9 Simple Ways to Stop Impulse Buying


Ah, the impulse purchase — that momentary thriller, that ruiner of budgets. The impulse buy is a nefarious beast. No matter how good we are at saving and living frugally, sometimes, it can be hard to resist that impulse purchase. But fear not! These nine strategies can help. (See also: Is Instant Gratification Financially Responsible?)

1. Follow the Time Rule

I've seen this defined as something as small as the "one hour rule" and as big as the "30 day rule," but the idea is the same — when you see something that you want, make yourself wait a certain amount of time before purchasing it. The longer you can go, the better. If you still strongly want to make the purchase at the end of the time period, only consider doing so then.

2. Don't Shop When Upset

It's easy to look for a product (whether it's food, clothing, or something else) to cheer you up when you're unhappy. One of my worst impulse purchases ever happened at a liquor store. While I was there picking up a bottle of wine for a friend's party, I recieved a call with some bad news. Now, I'm a bit of a cocktail geek — if I'm going to have a drink, I want to enjoy something with good, interesting ingredients — and in an effort to cheer myself up, I purchased three kinds of liqueurs I had been wanting to add to my bar. Oops.

3. Consider Changing How and Where You Shop

One of the things I love about shopping online is that it's much easier to ignore extraneous items — I go to Amazon, put what I need in my cart, and check out. But I know if I try on clothing in a store, I'm much more likely to happen upon a dress that I suddenly really want. The solution? Except for groceries, pharmacy items, and thrift-store finds, I rarely shop in physical stores.

4. Don't Shop With the Wrong People

If you have impulse-happy shopping buddies, it can be easy to let them convince you that all the outfits you just tried on look greaaaat, and you should TOTALLY buy them. If you want to shop socially, do it with people who have also frugal spending habits (and if they happen to be able to tell you when a dress really looks great on you, well, all the better).

5. Give Yourself a Splurge Budget

You're much less likely to make big impulse purchases if you allow yourself some smaller discretionary spending. Whether it's budgeting for one new clothing item a month, allowing yourself a fancy coffee every now and again, or giving yourself spend-it-however-you-want cash, give yourself some room so you don't feel like a penny-pinching miser.

6. Only Buy Things You Can Return

If you really have a problem with impulse purchases, at the very least, buy from stores with good return policies. One impulse spender Nora wrote about made herself take a three-day "Do I really need it?" cooling-off period after a purchase, and then would return several items she bought.

7. Remember to Not Be Fooled by Sales

Sales with huge markdowns can make impulse purchases very tempting. I tend to think of products I've bought on sale as falling into two categories — "I really wanted this" and "Oh, I could use this!" The trick is to only buy things in the first category. For years, half my shoe collection was made up of shoes I only sort of liked, but had found on sale. Remember, if you see a product on sale, you will always save more money if you don't buy it at all.

8. Keep a List of Things You Really Want or Need

That way, if you do see them on sale, you can buy them with confidence.

9. Don't Give Yourself Access to Your Money

Whether it's leaving your credit cards at home or freezing them in a block of ice, you can't make impulse purchases if you don't have the money to do so.

How do you curb impulse spending?

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Guest's picture

This article is going to save my life...that's extreme but it will save my bank account. I have a horrible problem of impulse buying, and college student I can't afford this habit. I will be the first to admit that I'm one to use shopping as a way to feel better, so if I'm down I hit the mall. Huge mistake! But the opposite is bad too...if I shop after accomplishing something I will buy an item as a reward/way to say "GOOD JOB!" I guess my simple solution would be to stay away from stores, but thats impossible so I will follow these tips instead.

Guest's picture

GREAT article.. I recently posted my four criteria to avoid the pitfalls of retail therapy too :) http://www.minimalish.blogspot.com/2012/03/four-criteria-to-avoid-tradin...

Guest's picture

#7 is what I firmly believe on. Say NO to sale. Unfortunately, its hard to explain this to my better half :)

Guest's picture

Good list!

One more to add:

Visualize whatever you're buying as old and worn out. Visualize the new clothes as faded and crumpled. Visualize the new electronics as broken and replaced with the next new things. Visualize the new car as 10 years ahead an an old model that's a faded rust bucket.

Changes how you feel about how important something new is :)

Meg Favreau's picture

I love that suggestion, Faxauthority! I believe in buying something more expensive that will last rather than something cheap that will fall apart quickly, and your technique is a great way to approach that.

Guest's picture

Fantastic article and the point about shopping when upset is very perceptive, too. I find my mood definitely affects how I shop, ESPECIALLY at the end of a long day and ESPECIALLY if cake is involved.

Guest's picture

An extension of the "don't be fooled by sales:" I always try to look at sales price not as "it's 50% off" but rather "it's $XX.xx." If an item that I didn't want at $50 was marked down from $100, it's still not worth $50 to me.

I've left so many sad, dejected, sale items on the shelf that way. Poor guys.

Guest's picture
Sean H

Yeah impulse buying is a real drag! Great advice!!

Guest's picture

Wonderful article. Your best tip is the last one. Leave the credit cards at home! If you have a set, limited number of dollars in your wallet, you'll really give it a second thought before spending!

Two other suggestions:
1) Always try to shop with a buddy! Help each other out by stopping each other from impulse buys and asking each other if you really need it! If you're alone, get a "Shopping Lifeline Buddy." Someone to call when you're in a store about to make a purchase, and they can talk you down!

2) Get in the habit of not buying anything on impulse. Instead, take a pic of the item and write down the date and price of the item. Then go home and do some research online to see if it's cheaper. As long as you agree not to buy the item THAT second in the store, giving yourself that time to reflect and compare prices at home, will put enough distance between you and the impulse.

Guest's picture

My mood definitely affects my shopping habits, especially when I'm upset. Thanks for the great tips!

Guest's picture

Great list! Impulse buying can be a real drag!

Guest's picture

Something that works for me is to think, "if a stranger came up to me and offered me x dollars instead of this item, which would I rather have?" If I'd rather have the money, the purchase isn't worth it.

Guest's picture

That is a really good one. I'm gonna try that

Guest's picture

My husband is an impulse buyer. We've kept it under control by budgeting in an impulse amount that he can spend on anything he wants. But once it's spent, that's it.

It works much better than him having free access to our entire bank account.

Guest's picture

great article, I can relate to the "don't shop with the wrong people" advice. I have a friend who will buy anything she sets her eyes on. For a moment I go "wow, wish I could do that" and then I snap out of it and realize that even if I had the money that is a stupid thing to do.

Guest's picture

If I am worried I will make an impulse purchase, I will do 2 things:
(A) Pay with cash
(B) Leave my credit or debit cards in the car
This is similar to the cooling off period. For instance, by making it very inconvenient to find an ATM or walk all the way back to the car, I deter myself from making a bad decision.

Guest's picture

3 steps: 1. Buffer budget. 2. Shop alone. 3. Keep the list handy.
Also, ALWAYS look at the "regular price" even if it's crossed out, sales are gimmicks.