The “why” of impulse buys and how to kick compulsive spending
If you look around your house, you’ll probably find lots of things you bought impulsively and have never used. Impulse buying is making a sudden purchase after feeling the urge to acquire that item. Every once in a while it’s OK, but it gets to be a problem when you’re impulse buying all the time.
Constant impulse buying doesn’t just happen impulsively, so to speak, but is rather caused by an underlying factor like mood or emotion. Once you figure out the “why,” you can plot a strategy as to “how” you’ll put a stop to this expensive habit. If you don’t, you’ll find that the consequences of impulsive buying can be detrimental to your financial and mental health.
Emotion, mood and more motivate impulse buying
The sudden urge you get to “gotta have it” might stem from a deep place in the psyche. Impulse buys not only hurt your wallet but ultimately stem from something that’s hurting you even more. Some people even have a personality trait called “impulse buying tendency” or a “compulsive buying addiction.”
These individuals’ motivations might be caused by unhappiness, anxiety, and concern with self-image. It might take some soul-searching but realizing why you impulse buy is the first step in nipping the habit in the bud. There’s a lot of different reasons why, a common one being you feel the need to “treat yo’self” when things don’t go your way.
1. Needing some “retail therapy”
We’ve all had a “treat yo’self day” when we’re unhappy. Since we were little, we’ve been taught that receiving new things — no matter what it is — is a positive experience (i.e. receiving gifts is central to Christmastime celebrations). Even if we don’t have a use for the new thing later, we’re still conditioned to love it in the moment.
Since we’ve been trained since our youth to appreciate anything new, we might splash some cash in hopes that it will improve our mood or because “we deserve it.” We get it, wearing a new trendy jacket or unscuffed sneakers makes you feel fancy. Who doesn’t want to feel fancy?
2. Anxiety or difficulty controlling emotions
An overly-anxious person or someone that can’t control their feelings might have more trouble resisting the urge to buy. Their lack of willpower is difficult to overcome. They see a product they like, but don’t consider (or do but don’t care) if the item is too expensive, if they need it, or if the item is too frivolous.
It might not be until later that they realize they shouldn’t have bought it. Once they get home with their item, perhaps they might have realized they don’t even this. Their closet is already overflowing with similar items, why did they buy another? Remorse, guilt, anxiety, and other bad thoughts follow.
3. Wanting to impress others
Impulse buyers may care too much about what others think of them. Procuring new things can be seen as a way to improve social status or self-image. They might have low self-confidence and feel like they need something else to make themselves desirable to others. Buying things is the only way they know how to do this.
Unfortunately, building up confidence seems to require more than just throwing money at the problem. Throwing money at your issue seems so much easier because it only takes a few steps to do. To get at the deeper issue, you’ll have to go to therapy which never offers an easy fix.
4. Shopping for fun
People that like to shop for fun are far more at risk of racking up their credit card with purchases they don’t need. Sure, it can be fun to window shop and see all the things we might want to buy. Finding out what’s new this season at Topshop is so tempting!
Or maybe what sales are going on at Nordstrom is often a discovery too difficult to resist. The downside is that this glorious time spent at the mall might lead to some impulse buys. You might see a cute top you didn’t realize you “needed” until it’s right in front of you.
5. Our culture of consumption
There’s temptation to buy everywhere we go: in the Target one dollar bins, candy in the check out lines, and on retail sites like Amazon.com (Free shipping? Yes please!.) Stores know that we’re predisposed to want new things and they’ll market their products to get our attention. They even get to the people with the most self-control.
Faced with an onslaught of pro-consumerism marketing, we find ourselves impulse buying more often than we mean to. You’ll have to put on blinders or just not go to the store in order to avoid it! Neither which are reasonable solutions. It’s just something we have to unfortunately live with in the U.S.
6. Feeling “Connected” to a Product
Consumers want to buy things that are meaningful to them. Connections can be created when you physically touch the desired item, when you see someone possessing it and when you actually buy it. Retailers might further appeal to this mindset by getting a celebrity to endorse their product. If their favorite celeb is on board, consumers are likely to trust the product.
Chances are if you’re a Jennifer Lopez fan, you might have thought FIATs were the coolest thing ever. We get the appeal — J Lo really did look cool zipping around in those commercials! Wouldn’t anyone want to look as awesome and sexy as she did? I mean, we would…
7. Fear of missing out
Stores know that we don’t want to miss out on a deal. “What if it’s never this price again?” or “What if I don’t buy this, and the store takes it off the shelf?” You might have heard the term “FOMO,” or “fear of missing out.” In psychology, they call this “loss aversion” — a preference for avoiding losses.
That’s why your heart might skip a beat when you see those “final sale” signs. We feel a sense of urgency to snatch up those goodies before they’re gone for good. Stores usually make those signs in all red too. This is a color that often stresses viewers out, thus adding to the already pending sense of urgency.
8. Wanting to save money
Ironically, our desire to save cash might make us spend even more. When faced with 50 percent off sales or one dollar items on Amazon Elite Deals, we might have a desire to stock up for the future. Long gone are the days when our ancestors had to stockpile food during winter, but we still crave “saving for a rainy day.”
Retailers realize this instinct is still in us and market products this way — i.e. Buy two get one free, discounted bulk items, etc. I mean, Costco thrives on this mindset. American love to stock up on items they’ll need throughout the year and Costco knows this. Plus with those sweet Costco deals? Done!
9. Vicarious ownership
Some draw happiness from imagining they own a particular product. This is often referred to as “vicarious ownership.” People that tend to impulse buy desire the pleasure caused by vicarious ownership, so, they keep on buying. This might be inspired by seeing people we like (celebrities, friends, family) owning the product or simply wanting to have new things.
For those that can’t restrain themselves from reaching towards their wallet, the impulses will be made again and again. The vicious cycle continues over and over again leaving credit card debt, clutter and conflicts in its wake. It’s awful, but you can find ways to stop the madness and save your finances!
Impulse buys come with consequences
It’s OK to impulsively grab a chocolate bar while waiting in a long Trader Joe’s line from time to time. But a lack of willpower over impulsive purchases can be detrimental to many aspects of your life. You could find yourself in debt, feel guilty, or get into conflict with loved ones over your spending habits.
These issues will negatively impact your day-to-day routine and, in turn, will stop you from reaching your full potential. Getting finances under control is a huge part of self-improvement. Without the money you need, you will be always worried constantly about what in your bank account instead of in your head.
1. Your wallet is going to be a hurtin’
Consumers spend about $5,400 annually in impulsive buys according to a 2018 survey by Slickdeals.net. That’s a lot of money that you could have spent on necessities like rent, food, and healthcare. For some people, it might get to the point where they’re in debt because they can’t get a handle on their spending.
Infrequent impulsive buying is harmless but buying new shoes every week because “they’re on sale” will not pay your Internet bill. Sometimes taking advantage of every sale that you run into won’t actually save you the money you think you’re saving. So don’t break your wallet…your achy, breaky wallet.
2. Overspending might cause remorse or guilt
The immediate gratification felt when impulsively buying doesn’t last long. Once you take into account the damage done to your wallet, you might feel guilty for not saving your money for important things like rent and bills. The feeling of dread might set in as soon as you walk out of the store or it might come when get home.
Ironically, an impulse buyer might have whipped out their credit card in the first place because they thought a quick shopping spree would lead to happiness. A new shiny item might seem like it might fill some void you have in your psyche and life. Turns out that this isn’t the case!
3. So many embarrassing moments…
Besides feeling totally guilty for buying the microwave bacon rack (it seemed really cool at the time, OK?) you might also feel a pang of embarrassment. Being embarrassed is a terrible feeling… You just want to hide under the covers and not come out. An impulsive buy can make you feel ashamed if it’s too expensive, frivolous or completely useless.
House guests might point out how ridiculous a new item is or you’ll feel shame coming across a useless impulsive buy from the pile in your closet. Either way, the public or private humiliation is mortifying. No one wants to face either option but it sucks! A cluttered house is embarrassing as well.
4. You end up with lots of clutter
Those glossy fashion mags, tacky tourist souvenirs, and trendy kitchen appliances will eventually take up more and more space in your living quarters. These items may have seemed necessary when you spotted them on the shelf, but end up not serving a purpose. They’ll forever haunt you and remind you of your impulse buying you can’t seem to get under control.
It’s a good idea to keep in mind the available space you have at home while shopping. If you don’t have space for it and you don’t need it, don’t buy it! You’ll regret it when you get home and try to shove five new pairs of shoes into an already overflowing closet.
5. Conflict with loved ones
Spouses or relatives that you live or share finances with will especially not appreciate your overspending. What you buy and bring into your home affects everyone around you, not just yourself. It might be even worse if you’re borrowing money from loved ones and not paying them back because you’re broke.
Couples fight about a multitude of things, including money. Money has huge conflict potential because you need it to survive. If one person in the couple is ruining it for the other one, that’ll make the other feel financially unsafe. Removing one of these stressors could make all the difference in moving your relationship from “on the rocks” to “rock steady.”
6. Juggling bills and accounts to accommodate spending
To afford a new flat screen, it might be tempting to not pay off your credit card in full this month. Or maybe you ask your roommate to spot you on the electric bill. You could also pay just the bare minimum on student loan payments, and that glorious TV will be yours.
Doing this all the time isn’t ideal because — surprise — you’ll end up broke and have an angry roommate. Prioritize important payments, don’t shove them aside just so you can buy more. Not doing this will potentially get you thrown out of your apartment by a raging, angry roommate.
7. Picking up bad financial habits
If you buy everything that you want — or even remotely want — you will develop less-than-ideal habits that will likely carry on into the future. These habits will prevent you from learning to save, spend conservatively and budget. This is especially detrimental to young adults as they’re still forming habits.
Without taking the time to grasp these financial lessons, it becomes difficult to make larger planned purchases down the road. Most people want things like a home or a family someday and that’s harder to achieve for folks that overspend constantly. Buying a home takes put aside a little bit of money every month for a down payment.
8. Internalizing bad values
Ignoring the consequences of irresponsible consumerism could cause an individual to have misconstrued ideas about values. For example, things are replaceable or disposable. You can’t apply these concepts to your human interactions as most friendships or relationships aren’t expendable. People aren’t things and really don’t like being treated like them.
Internalizing values like this might result in dependence on purchasing and a tendency to use the thrill of buying as a replacement for human interaction. Humans are social creatures by nature and ultimately need relationships to find happiness. Your new shoes won’t talk back to you and you can’t share your feelings with a new kitchen appliance.
The euphoria you feel when procuring a new addition to your closet usually doesn’t last long. It might end immediately as soon as you swipe your credit card or later when you’re trying to fall asleep. All of the negative consequences from the mounting pile of impulse buys — fights with your partner, embarrassment, guilt, remorse — can lead to unhappiness.
Feeling discontent may prevent you from really important tasks, like doing well at your job or taking care of your family. You have to feel at the top of your game emotionally in order to get stuff done. If overspending on needless items is getting in the way of your happiness, kick the habit in the butt!
How to stop impulse buying
Once you’ve identified the source of your impulsive purchasing and why it’s bad, you can work on a strategy to save your money — and sanity — in the long run. You might need to set up strategies to avoid spending like leaving your credit card at home, restraining yourself from shopping for 30 days, and avoiding the mall.
Breaking habits is difficult all on its own. Strategies for doing so are not a one size fits all situation. Everyone is different when it comes to breaking habits, so try out various attempts until you find something that works for you. Keep your chin up and keep trying even if you get discouraged.
1. Realize why you impulse buy and address it
Are you shopping because you’re unhappy? Anxious? Self-conscious? If there’s a deeper underlying factor to your motivations, you might seek help in the form of therapy, medications or simply a chat with a friend.
Find another outlet for those negative feelings, whether it be talking to a psychological professional or picking up a hobby for creative release. While impulse buying may provide a temporary boost, if the issue is more complex, it is only a band-aid solution.
2. Don’t shop when you’re emotional
If you’ve identified unhappiness or stress as a motivator for your impulse buy, stay away from the mall when you’re upset! You’ll end up buying lots of useless things just to feel better. You’ll also have an easier time justifying these random purchases. For example, “I’m sad so I deserve a new purse.”
Pinpoint some other things that lift your mood like reading a good book, cuddling your cat or watching a movie. If you don’t know what’ll help, explore different hobbies — free hobbies that is.
3. Question your purchase
If you’re not sure if you’re making an impulsive buy or not, ask yourself “Did I plan to buy this?” “Do I need this?” “Did I get an urge to buy this just now?” or any question that makes sense for your particular lifestyle. If you’re trying to cut down completely on unnecessary items, make a shopping list. If the item you’re holding in your hand isn’t on it, put it back on the shelf.
Not only are you saving money, you’re confirming to yourself that buying this really won’t make you happy. Second thoughts on those questionable purchases will give your bank account some well deserved R&R.
4. Ask yourself, “How long does it take me to make the money to buy this?”
If this question doesn’t inspire a good dose of guilt, we don’t know what will. It’s usually a disappointment to realize that those brand new Nikes take about a day’s worth of work to purchase. Is this fresh pair of kicks really worth all this work?
Knowing how long you’d have to work to pay for a new item might make it seem less appealing or even make you question its value. This question is a good way to also determine your budget for having fun.
5. Plan fun within your budget
If your income allows it, you can plan to put some of your money towards impulsive purchases and fun. Plan this after you determine what needs to be set aside for necessary expenses like rent, water, and electric bills. There are free online tools you can utilize to build a budget for yourself, like Mint and Level Money. This saving guide is also a useful starting point.
You can go about it the old-fashioned way — label envelopes with certain expenses and stuff the appropriate amount of cash allotted in each.
6. Have only one credit card with a reasonable limit
If you really don’t have self-control when it comes to your plastic, limit yourself to just one card instead of having a Nordstrom credit card, Home Depot credit card, Southwest Airlines credit card, etc.
Find one that has a good credit limit and stick to it. Even better, find one with a credit limit that’s not that high if you need to get your spending under control. You’ll be less inclined to spend more than you need to because your credit card simply won’t allow it.
7. Carry cash instead of a card
You might also try carrying a limited amount of cash when going into a retail environment and leaving your credit card at home. That might be best for people with the least amount of self-control or if you need help establishing and keeping to a budget.
If you find constant visits to the ATM and carrying only cash around a chore, make this a temporary strategy until the impulsive buying habit dwindles.
8. Go 30 days without spending
Except for groceries and other necessities, of course. The aforementioned Slickdeals.net survey determined that shoppers spent $540 on impulsive buys on average. Think of all the money you could save by not spending irresponsibly for 30 whole days. If you see an item you want during your spending fast, write it down. If you still want it at the end of 30 days it’s OK to consider buying it.
If you don’t want it anymore, it probably was just an impulsive buy. You’re playing games on yourself, sure, but mind games like this can trick you into good habits.
9. Stay clear of the mall and other retail outlets
This is the worst place to be for someone trying to limit impulsive purchases because there’s temptation lurking around every corner.
Try new, free activities like taking a hike, reading at the library or watching a movie at home with friends. These activities will give you a rush without hurting your pocketbook.