid has volleyball practice in 30 minutes. The time pressure may lead you to an unplanned stop at the drive-through.
  • Social pressures: A need to keep up with the Joneses can trigger feelings of inadequacy or envy. You see your neighbor mowing their lawn with a fancy new riding mower; suddenly your old push mower looks pretty lousy in comparison. So you head out to buy the nicest model on the block.
  • Emotional or mental states: Our brains and emotions are powerful and vulnerable. Some people respond to feelings like boredom or anxiety by seeking instant gratification, and shopping is often an effective way to scratch that itch. Overcoming the urge to spend may be even more challenging for some people who experience conditions that can interfere with impulse control, like ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. 

The hazards of impulse buying

It may seem like little impulse buys don’t make much of a difference to your overall financial health. But add those daily purchases up and $5-$10 a day becomes $1,825-$3,650 a year that could have gone toward essential expenses, saving up for something you really want, or investing in your long-term goals like buying a house or retiring. 

And if you’re putting impulse purchases on your credit card, you risk racking up some serious debt. In fact, if you don’t pay off your credit card each month, those impulse buys can wind up costing a lot more than the initial purchase thanks to mounting interest. With the average credit card interest rate at 27.82% as of December 2023, a few little treats could wind up costing you a whole lot of money over time.    

At the end of the day, impulse buying sacrifices long-term satisfaction and financial security for in-the-moment pleasures. Excessive impulse spending means it may take you more time to save up for your long-term goals. Learning how to stop impulse buying now can have an enormous impact on your financial health tomorrow.

How to stop impulse buying: 15 smart tips

We’ve all been guilty of over-shopping at one time or another. If you’re trying to figure out how to stop impulse buying, you’re likely already aware that just gritting your teeth doesn’t make the habit disappear. The good news is, you don’t have to rely on sheer willpower or give up on pleasurable spending in order to take control of your finances. Instead, employ a variety of strategies to help you feel empowered with your money.  

1. Make a budget you can stick to

Rule number 1: Make a budget. Rule number 2: Stick to your budget. Avoid impulse buying by planning your spending ahead of time. You’ll know exactly how much money you actually have for both essentials and the fun stuff, as well as how much you should be saving, at all times. Even if you’re new to managing your finances, there are many strategies to start taking control of your budget

2. Don’t deprive yourself

There’s no reason to deprive yourself of fun or enjoyable things just because you’re on a budget; you just need to plan for them. In fact, budgeting for discretionary expenses can help you curb impulsive spending by ensuring you don’t feel so pinched that you go on a reactionary shopping spree. You could even give yourself a small budget for impulse buying so you have permission to indulge in spur-of-the-moment purchases without spending more than you can actually afford. 

3. Track your spending

When you know where your money’s going, it’s easy to see your buying patterns and get a sobering look at just how much you’re spending on impulse. Keep track of spending every day, categorizing your transactions in a way that makes sense for you. Budgeting apps and budgeting tools available through your bank can make tracking your money easier. Once you have a clear picture of how you’re spending your money, you can find the motivation and best strategies for budgeting and reducing impulse buying.

4. Try a cash-based system

The thing about cash is once it’s gone, it’s gone, so there’s a built-in limit to how much you can spend. And unlike putting purchases on a debit or credit card, paying with cash gives you a visceral sense of how much money you’re spending, which might make you think twice before buying on a whim. With the envelope budgeting system, you group your monthly expenses into categories and put a predetermined amount of cash in an envelope for each. Then you spend as needed from each category. When an envelope is empty, you’re done spending on that category until your next paycheck comes. 

5. Leave your credit card at home

Credit cards can make impulsive overspending a little too easy, and that can lead to high-interest debt. Solution: Banish them from your wallet. Keep them in a safe, out-of-the-way place at home for when you really need them. When you’re out and about without a credit card, you’ll feel less tempted to make impulse purchases.

6. Make it harder to spend on a whim

Convenience is great, but it can also lead to overspending. If you make it harder to spend money, you give yourself a little time to think before making an impulse buy. Create barriers to quick spending with a few simple adjustments.

  • Delete payment information from your phone and any apps or websites that lure you to click “buy now.”
  • Delete shopping and food-delivery apps from your phone so you’re not so easily tempted to give into instant gratification.
  • Going somewhere you know you’re likely to overspend, like a happy hour or an especially tempting store? Bring a limited amount of cash, and leave your debit and credit card at home, so you can’t spend more than you’ve planned. 

7. Reduce temptations

Out of sight, out of mind can banish many of the situations that trigger impulse spending. If your impulse buying habits are triggered by marketing emails, social media trends, or good old-fashioned aisle-wandering, eliminate those temptations. 

  • Unsubscribe from marketing emails and texts. It’s okay to miss a sale or a new product release; instead, you’ll be the one deciding when you want to buy things instead of reacting to a brand’s suggestion that you open your wallet. 
  • Unfollow social media accounts that trigger the desire to buy. Your favorite influencer doesn’t need to influence your spending habits anymore.
  • If you tend to stray from your grocery list or get seduced by wandering department store aisles, consider using free store pickup services. That way you can shop online for exactly what you need without ever entering the store. 

8. Remember that it’s okay to wait

When your brain wants instant gratification, find ways to redirect that urge so you have time to cool down and approach the purchase objectively. If you really do need or want something, remember that it will be there tomorrow. Use tactics to postpone purchases so you can make a level-headed decision.

  • Institute a 24-hour rule: Before you make an impulse buy, wait 24 hours and then re-evaluate whether you truly want the item. Oftentimes you won’t find it so enticing on second glance.
  • Make a wish list: When you’re shopping online, add items to a wish list instead of your cart. Revisit your list once you’ve budgeted for those discretionary expenses. Or, better yet, share your list with friends and family who want to buy you birthday and holiday gifts.
  • Wait for a sale: When you really want something, bookmark it, keep an eye on it, and wait until it’s on sale. You’ll have time to decide if you truly want to spend your money on it. And if you do, you’ll get a better deal. 
  • Make room in your budget: If you decide something’s worth buying, turn impulse into intention. Plan the purchase in next month’s budget or save up for it over time instead of pulling out your credit card or using a buy now, pay later service

9. Shop what you already own

You have stuff at home, so shop what you already own. Feeling the urge to buy a new nail color? Revisit the polish you already have and give yourself a mani with a color you haven’t used in a while. Itching to buy a new video game? Pause and play a game you already own, because there’s probably one you haven’t finished. Craving a new outfit? Take a look at what’s buried in the back of your closet; you may discover a whole wardrobe of things you haven’t worn in ages. When the impulse shopping urge hits, step away from the “add to cart” button and look for satisfaction in what you already have on hand.

10. Distract yourself with dopamine

Impulse spending isn’t the only thing that triggers dopamine. You can get a little boost from engaging in other activities you enjoy. Keep a list of the things that bring you joy and turn to those activities when you feel the urge to splurge.

  • Get moving: Go for a walk, hit the gym, turn on a workout video, or just dance to your favorite playlist. Exercise can give you an endorphin rush and a sense of grounding that’s just as satisfying as shopping.
  • Organize your space: Cleaning out clutter can redirect your energy from acquiring more to appreciating what you have. When you organize a closet or cabinet, you’ll be reminded you that you might not even want more items in your home, plus make it easier to find and enjoy all the cool stuff you already own.
  • Engage in a hobby: Whether it’s gardening, crossword puzzles, reading, gaming, or baking, refocusing your energy on an activity you enjoy is more gratifying than spending money on something you don’t need. 

11. Recognize your triggers

It’s time for a little introspection. When you understand yourself, you can more easily recognize the triggers that cause you to impulsively overspend. And, once you know the triggers, you can adopt tactics to avoid those situations. Look for patterns in your spending habits:

  • Review your spending over the last six months. Note what was going on with you when you purchased things on impulse. Were you anxious, stressed, celebrative, or feeling some other emotion?
  • Reflect on recent situations where you’ve spent more than you planned. Identify whether or not you were feeling pressure to spend and why.
  • Look over your spending in the last year. Were there certain times of the year or particular life events that coincided with increased impulse spending? 
  • Reflect on purchases you regret making. What might have driven you to buy those things?

12. Make a list and stick to it

Specific planning before you shop can help you stay focused on buying what you need. Only visit the aisles that hold your listed items. However, if the idea of sticking to a list makes you feel rebellious enough to toss the list out completely, give yourself a little space. Consider including one “just for fun” purchase with a specific spending limit on your list. That way you can indulge without blowing your budget entirely. 

13. Shop in the right frame of mind

Shopping when you’re hungry, tired, stressed, or otherwise emotional can magnify your impulse buying behaviors. Hit the grocery store after dinner, not before. Take a leisurely stroll around the block before heading into the mall. Shake off your after-work stress before you start shopping online. Look out for yourself by ensuring that you’re in the right emotional state to stick to your budget and avoid temptation while shopping. 

14. Find an accountability buddy

You don’t need to go it alone. Finding a friend or a loved one who can support you and keep you accountable for your spending habits might be just the solution you need. You and your accountability buddy can shop together to curb overspending, or you can text your friend for support when you’re feeling tempted to make an impulse buy. 

15. Set specific financial goals

Short-term spending might feel exciting in the moment, but it’s unlikely to help you get the bigger things you want in life. Start by setting financial goals that prioritize what matters to you. Then create a sinking fund for each short- to mid-term goal. Replace the instant gratification of impulse buying with a little celebration each time you put money toward one of your goals. Imagine the thrill of stepping onto the plane for your big trip to Europe, putting the key into the lock of your first home, or waking up with a sense of freedom the day after you finally retire. Achieving those goals will be more satisfying than any impulse purchase.

How to stop impulse buying with intentional financial planning

Taking control of your finances involves shifting your mindset from impulsive to intentional. Educate yourself about personal finances and clarify what really matters to you in the long term. Intentional, forward-thinking planning may provide the motivation you need to curb your impulse spending.

  • Make a financial plan: This is a way to assess your current financial situation, identify long-term financial goals, and create a road map to achieve them. A good financial plan considers your current finances, spending habits, and your future goals.
  • Improve your financial literacy: The more you learn about earning, saving, spending, investing, and protecting your money, the more empowered you’ll be to make informed decisions about your finances. 
  • Grow your money: If you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it may feel like there’s no way to achieve your financial goals. But there are tools and techniques you can use to put your money to work for you so you can realize both short- and long-term growth.
  • Pay yourself first: Avoid the temptation to spend by setting up direct deposit to go straight to your savings account. Seeing your account balance grow is a great motivator to stay on track.

Empower yourself with healthy spending

It may take some time and effort, but you have the power to curb your impulse buying habits. Use the strategies you’ve learned to move forward with confidence. Once you shift your mindset to your overall financial health and long-term goals, overspending can become a thing of the past.

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Written by

Sarah Spagnolo

Sarah Spagnolo serves as Managing Editor, Head of Brand at Stash, the investing app that helps people achieve their financial goals. As Managing Editor, Sarah oversees all personal finance content and brand experiences, ranging from partnerships to influencer marketing and webinars, and is the editor of the Stash 100, Stash’s annual collection of the best money tips for hardworking Americans. She has two decades of experience working in brand, communications, and content for companies across media, tech, travel, design, and finance. Over the course of her career, she has appeared as an on-air expert in outlets including The Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, MSNBC, Dr. Oz, the Weather Channel, Cheddar, and many local news channels, and has been quoted in Axios, The Information, CoinDesk, the Wall Street Journal, and dozens more. A graduate of Syracuse University, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband and family.


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