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Impulse buying: Why we do it and how to control it

Impulse purchases might not hurt in the moment, but they could come back to bite you later on


Impulse buying provides instant gratification but it can make things worse if you’re already in debt.

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Impulse buying: We’ve all done it.

You’re out shopping and all of a sudden you see something you don’t need, don’t really want and can’t really use, but absolutely must have.

Whether you’ve been in the supermarket, a retail store or even online, chances are you’ve made an unplanned purchase.

Keep reading to find out why impulse buying actually happens — and get expert advice on how to curb it.

What is an impulse purchase?

An impulse purchase is a spur-of-the-moment decision to buy an item — something that provides instant gratification.

Because people aren’t always rational, it explains why a lot of consumers impulse buy when exposed to a stimulus that speaks to their cognitive and emotional responses.

And it’s always easier to impulse buy with a credit card. It gives you the power to make an immediate purchase and doesn’t hurt too much in the moment because you can pay for it later.

But while buying something might make you feel better in the moment, if it adds to an already high debt load or prevents you from achieving your financial goals, it could make things far worse in the long run.

See related: 8 things you must know about credit card debt

Impulse shopping statistics

The numbers say it all regarding impulse buying. Check out these stats from the research firm DAC:

  • 88.6% of Americans have succumbed to the temptations of impulse shopping, with an average spend of $81.75 per session, or $17.78 billion per year.
  • Americans make up to 156 impulse purchases every year, spending up to $5,400 annually, or $324,000 over their lifetimes.

In a 2017 poll, 84% of Americans — or 5 out of 6 people — said they’ve shopped impulsively. And millennials led the way in impulse buying, with nine out of 10 admitting to doing it. In a similar poll conducted in 2016, more than half of poll respondents said they spent $100 or more on an impulse buy (54%) and another 20% said they spent at least $1,000 on impulse.

What triggers impulse buying? 

Impulse buying is triggered by a number of things, said Andrei Vasilescu, CEO of DontPayFull.

Typically, attractive commodities — such as clothes, shoes and accessories, tempting food and beverages, electronic gadgets and appliances — account for impulse buys, he said.

“Lucrative offers or special deals are also very powerful stimulants for impulse buying,” Vasilescu said, “and brands always try to tap this common customer behavior to make more sales.”

How to curb impulse buying

Unsubscribe from sales emails

Lauren Bringle is an accredited financial counselor at Self Financial, a fintech company with a mission to help people build credit and savings.

Bringle advised that if you fall for emails that involve shopping discounts, it’s time to hit the unsubscribe button.

That way, she said, you won’t be tempted to buy more from your inbox.

She also suggested implementing a 24-hour rule.

“Make a pact with yourself not to buy anything until you’ve thought about it for at least 24 hours first,” Bringle said, “and if 24 hours later, you still need or want something, then get it.”

Many times when you take a step back and think about a purchase first, you may decide you don’t want the item after all.

Include impulse buys in your budget

Bringle also recommends setting an impulse-buy budget each month.

“Sometimes the problem isn’t impulse shopping in itself, it’s how much you spend each month on impulse buys,” Bringle said.

Setting a budget for how much you can spend on impulses each month can help you set healthy boundaries that respect your financial needs without cutting off all your fun, she added.

Bringle also suggested replacing your shopping habit with another habit that makes you feel good.

For example, could you go for a walk, exercise, meditate, take a bubble bath, watch a comedy special or do some other free self-care activity that brings a smile to your face.

“You don’t always have to spend money to feel better,” she said.

See related: How to stop overspending during the coronavirus pandemic

Make a list before shopping

Another way to curb impulse buys is to make a list before you go shopping, said Tanya Peterson, vice president of brand at Freedom Financial Network.

She said it’s surprising how few people do that, whether they’re shopping online or at a brick-and-mortar store.

If you have a list, according to Peterson, you’ll be less likely to stray into the impulse buy zone.

She also suggested steering away from retail credit cards because while they offer good promotional discounts, they often have high interest rates.

If you need help curbing impulse buys, Peterson suggests using a secured credit card, one for which the borrower must make a deposit that establishes the credit limit.

And Bringle added that if you simply can’t beat the impulse to spend, you should consider seeing a financial or mental health professional. They can help you identify the underlying causes of your impulse shopping and work with you to create a plan to stop it.

Let family and friends help

Karen Condor, a finance expert at ExpertInsuranceReviews, recommends getting help from family and friends. Communicate your feelings to someone you trust, and consider taking them with you on your next shopping trip.

Condor explained that support from others could help you manage some of those impulse-buy emotional triggers.

See related: Where to get free financial advice

Ask yourself these three questions before you buy

Brian Dechesare, founder of Mergers & Inquisitions, recommends asking yourself three questions when you feel an impulse buy coming on:

  • Do I need this product?
  • Will this product significantly improve my life?
  • Is this product worth the cost?

These questions serve as an instant reality check, he said, and it brings your intentions into the equation: Are you buying for a quick dopamine rush, or do you really need it?

“If you answer no to those three questions, empty your cart and stop the shop,” Dechesare advised.

More often than not, we buy for the sake of buying, he said.

“To manage impulsive purchasing, it’s important to remind yourself of the following mantra: ‘I don’t need it. It won’t improve my life. And it’s not worth the cost,’” he added.

The bottom line

Impulse buying is a habit that can be hard to break. But now that you have tools to help you curb your habit there’s no excuse to go deeper into debt with spur-of-the-moment purchases.

Use these tips next time you’re shopping and think you need something badly, but know deep down you really, really don’t.

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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