8 strategies to resist impulse buying

By  |  Published: July 25, 2017

Michelle Crouch
Personal Finance Writer
Her work appears regularly in Reader’s Digest, Parents, Real Simple and more.

8 strategies to resist impulse buying

You zip into the store to pick up a few things. Next thing you know, you’re holding bulging shopping bags and saying farewell to $100 you didn’t plan to spend.

Sound familiar? Almost all of us occasionally buy things we don’t really need. A 2016 CreditCards.com survey found 5 in 6 Americans admit to impulse buying. The numbers are even higher among millennials.

Those impulse buys become a problem when spur-of-the-moment purchases add up and bust your budget.

Putting the brakes on impulse purchases is tough, psychologists say. Buying something new releases dopamine, a brain chemical that gives you a natural, feel-good buzz. Credit cards also make it tough because they make it so easy to buy, and delay the pain of payment. To top it off, retailers use a variety of psychological tricks to get you to spend more.

“The job of the retailer is to tap into your impulses and persuade you that this is something you really need, and that you must buy it right in that moment,” says psychologist Philip Graves, author of “Consumer.ology.” “Resisting is hard because these are not conscious, rational decisions. They are driven by deep, unconscious impulses.”

“Resisting is hard because these are not conscious, rational decisions. They are driven by deep, unconscious impulses.”

Fortunately, you can take back control, stick to your budget and say no to impulse buying. Start with these eight strategies:

8 strategies to cut impulse buying

1. Don’t deviate from your list.  
Make a comprehensive shopping list and remind yourself before you shop you aren’t going to buy anything else.  If you do see something you believe you must have, write it on the list, says Ian Zimmerman, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota Duluth. “Physically adding it to your list is an extra step that can make you think twice before making a purchase,” he says.

2. Build in a delay.
Instead of buying a product, take a picture of it and vow to return to the store if you still want it the next day. “Your level of dopamine is super high during your first ‘love affair’ with a product, and you won’t be able to control your spending,” says marketing expert Martin Lindstrom, author of “Buyology” and “Small Data.”  “However, 24 hours later, your dopamine level has decreased and it will be easier to resist.” His research found setting a 24-hour waiting period lowers your chances of buying a product by 50 percent.

3. Know your weaknesses.
Willpower is a finite resource. Don’t hit the stores when you’re hungry. Lindstrom has found if you eat before you shop, you’ll buy less of everything – including nonfood items. Also avoid shopping when you’re tired, depressed, in a hurry or after you’ve just done something mentally taxing.  “When you’re in any those states, you have fewer mental resources to resist the urge to buy something,” Zimmerman says.

4. Keep your hands off. 
Studies show the more time you spend around a product, the more likely you are to buy it. Handling productst make consumers more likely to buy something because their minds have taken “psychological ownership” of the product, Zimmerman says. They’re also willing to pay more. That’s why retailers such as Best Buy and Apple put their products out for you to try, and why others pile items in bins for you to dig through.

5. Pay with cash.
Sure, credit and debit cards are more convenient, but that’s exactly why people tend to spend more when they use them. Paying with cash is also more psychologically painful than paying with a card, Graves says. In a seminal 2001 study, consumers were willing to pay up to twice as much for the same item when paying with credit instead of cash.

ONLINE IMPULST BUYS: HOW TO CURB THEM
A CreditCards.com survey found 1 in 3 Americans made most of their impulse buys in the past three months online. These tactics can help you resist:
  • Turn off one-click buying.
    Retailers know the chore of typing in your name, address and credit card details may deter you buying, so they try to make online transactions as easy as possible. Turning off one-click buying creates more time for you to change your mind.
  • Limit retailer emails.
    Eliminate temptation from your inbox by unsubscribing from retailers’ email lists. If you still want access to deals, set up a separate email account just for shopping.
  • Don’t check out right away.
    When you’re buying something online, place it in your shopping cart ... and pause. Some retailers will return to you with a special discount offer within 24 hours.

6. Recruit a money buddy.
Do you have a budget-minded friend? If you’re serious about reining in your spending, enlist his or her help. Choose an amount – say, $20 or $50 – and agree that you will call your friend before you make any purchase that exceeds that amount.  If you’re not comfortable doing that, at least find some frugal friends. Researchers have found that friends with similar traits can pick up good habits from one another.

7. Question every purchase.
Get in the habit of asking yourself: Do I want this more than a trip to Paris (or other financial goal)? Do I really need this? How much did I work to earn the money to pay for this? How much did this cost to make? “These questions are about changing the framing in your mind,” Graves says. “Instead of thinking what a great deal something is, you may suddenly look at that Armani shirt and think, ‘This shirt probably didn’t cost more than $5 to make. Why am I about to spend this kind of money on it?’”

8. Don’t be fooled by sales.
Retailers like to use “temporary” and “one-time” discounts and sales to create a sense of urgency that will induce you to buy now, even if you really don’t need it now. Try to remember that deals come and go, and the price will likely drop again.

See related: Why we love that giddy high of a good card splurge, YOLO: When is it OK to splurge?


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Updated: 10-23-2017

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