How to Stop Impulse Buying (You Don’t Need All That Stuff)

I won't lie to you, but most of my life I have struggled with impulse buying.

In fact, just the other day at the store I spent $10 on groceries and didn't even get what I actually needed (a poster board).

Prior to that – I saw an add on Instagram for new sunglasses that were 50% off and three days later they were on my head.

While there is certainly a psychological component to impulse buying and retailers know how to take advantage of our urges, the truth of the matter is that executing self-discipline when shopping is hard.

In fact, it is estimated that the average adult will impulse buy $400 or more each month.

That is close to $5,000 annually that could instead be used to fully fund an emergency fund or save for the future. Even better, what if the same $400 was invested monthly for 10 years?

At 10%, that money that was once used to impulse buy would be worth over $80,000 in 10 years!

Today, we will look into figuring out:

  • What impulse buying is
  • Why we do it
  • 10 tips to avoid impulse buying!

What exactly is an impulse buy?

While there is a specific physolocial process that occurs, impulse buying or making an “Impulse Buy” is simply this:

When you purchase something you had not planned to buy.

For example, the other day when I needed a poster board that was a planned and intended purchase.

The chicken sandwich by the checkout, the bag of chips and package of bagels – none of those were planned – they were all impulse buys!

Those are small examples of impulse buys that are the most common, but it's important to recognize that all the small things add up over time. Additionally, big ticket items such as cars or a new oven can also be impulse buys!

Impulse Buy – The Struggle is Real

Humans are very emotional creatures. In addition to doing a lot of things based on our emotions, we also have chemical processes that make us do things.

Our paleolithic ancestors needed to hunt for food daily so they would recieve dopamine to encourage them to “Stay in the hunt.”

Fast forward a few thousand years and we still have the same chemical urges and innate desires to “hunt,” however we have replaced the activity of hunting and gathering with things like having fun, watching TV, or in this case, SHOPPING!

The quick hit of dopamine we get when we purchase something or even when we see a deal is a reward system. We feel a brief reward for getting that thing that wasn't on our list!

And each time we shop our brain remembers this and tells us to repeat it!

In a sense, impulse buying is almost like a bad habit, a bad habit 9 in 10 adults experience annually according to Dave Ramsey's website.

So now that you know to avoid impulse buying, it's important to point out that KNOWING and DOING are two different things.

That is why you can use these 10 tips to help you avoid your impulse buys!

10 Tips to Avoid Impulse Buying

Below you will find nine simple, yet highly effective tips to help you avoid the pressure to impulse buy. The goal is to apply these to your life so you can avoid overspending and save more money for your future!

We spend money on things we don't need to impress people we don't even like.

1. Stop Rationalizing Your Purchases

Rationalizing what we purchase is the #1 reason why we impulse buy.

Buy one get one free, 50% off, use this coupon by tomorrow – all of the typical sales and marketing techniques are designed to do one thing – get us to impulse buy!

Don't believe me? Just look at this article from Shopify:

Retailers know we like to impulse buy and they play on our natural human tendencies to do so, but that isn't their fault, it is our own. As humans, we have chemical processes that occur in our brain that make us want something immediately (thanks paleo people).

It's why we sometimes find ourselves justifying things in our brain like:

  • I ate this donut because I ran two miles last night
  • I bought this shirt because last week I got a pay raise.
  • I got a new car because I graduated from college

However, in order to really get control of our impulse buying, it starts with recognizing that we can convince ourselves anything is a good idea, but it doesn't always mean it is.

In order to help, start telling yourself things like “I will walk into the store and only get the three things I need,” as you shop and make it harder to impulse buy.

2. Budget, Duh.

This is a given, but have a set budget and track it monthly.

Creating awareness around your spending is the first start in getting control of your natural tendency to impulse buy.

Once you create awareness around what you spend, you can then create limits on your spending. While in the temporary spending money might make us feel good because of instant gratification, long term we actually don't like overspending.

A budget is vital to stopping impulse buying because it brings that awareness. Tracking has also never been easier and there are plenty of ways to track your budget like Mint, or these alternatives.

Need a Google Budget Sheet? Get a free copy of my Google Budget Sheet and feel free to customize and use as you please!

3. Make a List, Have a Plan.

Impulse buing is simply unplanned spending.

E commerce stores, online shopping, amazing places that promote that “Shopping Experience” are all ploys to simply make you spend more money.

Merchants are tricky, they know how to get us to act on our innate desires to spend and they will do anything in their power to nudge you along. BUT, it is easy to avoid all of this if you simply do this one thing:

Make a list

Anytime you go to the store, hit the mall, or pull up your Amazon app – have a list right by your side.

No list no shopping.

It really is that simple. Once at the store or online, be sure to only get the things on your list and avoid getting other things. Don't even look at them or “Save them for later.”

Since online shopping is bigger than ever before, sometimes a list seems a little redundant, but it is still important. To help, be sure to use #4 below:

4. Checkout once a month on Amazon

Online shopping has made impulse buying even easier.

Before, you could avoid the store and thus, avoid the physiological urge to impulse buy the slippers and fishing pole.

However, now, you can pull out your phone, tap an app, find what you “Want” and slide your finger to the right and you will have something in the mail within hours.

Even worse, you can be on social media (which is a good idea to have limits on) and with no intentions of buying, all of a sudden targeted marketing has you purchasing sunglasses or hats (happens to me).

This is a blessing and a curse.

Online shopping is amazing, but it isn't so amazing for our impulse buying tendencies! Knowing this, it is important to do the following:

  1. Create a cart on Amazon or wherever you shop
  2. On payday checkout
  3. Do not buy immediately, instead checkout 1x or 2x per month

If you do this, you will quickly empty your cart of unnecessary spending because you will see the “Big Picture” of your spending and how much all the $10 and $15 items add up over the course of the month.

>> See also, 17 Ways to Hack Your Spending

5. Avoid Expensive Items

While the little gas station purchases add up over time, the big ticket items hit you hard and all at once!

Things like;

  • Cars.
  • Watches.
  • Big Houses.
  • Professional Photos.
  • Expensive Weddings.
  • Decorations for every holiday.
  • The newest iPhone every 12 months.
  • Gadgets around the house that we hardly use.

And so on, hit our wallets hard. And while you might not impulse buy a house per se, most car purchases are actually impulse buys.

Yes, you might need a new phone or car, but you also might impulse buy and get something out of your budget or that you don't need, hence buyers' remorse.

Don't worry if you have done this in the past (I did with my truck back in 2014) you can always correct this moving forward now that you're aware.

To help, take #6 to heart below:

6. Over $50, wait 24-48 hours.

Make this simple rule a rule to live buy when purchasing ANYTHING (aside from your grocery store purchases or planned events):

If it is over $50, I will wait 48 hours before purchasing.

Enacting a spending rule like the one above will help you avoid big ticket purchases (#5) and you can use #4 to help you do it.

My wife and I have a rule that anything that is over $50 needs to be considered for 48 hours before getting.

The interesting psychological component in this is that often times, we don't get the new toaster or blender because of this rule. Thus, we avoid impulse buys!

7. Use Cash

This is becoming harder to do as we automate everything in life, but when it comes to preventing impulse spending, the task is easier when you use cash.

Countless studies have shown that adults overspend when they use plastic instead of cash.

Knowing this, stop giving in to your instant gratification and start using cash. Options include:

  • Leveraging the cash envelope system
  • Deleting apps on phone
  • Withdrawing money each paycheck for groceries
  • Having a cash budget for eating out

8. Don't Shop Hungry

Ever been really hungry when you visited the grocery store and found 2x as much junk food in your cart when you were done shopping?

This is a classic example of emotional spending (#9), a form of impulse buying.

Food happens to be the most common form of impulse buying. Gas station trips, sitting in traffic on the way home from work and grabbing a bite to eat, seeing the 50% of donuts at the grocery store – all of these small purchases on food add up.

Impulse buying increases when we are hungry, so do your best to avoid shopping for groceries when you're hungry!

Try this instead: A tip to creating positive habits is to make the bad habits hard. Instead of stopping at the drive-through or grabbing the candy in line, make purchasing food really hard. Maybe you leave your wallet in your trunk or you only have cash for what you need to buy!

9. Avoid Emotional Spending

When we are tired, sad, mad, hungry, upset – you name it – we are more likely to act differently than we would normally. This includes our buying habits.

Do your best to go to stores with a clear mind and avoid emotional shopping. Considering most people are now shopping online, be sure to really take #4 from above to heart.

Being bored can also lead to shopping and with the COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020, many Americans found themselves simply buying out of boredom!

10. Stop Comparing Yourself

Buying things to impress others and can cause your more stress and lead to more impulse buying.

The constant need to feel like you are keeping up will never make you happier – it will actually be worse long term. So next time you go to get something, ask yourself if you really need it, or are you buying it to keep up with others?

Comparing ourselves to climb the social hierarchy ladder is hard-wired in our brains, but the difference between accumulating wealth and not often boils down to avoiding comparison.

While typically article like “How to Avoid Comparing Yourself” focus on helping you avoid comparison for happiness purposes, by avoiding comparing yourself to:

  1. Neighbors
  2. Friends
  3. Co-workers
  4. Social media feeds

You're ultimately able to avoid impulse buying because you don't care if your neighbor has a new car in the driveway – it doesn't matter to you!

Bonus: Do not go inside of Gas Stations!

This is a bonus item I had to include, but DO NOT go inside of gas stations.

Have a credit card specifically for gas (unless you're tempted to use it other places than use cash) and just pay at the pump and leave. The temptation to buy a bag of chips and a soda every time you're at the gas station is too much!

And the seemingly small purchase can quickly add up!

Over the course of a year, buying overpriced convenience store food can add up and it happens to be the most common form of impulse buying!

Instead of impulse buying do this:

The daily emails from Dominos Pizza for $5.99 are tempting.

New sunglasses and a fresh set of workout leggings seem tempting, but instead of caving to impulse buy, instead, consider the following:

  1. Pick a few financial goals like paying off debt or saving up and use the extra money to reach help you reach your financial goals
  2. Reward yourself every time you DON'T impulse buy with a contribution to an account like a “Vacation Fund.” You'll enjoy a trip more than a burger.
  3. Open up a brokerage account or your first investment account and invest the money
  4. Let your new self build positive habits and break bad habits with your newly acquired self-confidence!
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