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Whether it’s clicking “add to cart” or actually physically adding the thing to your shopping cart in Target, we all know it’s so easy sometimes just to buy the thing without really giving it much thought. But if you’re trying to be intentional with your money, then it’s important to develop habits to help you curb impulse spending.
I’ll be the first to admit that I love when something we’ve ordered shows up at our doorstep. Unboxing, unwrapping, setting that new thing in its new place – all of that is such a dopamine boost.
And for me, impulse spending seems to come in waves. I can be great at sticking to a budget for months, and then all of a sudden we seem to be spending left and right. Something to organize the kitchen, puzzles and books for the toddler, an upgrade for our towels, a new humidifier, and a new book for myself.
It’s fine to spend money. Even on frivolous things.
But it IS important to be mindful about the money we spend.
And when we are trying to stick to a budget so that we can reach a particular financial goal, then it’s even more important to find ways to curb impulse spending.
But first, we need to understand why we impulse buy in the first place.
Why we spend impulsively
Spending money is often tied to our emotions. Some of us spend because it makes us feel happy or accomplished. Some spend when we feel stressed, or when we feel sad. Others spend out of boredom.
Once we realize our own emotional patterns, we can start to get a sense of how to curb impulse spending.
Can’t pass up a good deal
Everywhere we go, whether in person or online, we’re faced with situations that encourage impulse buying. Whether it be the snacks at the checkout line, an upsell at a restaurant, or the “recommended for you” part of the page on Amazon, we’re encouraged to spend just a little bit more than we were intending.
And when something is on sale, we focus on the amount we are saving – without really thinking about the money we are spending. I teach math, and whenever I work with a student on percents, we have this discussion. When we see a sign saying 25% off, we think in terms of the 25% we are saving – and my students’ first instinct is to calculate that 25%, then subtract it from the original price. That’s not wrong, but we can also think about 25% off means we are paying 75% of the original price. If we focus on that, not only is our math streamlined but we are also not losing sight of the fact that even items on sale are still purchases. Unless we meant to buy the item in the first place, buying something just because it’s on sale isn’t really saving money.
Impulse spending can also come from a simple and straightforward love of shopping. If we enjoy roaming the aisles at Target, or get pleasure out of browsing through an online store as we relax in the evening, it’s tough not to check out with some of the items we find.
I’m reminded of an episode of Gilmore Girls in which Lorelai and Rory decide to go window shopping, since they want to shop but are both broke. They quickly realize that it’s just not as much fun without actually buying any of the cute things they find.
(And then they run into an angry Emily Gilmore, barking orders at store clerks as she buys everything in sight. See my previous point about impulse spending being tied to emotions…)
Learned spending patterns
Another common reason for impulse spending is that impulsivity is simply the spending pattern we have learned from others or built into a habit.
We may self-describe as a “spender,” for example. My husband is this way. His philosophy is that if something will make your life more convenient, you shouldn’t wait and should just buy it.
Sometimes these are patterns we’ve learned growing up, especially if you were never taught how to handle money well. If our parents didn’t seem to have a plan for how they spent their money, it can be challenging to build that habit for ourselves later.
How to curb impulse spending
Once you’ve given some thought to the reasons behind your impulse purchases, read through the tips below for reining in that impulse. Not all of the suggestions will apply to you, and you can’t reasonably expect yourself to implement eight different strategies all at once anyway. So just take the ones that resonate the most with you, and leave the rest.
Include spending money in your budget
If you find that a small impulse buy can spiral into many more, leading you to want to just throw your whole budget out the window, you may benefit from adding a personal spending line to your budget. That gives you permission to spend but allows you to predetermine how much is acceptable to you.
Check-in with your budget regularly
Just having a budget is not always sufficient, however. If we don’t check in with the budget regularly, it’s hard to stick to it. Then when we finally do look back at where our money went, we feel guilty for going over in certain categories.
If you are able to tally up your spending often (I do it every couple of days), you can keep an eye on how you are doing in relation to the goals you set at the beginning of the budget period. The simple knowledge that your grocery budget or clothes budget is getting tight can help you think through whether you should give in to the temptation to buy those extra items.
Give yourself a waiting period
Create a personal policy of waiting a day (or three) before making certain types of purchases or purchases over a certain amount. Feel free to add to cart, or snap a picture of the item in the store, but don’t make a decision about the purchase until later. Often that can give us clarity about whether the purchase would have been an impulse buy or whether it is actually something you should purchase.
This is the strategy I rely on the most for myself. Right now, there is a set of kitchen canisters in my waiting period. Yesterday, I had the urge to buy new canisters to organize dried beans, pasta, and baking staples. My old ones are a bit cheap and hard to clean, plus I don’t have enough of them. But while I’m waiting, I’m also realizing that we really don’t have a lot of counter or cabinet space in our current kitchen. Maybe it’s a project for after we move. And I’m also rethinking whether to get pretty containers suitable for display or whether less pretty, but more practical, wider lidded containers would be better. By delaying the purchase, I’m making sure I’m settling on the right purchase at the right time.
Reflect on your reasons for impulse buying
This is especially important if your impulse purchases are driven by some emotional need. Once you know what emotions lead you to spend, you can take steps to redirect those emotions.
If you tend to shop when you are happy or to reward yourself, you can create a list of other activities or rewards that are free or lower cost.
If you shop to relieve boredom or stress, take the time to think through other things that would accomplish the same goal.
Once you’ve identified the things that tend to trigger your impulse spending, you can take steps to remove those temptations. Unsubscribe from sales emails. Unfollow certain accounts on Instagram. Find a new route home that doesn’t involve driving past whatever store, fast food place, or coffee drive-thru that always tempts you.
Make a return
This suggestion is pretty simple. If you realize that you’ve bought something impulsively and not because you actually need it, consider returning it. Not only does that repair the damage done to your budget, but the hassle of doing the return may also deter you from impulse buys in the future.
Create a one in, one out policy
Another personal policy you may choose to start is to commit to decluttering as many items as you purchase. This can be especially helpful if your impulse buys tend to be in the same category time after time. For example, in order to buy that new top, you’d need to find one other clothing item to sell, retire, or donate. You’re then free to make the purchase, but the extra step of thinking through the decluttering ensures that the purchase is more intentional.
Remove your card number
If you have your card number stored in Amazon or another online store, try deleting it. The extra step of having to dig out your card to make a purchase can often be just annoying enough to stop us from making the purchase unless we actually need it.
Not all purchases are impulse purchases, and I don’t want to give the impression that the proper way to go about being in control of your finances is to restrict yourself to a life of extreme frugality. But when we find ourselves regularly spending money that later makes us feel guilty or that derails our intended progress toward our goals, we would be wise to take steps to address the problem and to curb our impulse spending.
Ultimately, it comes down to our ability to balance our long-term goals with our desire for immediate gratification. The more intentional we are about keeping our major financial goals front of mind, the easier it is to say no to the things that detract from those goals.
It’s not easy, and there will always be times when we give into temptation, but I do believe that we all have the power to start spending more mindfully.