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Impulse Buying: Why We Do It and How to Stop

Let’s be honest here: Impulse buying is kind of fun—at least in the moment. You walk into Target for diapers, and before you know it . . . boom. Your cart is full of Chip and Joanna’s amazing throw pillows.

Oops.

This is actually really normal. Americans impulsively spend an average of $183 every month.1 That’s around $6 a day, which doesn’t really hurt, right? But it actually adds up to an extra $2,196 spent every year. Ouch!

But just think—if you invested that $183 every month, after 10 years, at an 11% rate of return, you’d have over $39,000! Nothing like the magic of compound interest to put things into perspective.

What Is an Impulse Buy?

An impulse buy is anytime you purchase something you weren’t planning to.

It can be as small as grabbing a candy bar in the checkout line that wasn’t on your grocery list or as big as walking into a car dealership “just to browse” and walking out with a brand-new SUV. If it’s not planned for in your budget ahead of time, it’s an impulse.

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Almost all of us have fallen for the temporary excitement of impulse buying. In fact, nearly 90% of Americans say they’ve done it!2 And let’s be real—the other 10% are probably in denial.

Now, for any men reading this, I can see you nodding along, thinking, My wife does this all the time! But hold your horses. One study shows that men will actually spend more than women when making an impulse buy.3

Why Americans Impulse buy

Why Do We Struggle With Impulse Buying?

Do you ever wonder how impulse buying gets you? There are three main reasons I see for why people impulse buy. They are:

  • Our emotions
  • Our past experience
  • We think we’re getting a good deal

We impulse buy because of emotions.

Emotions play a huge part in what we buy. Our personal finances are just that—personal. So, it makes sense that when something’s going on with us personally, it shows up in our money habits too.  

When you’re having a rough day, does a little retail therapy sound like the cure? Maybe it’s nothing extreme. Maybe it’s just grabbing a new baseball cap or a new pair of earrings. You tell yourself it’s not a big deal—you just want to get something nice to make yourself feel better.

Hold up!

Making decisions based on pure emotion is a surefire way to let impulse buying take control. And sneaky marketers know this. They’ll play on your emotions with their ads, hoping it’ll hit a nerve that causes you to buy.

We impulse buy because of our past.

If impulse buying and overspending is a problem for you, it could be that you were never taught how to handle money well. According to a 2019 poll, “the way [their] parents handled money” and “the state of [their] household when growing up” were the top two reasons people gave about why they handle money the way they do.4 

Thinking about how money was handled in the household you grew up in will help you understand the foundation for your beliefs about money. If you’re married, this can also help you get to the root of money arguments you and your spouse may have. Their experience was probably totally different than yours, which means you guys are coming at this from two different perspectives.  

If you want to do some more digging here, check out my new book: Know Yourself, Know Your Money.

We impulse buy when we believe it’s a deal.

I totally get this one because I love a good sale. I mean, who wants to pay full price for something? Or worse . . . shipping and handling? Thank you, Amazon Prime, for making anything other than free, two-day shipping feel like a crime.

According to a survey done by SlickDeals, more than half of shoppers impulse buy because of a sale.5 But you guys, this is a total marketing tactic. When you think you’re getting a deal or “free shipping,” you’re way more likely to pull the trigger on the purchase—and that’s exactly what they want you to do. I’m sorry, but it’s the truth. I’d bet Jeff Bezos’ fortune on it.

How to Stop Impulse Buying

Okay, so how the heck do you keep impulse buying at bay? This is where I really want to help you, so get comfortable. Whether you’re on Baby Step 1 or Baby Step 7, I’ve come up with 13 tips to help you dodge the temptation to overspend.

1. Make a budget and stick to it.

First things first: You need a budget. If you don’t already have one, then stop and take 10 minutes to do it right now with our free budgeting app, EveryDollar.

And the kicker is, you have to actually stick to it! A budget isn’t a magic wand that will suddenly make all of your money behave. It’s on you to tell your money where to go each month and then follow through with that plan. If it’s not already budgeted for, don’t spend the money. Yep, it’s as simple and as hard as that. You can do this!

2. Give yourself permission to spend.

Yep, I just told you to stick to your budget—and you always should. But it’s also important to throw a little fun money in there too! Give yourself (and your spouse, if you’re married) a line item in the budget with your name on it for your fun spending.

Depending on your situation, this might be $10/month, or it might be $100/month. Just make sure the amount is reasonable and affordable for your budget.

The next time you’re walking through the mall and something catches your eye, you just have to check your fun money fund. Now you can shop guilt-free! You’ve already budgeted a small portion of spending money for it, so it’s not an impulse buy anymore.

3. Wait a day (or longer!) before you make a purchase.

Give yourself a day or so to calm down when an impulse buy gets you jazzed. Once you have a cool head and a fresh perspective, ask yourself if you’ll actually use this thing and if you can pay cash for it now. That’s a no-nonsense way to look at the purchase with clear eyes.

And watch out for deals that are only good for 24 hours. Don’t let a countdown rush you into buying anything! Remember the offer, save some money, and be ready for it next time if you can’t afford it right now. Because a sale will come back around. Trust me.

4. Shop with a plan in mind.

Figure out what items you want to buy and how much you’ll spend before you ever start shopping. With a plan in place, you’ll be less likely to give into overspending. Your shopping list can range from grocery items to the Christmas gifts you plan to purchase for your extended family—just know what it is you want to buy before you go.

5. Beware of joining too many email lists.

Has anyone else’s inbox been absolutely flooded with sale emails during the pandemic? I mean, I’ve been doing great sticking to my budget with everything planned and accounted for. Things are going great. But then I check my inbox and find 15 different emails announcing one sale after another!

In these moments, I wasn’t even thinking about shopping. But then these marketers catch my attention, and I just have to see what’s on sale, right? Guys, we all could use a little “unsubscribe” in our lives right now.

6. Don’t shop when you’re emotional.

We just talked about this, but it’s worth mentioning again—don’t let your emotions control your spending habits! You might have a great day and make an impulse buy in the thrill of the moment. Or maybe you’re having a bad day, and you tell yourself you deserve something nice or that this item will make you feel better.

We’ve all been there before. It can happen pretty easily. So, how can you fix it? Whether you’re celebrating or trying to cheer yourself up, don’t buy anything when your emotions are riding a roller coaster.

7. Bring someone with you when you shop.

Accountability goes a long way here. Do you have a sibling or friend who’s willing to get in your face and tell you not to buy something? Bring them on your shopping trip. Tell them what you plan to buy and ask them to talk some sense into you if you start straying from the strategy.  

8. Take only the amount of cash you’ll need.

Figure out how much money you need for the items you want to buy and only take that amount in cash. You could even go a step further and leave your debit card at home so you don’t tempt yourself to buy more with plastic (even the debit card kind).

If you stick to your shopping plan and don’t bring any extra money along on the trip, you can’t make an impulse buy. It’s pretty much impossible. Now that’s the power of cash!

9. Stop the comparisons.

This is a game changer when it comes to impulse buying. If you always compare what you have (or don’t have) to others, you’ll never be satisfied. When we start comparing ourselves to other people, we’re playing a game we’ll never win.

Instead of looking at what someone else has and thinking, Oh, I need that, too, take a step back and be thankful. Learn to be grateful for what you do have. If you change your perspective, you might find you already have a lot to be grateful for.

10. Get off social media.

It’s true—if you’re having trouble with comparisons, social media isn’t going to make it any better. If you know you have trouble being content when you scroll past everyone’s highlight reel, then remove the source of the problem. I’m not saying you have to kick social media to the curb forever, but try deleting Instagram and Facebook for a week (or more) and see if you notice a difference.

Even if you don’t find yourself falling into that comparison trap, the reality is that social media is one big billboard for impulse buying. Everywhere you scroll, someone is trying to get you to spend your money. That smooth little swipe-up feature is painfully easy to use. But if you’re not on the app, you won’t see all the businesses with flashy sales and new products for you to spend your hard-earned dollars on.

11. Do a no-spend challenge.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and sometimes a no-spend challenge is just what the doctor ordered. If you haven’t heard of this before, it’s pretty much just like it sounds—you don’t spend any money (on nonessential items).

You still pay for things like your rent or mortgage, regular bills, utilities, groceries, etc. But you don’t spend money on things like eating out, getting your hair done, new shoes, or a new kitchen accessory. Basically, don’t even set foot in a store unless it’s to buy groceries (that are on your list!).

12. Forget your card number.

Okay, I admit it. I’ve memorized my debit card number. Real shocking for a spender, I know. I’ve done so much online shopping with this debit card that I actually have the number memorized. If this is you, this seems perfectly efficient and you get me. If this sounds crazy to you, the rest of us are a little jealous that impulse buying is that much harder for you to do online. But does your card number autofill from your phone or web browser? Is your PayPal just one click away when you check out? If the answer is yes, you might want to consider erasing those numbers from your digital memory.

13. Keep your goals in mind.

Here’s a real shocker: Giving in to an impulse buy won’t help you achieve your financial goals—whether that’s getting out of debt, paying off your mortgage, or investing for your future. Buying on impulse and overspending will eat up any extra money you were saving to put toward those awesome goals. So, don’t shoot yourself in the foot here. Help yourself out by remembering the important goals you’re working toward!

Control Starts With Clarity

Spending money can be super fun, especially if you’re a spender, like me. But that excitement never lasts. If you want to learn more about your spending tendencies and take control of your money for good, check out my brand-new book, Know Yourself, Know Your Money. I want you to get the clarity you need to get unstuck with your money.

Rachel Cruze

About the author

Rachel Cruze

Rachel Cruze is a two-time #1 national bestselling author, financial expert and host of The Rachel Cruze Show. She has appeared on Good Morning America, Today and Live With Kelly & Ryan, among others. Since 2010, Rachel has served at Ramsey Solutions, where she teaches people how to avoid debt, save money, budget and win with money at any stage in life. Learn More.

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