Personal Finance

6 min read

July 24, 2020

What Is Impulse Buying? Why You Do It and How to Avoid It

Tips to keep guard against the wily marketer and protect your finances

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We all do it. Grab a $3 beverage on the way out of the grocery store. Click “buy it now” on the Amazon app during a scroll session. The problem is, those unplanned purchases can really add up—and damage your savings goals in the process. Here’s why you’re susceptible to impulse buying and what you can do about it.

What is impulse buying?

Any unplanned purchase you make is a form of impulse buying. Most impulse buys are on the small side—like food or candy—but some are big-ticket items that can really set you back. Even if you don’t think of yourself as much of a shopper, the amount you spend on unplanned purchases may surprise you. In fact, research shows that half of consumer spending is unplanned.

So what’s the big deal? Is a spur-of-the-moment latte or two really going to make or break your budget? Maybe not. But knowing where your money goes is an important part of managing your personal finances. If you aren’t careful, those lattes (and shoes, and candy bars, and scented candles) not only lighten your wallet in the short term, but can also lead to a habit of overspending. And that can derail your long-term money goals.

Blame it on your brain

There are several reasons why impulse buying is so tempting, and they all have to do with your brain’s reward center. In other words, buying things makes people feel good. Understanding your own tendencies can help you stop those emotional purchasing triggers in their tracks.

We’re wired to seek novelty. The human brain is constantly on the lookout for new things. That’s great for evolution, but not so great for your spending habits. When you’re tempted to buy the latest and greatest, try thinking about how you’ll feel about the item later. Where will you store it? Do you already have something similar? Approaching a purchase with a practical eye can curb the urge to splurge.

FOMO is real. The clinical term for the “fear of missing out” (a.k.a. FOMO) is loss aversion. If you’ve ever purchased something because you’re afraid you won’t find it again, you’ve experienced loss aversion motivation. Next time you’re hit with that panicky buy-now-or-be-sorry feeling, force yourself to take a breath. Imagine the actual consequences of not buying the item. Chances are, your life won’t change too much if you don’t go home with said item.

Stockpiling gives us a sense of control. Worrying about running out of resources is nothing less than a survival instinct. But planning and preparing for future needs and emergencies is quite different from blowing your budget on several cases of whatever item you perceive to be scarce at the moment. Not only can stockpiling wreck your monthly budget, it could also prevent others in your community from getting the supplies they need. (Toilet paper, anyone?) You don’t want to be that person. After all, shoring up your emergency fund is a better use of your money than 45 containers of Clorox wipes.

Outsmart store marketing strategies

Advertisers and retailers are pros at capturing those impulse-buying dollars and they know the ins and outs of emotional buying triggers better than anyone. But once you’re onto the tricks of the trade, you’ll have more power to resist their charms.

Beware the guided layout. Ever notice how you shop at certain stores in a pattern? That’s not a coincidence. If you’ve ever shopped at an IKEA store, for example, you know the drill. You may go in for one bookcase, but it's likely you'll end up throwing a bunch of kitchen gadgets and home decor items in your cart, too. That’s because the setup purposely leads traffic through a maze of displays you otherwise wouldn’t see. That’s also why retailers put their clearance items in the back, and the shiny new full-price items up front.

Stores put small items and sweets at eye-level so you’ll grab them while you wait to check out. This is no secret, and if you need that pack of gum, go ahead and purchase it. Just make sure you’re buying what you want to buy, and not what the store wants you to buy.

Discounts and sales are powerful incentives. We all want to save money on a purchase. (Remember the principle of loss aversion?) The problem is, when you purchase an item on a whim, you don’t know how good the discount really is. The key to getting the best bang for your buck is doing some research ahead of time. That way you know what the item usually costs, you know if it goes “on sale” a lot, and you can jump on the right price at the right time.

Store credit cards often end up costing you more than they save you. Tempting as it is to save that “15% off your whole purchase” and sign up for a store card, it’s important to understand the potential drawbacks. These types of cards often have few barriers to lending, meaning just because you’re approved, doesn’t mean you should be. Store cards also generally have very high interest rates, costing you big in the long run if you carry a balance. In addition, you don’t have the same kind of purchase protection you might with other credit and debit cards.

Take charge of your shopping habits

Adopting a few savvy shopping habits can give you an edge against emotional buying and persuasive advertising tactics. Here are some of the best strategies to master.

Give yourself a mandatory waiting period for purchases. Whether it’s a week, six months, or 24 hours, taking a breather gives you time to get some perspective on the purchase. That way, you can decide if you really need the item, do some comparison shopping, or create a plan to save for it. If you do “miss out” on a great deal, don’t worry. Chances are, it’ll come around again.

Don’t shop without a list. Smart shoppers never leave home without a list. When you write down what you need—and stick to it—you’re much less likely to pick up a bunch of stuff you weren’t planning to buy.

Give yourself permission to spend a little. If you love to shop or need a little “retail therapy” from time to time, there’s no need to give it up completely. After all, if your budget is too strict, you’ll end up blowing it faster than a fad diet. Instead, designate an affordable amount in your budget for “fun” purchases. That way, when you see something you just have to have, check your fun money balance. If you’ve still got some in there, purchase away! This habit can help you turn unplanned purchases into planned ones.

Record all purchases. Have you ever found yourself at the end of a pay period, relieved you’ve managed to stay within your budget, only to receive a higher-than-you-thought credit card bill? If so, you need a new system. Commit to recording all of your expenditures in one place. That way, you’ll always know where you stand. You may also consider streamlining your finances by using just one card and paying it off each month.

Keep your savings goals top of mind. Take some time to figure out what your savings goals are, and check on your progress often. Are you saving for a down payment on a house? An emergency fund? Holiday shopping? Whatever your goals, keeping them in mind will help you stay focused, resist the temptation to buy impulsively, and get closer to feeling good about your finances.

Laura Southwick
Laura Southwick
With 15+ years of experience writing for finance and tech, Laura specialises in simplifying complex topics for all audiences. Her work has appeared on Ally Bank, Inman, and Hyper Networks.

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