Impulse Buying: Definition, Examples, And Ways To Stop It

By Marcy Lovitch · October 17, 2023 · 8 minute read

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Impulse Buying: Definition, Examples, And Ways To Stop It

Most people are familiar with the feeling of impulse buying. Perhaps you go to the supermarket just to pick up some oat milk and wind up purchasing an array of pricey juices, crackers, and cheese as well, because everything looked so good. Or you walk through a favorite store on your way home from work and snap up a couple of pairs of shoes because there was a major sale going on.

Spending money is not only part of life, but it can also be a fun way to reward oneself from time to time. But those unexpected, “can’t resist” purchases can add up, make you feel out of control, and lead to blowing your budget.

But you can rein in this impulsive spending. Here, you’ll learn:

•   What impulsive shopping is

•   Causes of impulsive shopping

•   Examples of impulse buying

•   How to take control of impulse buying.

What Is an Impulse Buy?

Impulsive shopping tends to happen when a person gets caught up in the moment and spontaneously buys something. It’s a purchase without any forethought or planning, and it’s often not within a person’s budget.

People who impulse shop are usually influenced by external triggers, such as seeing an item on sale or positively responding to a store’s atmosphere. Everyone indulges in some impulse-fueled retail therapy now and then.

However, when these immediate gratification purchases become habitual, the behavior can morph into something uncontrollable and financially damaging. Taken to an extreme, potentially dire financial issues could result, such as credit card debt, bankruptcy, and foreclosure

When it has this kind of negative impact, it could nudge into the realm of a disorder.

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What Causes Impulse Shopping?

Buying something spontaneously can trigger a rush of dopamine, the body’s feel-good hormone. That’s why it feels so rewarding.

A variety of factors can trigger impulsive shopping. Your triggers are likely different from those that get your best friend to splurge. Some common causes include:

•   Feelings of loneliness and depression. Buying items can be an exciting mood-lifter; a kind of high.

•   Boredom. Just as mentioned above, buying things can spark joy and add interest to a blah day.

•   Stress relief. The idea of retail therapy can be real. Sometimes, if a person is having issues (a family argument, a rough day at work), and making an unplanned buy is both a distraction and a mood boost.

•   FOMO (Fear of missing out). Feeling as if you don’t want to miss out or as if we want to “keep up with the Joneses” can result in unexpected purchases. For instance, if a favorite influencer touts a new product on social media and says it’s almost sold out, you might click to buy it and be part of the “in crowd.”

•   Personal history. If you were raised in a family which often engaged in impulsive spending, they modeled that behavior for you and you may consider it normal.

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Examples of Impulse Buying

You may be curious about how people typically engage in impulse buying. According to a recent survey by Slickdeals conducted One Poll, spontaneous purchases totaled $151 on average among respondents.

Above, you heard the example of buying treats you don’t really need at the grocery store or buying shoes simply because they were on sale vs. really needing them.

Here are the ways that spending tends to shape up:

Percentage of People Who Bought the Item on Impulse

Item Bought on Impulse

55% Clothing
50% Groceries
42% Household items
32% Shoes
23% Takeout
21% Books
20% Toys
19% Technology
18% Coffee

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What Is the Difference Between Impulsive and Compulsive Shopping?

Impulsive shopping is somewhat different from compulsive shopping, though some mental-health professionals consider them to be aspects of the same issue.

As mentioned above, impulse shopping tends to be spontaneous. It “just happens” in the moment: You’re grocery shopping and wind up buying some pricey ice cream and gourmet coffee beans.

With compulsive shopping, however, the person usually plans and invests time on their purchases, perhaps spending more energy and money than is desirable. This chart shows some key differences:

Compulsive

Impulsive

Resembles addictive behavior Can develop into addictive-like behavior if left unchecked
Buying things regularly Buying is more occasional and situational
Shopping is planned and premeditated Shopping is unplanned and spontaneous
More internally motivated by uncomfortable emotions More externally motivated and influenced by shopping environments and marketing

How to Avoid Impulse Purchases

How to stop impulse buying? If impulse purchases are tipping into the danger zone and ruining your budget and financial fitness, take action. There is help. Consider these suggestions on how to get started if you wonder if you’re a shopaholic:

Paying Close Attention to Spending Habits

Figuring out your particular shopping triggers can help you avoid or eliminate them. For instance, when buying, do you use credit cards instead of paying with cash or a debit card? Make shopping a priority over paying bills? Grocery shop without making a list? Being honest about how and why you may engage in certain overspending behaviors is vital to understanding the issue. Changing spending habits can then help you manage your finances better.

Setting a Budget

Creating and sticking to a budget allows you to gain control over your spending. A well-thought out budget will help with personal accountability and achieving financial discipline. Try to set yourself up with the flexibility to splurge sometimes. This will help keep you from feeling completely deprived.

One suggestion is to consider incorporating the 50/30/20 budget rule. This guideline recommends spending up to 50% of your after-tax income on must-haves (say, housing, car payments, utilities, healthcare, and groceries). Then, take 30% of your money and reserve it for wants such as dinners out, vacations, concert tickets, electronics, and clothing. The remaining 20% should be allocated for investments, an emergency fund, debt repayment, or savings.

Recommended: 10 Personal Finance Basics

Minimizing Temptation

Many stores are carefully designed to get you to shop and spend, perhaps to an extreme. If a store’s atmosphere — the design, the scents, the music — tends to get you impulse buying, avoid it. Don’t walk down the streets filled with your favorite shops; try to escape the triggers that make you shop too much. If you often spend free time at the mall or online shopping, sign yourself up for a class, take up a new sport, volunteer, or find other ways to fill the hours.

Curbing social media exposure can help, too. Research suggests ads and posts from social media influencers and seeing purchases from people in your social networks may encourage a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality, often leading to impulsive buying.

Starting a No-Spend or 30-Day Savings Rule

A quick way to stop spending money is to freeze any non-essential spending for an entire month. Commit to a 30-day shopping ban on impulse buys such as clothing, make-up, tech gadgets, or take-out, and see how much extra money you have at the end of the month. The difference may be eye-opening and help you break the cycle.

Successfully controlling your spending can provide a feeling of accomplishment and a confidence boost and offset feelings of being bad with money. Participating in a no-spend challenge can even become a fun game; you can involve other budget-conscious friends and know you’re all in it together.

Joining a Support Group

Here’s another way to stop impulse buying for some people: National 12-step program support groups such as Debtors Anonymous (especially if you’ve racked up credit card debt) and Spenders Anonymous are also an option. They can connect you with others who are dealing with similar issues.

Seeking Some Professional Help

Individual counseling with a mental health professional can help you get to the emotional root of your buying issues. Psychotherapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can effectively treat impulse shopping behaviors.

Recommended: Using a Personal Loan to Pay Off Credit Card Debt

The Takeaway

Impulsive buying can be a fun treat sometimes…or it can seriously affect your financial life. Taking positive, concrete steps is likely to help conquer the problem. Getting past this spending issue, whether by shifting your behaviors or seeking professional help, can be a positive move, both for you personally and for your bank account.

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FAQ

Is breaking a budget a sign of impulse shopping?

Breaking your budget is not necessarily a sign of impulse shopping. However, if you regularly deviate from your budget, spend money allocated for needs on wants or unplanned purchases, and find yourself saddled with credit card debt, you may need to rein in your impulse spending. Analyze your shopping habits and budget to understand your behavior better.

Is making an impulse purchase a bad thing?

The reality is, most of us make occasional impulse buys, and they are not always such a bad thing. However, if this kind of shopping becomes habitual and leaves you with debt, pay attention and take steps to improve the situation.

How do I limit impulse purchases?

One way to limit impulse purchases is to avoid stores or websites where you know you tend to overspend. Also, ask yourself, “Do I need this or do I just want it?” when tempted to make a purchase. If the answer is the latter, wait 24 hours, and see if you still really want it. Your desire may dwindle during that cooling-off period.

What Is impulse buying behavior?

Impulse buying involves making unplanned purchases, say, while heading home from work, at the supermarket to pick up necessities, or while spending a weekend afternoon downtown. Doing this occasionally isn’t a problem, but if you overdo it and are having trouble managing your budget and debt, it’s worth trying to minimize the habit.

Is impulse buying problematic?

Impulse buying in and of itself isn’t problematic; it’s okay to treat yourself to unplanned purchases now and then. However, if impulsive purchases are wreaking havoc with your budget, causing you stress, and accruing credit card debt, then it’s an issue to be managed.

Is there a connection between impulse buying and ADHD?

Some experts believe that people with ADHD are more prone to impulsive behavior, which can include spontaneous purchases. Impulse shopping can trigger a rush of the feel-good hormone dopamine, which those with ADHD may crave.


Photo credit: iStock/jacoblund

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