Impulse Shopping: A Controllable Handicap


A good friend and former client of mine was always cheerfully depressed in our regular financial review meetings. Inevitably at each consultation she had either made no headway on her debt repayments, or even worse had dug herself a little bit deeper into the red.

Her weakness: impulse shopping. All too often she found herself in a store searching for a black skirt for work, and walking out with a red shirt, blue skirt, three scarves, and two pairs of jeans - but no black skirt. Then off to the next store looking for a coffee table, walking out with bags upon bags of other items she "needed" but didn't actually need.

To her, the need was to walk out of a store with bags in her hands. Even if she didn't find what she wanted, there was some part of her that was satiated from an afternoon spent shopping if she could return home with all sorts of new loot in her possession. You could say her eyes were bigger than her pocketbook.

Guilty Spending

Inevitably, she would feel terrible about her purchases within a week. But by that time she had ripped all the tags off, used or worn the items, and made them part of her life such that even though they were constant reminders of her inability to afford them, she couldn't let go of them.

And in this way my friend passed many debt-ridden years of her life: living amongst rooms upon rooms of "stuff" she didn't need and couldn't afford in order to have the satisfaction of a day spent shopping and buying.

Impulse shoppers: if this is a tune you know well, you are not alone! There is indeed something strangely satisfying about carrying all those beautiful paper bags out of the store, taking your loot home, and finding a place for that perfect ornament, pair of shoes, or kitchen utensil.

But if your pocketbook doesn't agree, there is a solution, which my friend discovered and has been using successfully for years.

Two Day Rule

Feeling satisfied with the day's purchases, my friend will carefully set her shopping bags in a corner of her home and not touch them for two days. This is a hard and fast rule, not to be broken. As much as she needs what is in those bags, she cannot even look in them for two days.

After the two days are up, she allows herself to pull the items out of the bags, but not to take any tags off. She lays them out for a third day to admire her wares and to truly decide if she needs the items she bought.

Return Policies

The other trick to this scheme is that my friend only buys items from stores with a cash refund policy. Reason being, after the three day trial period, she inevitably returns most of the items she bought on impulse. A few prized possessions might make it through this rigorous process, but if they survive the trial period, she is happy to keep them and absorb the financial consequences of doing so.

I am in no way advocating a shopping spree with subsequent returns of the items purchased as a financial plan or solid financial advice!

But I will say that my friend managed to dig herself out of a mile-high pile of retail debt by recognizing her weakness for impulse shopping, and using this disciplined approach for managing it in the best way she could. Just like yo-yo diets, using extremes (like stopping something cold turkey) to manage a problem is rarely a viable long-term solution; creativity and a little discipline can be much more effective, and possibly even fun.

Disclaimer: The links and mentions on this site may be affiliate links. But they do not affect the actual opinions and recommendations of the authors.

Wise Bread is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to

Guest's picture

Thanks for your article! I actually went through a very similar cycle just this morning. I bought all kinds of "stuff" the day after Christmas at 50% off (those little red tags are my downfall!), and let it sit in my garage for a couple of days. This morning I returned a good part of it. It was stuff I honestly could have used, and was bought with good intent such as planning ahead for birthdays and Father's Day, but I know how bad my Visa bill is going to be already, and it was better to have that credit refunded to the card than for me to have to try to find room for all of it.

Guest's picture

I've made it a rule that I only shop from places with good return policies and I never rush to wear new clothes out of the house. I usually try them on several times over a week or two to make sure everything fits perfectly and looks great.

The same goes for online purchases! I've had to return a few things here and there, but I haven't had any problems returning items.

Unfortunately, the technique hasn't worked quite well enough I guess. Since one of my New Year's resolutions is to cut my spending, I literally cut my AmEx and deleted my payment info from Amazon.

It's tough. You can see how I do at All About Appearances.

Guest's picture

I have a difficult time with the "I want"s... In other words, I often see things I want, and have a hard time not buying it. I had no clue how to deal with this until I came across a great website called (and, no, I don't represent them in any way - I'm just a user).

Now, to appease my "I want" reaction, I write down whatever it is I see, and I add it to my Kaboodle list. It's sort of like purchasing it and just letting it sit before you decide if you're going to return it or actually use it, except without the worries of actually having to return the product (I just remove it from the list if I'm no longer as interested).

Then, if the item stays on my list for a while, and I still really have the urge to buy it after a week or two, then I'll work a place for it in my budget.

It mostly helps, but like any system, it's not infallible. Regardless, I hope it helps someone else like me!

Here's my Kaboodle site, if you're interested in seeing how I've got my lists organized.

Nora Dunn's picture

Awesome tips, guys! Thanks for your feedback. Keep 'em coming!

Guest's picture

Oh noes! The subject of the picture is a shopaholic in Milan, the worst kind of all ;-)

Guest's picture

Thanks for the nice article about one of the perils of shopping. I have fallen prey to the same syndrome in the past, although to a lesser extent than the subject of your tale.

I thought I would share my method that I use to keep my shopping impulses under control.

I have taken to keeping a long list of all the things I am considering buying. almost anytime I see something I would like to have but which fits outside of my usual weekly spending of groceries and household supplies (from my shopping list), instead of buying it, I go home and put it on a list of "stuff I'd like to buy". I keep this list in a section of my utility notebook (where I also keep a list of immediate, mid range, and long range to-dos and projects that I am either planning or considering) and believe me, it's a long list list!

Usually I end up deciding to defer the purchase, sometimes permanently. Other times, after evaluating them against my criteria. My criteria and dialogue go something like this: (HMMM. what a cool thing! ok, do I need it? can I get by without it? do I REALLY want it? if so, do I have the cash on hand (not credit) to pay for it up front? yes? well, do I want to spend that cash? yes>>go buy it no>>don't buy it. Maybe leave it on the list.

no? I don't have the cash? do I want to save up for it? yes>>ok, let's look at my monthly budget and see where I can pull the money from)

this process is actually a lot of fun now that I have it down. It feels kind of like shopping, but mostly without the spending part most of the time. And I'm doing a much better job staying on budget and just using money I've already earned and have on hand instead of going outside to the fantasy of buying on debt.

to be clear, I still use my credit card--I have one for monthly purchases--but I pay that one off every month because I am just using it to buy things that are already budgeted for, then the budgeted cash pays off the credit card two days after the statement cycle ends.

I apply the same method to ideas for projects or simple to-dos. I put them on the list for consideration, and if I decide they are something I want to go for I put them on my schedule on the "hot seat." I'm not totally consistent about this, but I find that even doing it 50 or 60% of the time makes a big difference in my habits and effectiveness in getting things done and staying on budget too.

/** Fix admin settings safe to ignore showing on unauthenticated user **/