How to Keep Impulse Buys in Check

Impulse buys are the bane of American budgets, with the average person spending $1,350 per year on unplanned purchases. I?m no stranger to the pull of a spontaneous purchase, having made a few questionable impulse buys in recent years. To avoid being further ensnared by my own bad habits, I?ve explored the triggers and types of impulse buys to help develop a list of ways to avoid them altogether.


What is it about the quick high of an impulse buy that we love so much? According to Psychology Today, there are several culprits that contribute to the overwhelming desire to have something, even if we never knew it existed before walking through the door.

The sheer pleasure of getting something new is the simplest explanation for an impulse buy. Consider how it felt as a kid to be handed something brand-new; it likely made you feel special and incredibly happy, even if just for a moment. Fast-forward to adulthood and that feeling is transformed into one of empowerment, and consumers who feel powerless in other areas of their lives can turn to shopping to feel in control.

Other triggers are more hardwired in nature. For example, our collective desire to take advantage of a good deal is rooted in our species? hunter-gatherer days, where stocking up on available supplies meant the difference between life and death. While our circumstances these days are thankfully less profound, the instinctual desire to save time or money remains. Further, we don?t want to miss out on a good deal and feel badly in the future for not having purchased it. This is referred to as loss aversion and is embodied by this popular retail slogan: ?Hurry! This offer won?t last.?


Checkout lines are designed to ensnare us into temptation, teaming with sodas, candy bars, celebrity magazines and other items that appear random but are actually quite strategic. Pysch Central outlines the following four types of impulse buys — do these scenarios sound familiar?

Suggestion: You buy a ?fun size? bag of M&Ms because seeing them makes you crave chocolate.

Reminder: Walking by the end cap of AAA batteries prompts you to toss a package in your cart because your TV remote needs some new juice.

Planned: You receive a coupon in the mail for Bath & Body Works, so you make a plan to purchase a few soaps and fragrances because they?re such a good deal.

Pure: Something catches your eye in the store, and while it?s completely unlike anything you?ve purchased before, you buy it because it?s really neat.


Everyone has fallen victim to impulse buys and I?m no exception. With our own behavior and marketers? sneaky tactics working against us, how can you and me avoid these budget busters? ?Read on for a few strategies I use to skip unplanned purchases, plus confessions of when I just couldn?t resist.

Know Your Triggers

Understanding what compels you to buy on impulse is crucial to curbing the habit. Going shopping out of boredom used to be my thing, but recognizing it as a bad habit helped influence my decisions to cultivate a yoga practice, start running and engage in other activities. Removing yourself from an impulse-buying situation — like getting food delivered to save on groceries — is the most effective and easiest way to avoid overspending.

Practice Skepticism

Before buying anything, remember it?s the store?s end goal to make money. That special offer, free giveaway or one-time coupon may seem like good customer service, but really it?s designed to get you in the store. Instead of letting promotions control my purchasing decisions, I use tools like the Coupon Sherpa mobile app to find savings on items I?m actually shopping for. That way, I save on things I already budgeted to buy.

Beware of Your Surroundings

The layout of the store contributes heavily toward our compulsion to impulse buy. My favorite store places clearance items at the back of the space, forcing me to walk by all the fun, new and full-priced items they have to offer. Tunnel vision and recognizing the store?s strategy has helped me overcome my desire to browse the new arrivals. Same goes with grocery stores: I try to stick to the perimeters because that?s where all the essentials are placed.

Stick to Your List

While this may seem like tired advice, it?s tried-and-true. And it?s not just good for grocery store shopping; I?ve recently started making lists of apparel items and shoe styles my wardrobe is missing. This keeps my wandering eye in check, especially since I often end up buying styles I already own.

Take a Walk

The impulse to buy something doesn?t last very long, which makes it all the more frustrating when you get home and wonder what you were thinking. To avoid buyer?s remorse, put the item down and walk away. I take a quick lap around the store to let myself mull over the purchase. Typically, the desire fades and I avoid the financial face-palm when I get home.

Carry Cash

Use cash in places where you typically overspend to better embrace your budget. For example, my husband brought $200 cash on the last two trips we took together. Granted, we were visiting family each time so the tab was sometimes picked up by others, but we used the cash to buy groceries, drinks and other wares. Knowing we only had $200 to spend helped us tame ?vacation brain? and avoid unnecessary purchases.

Don?t Give Yourself an Option

I have a bizarre affinity for craft beer shirts, so whenever we visit the brewery I?m tempted to pick up the latest style. Since I only wear two shirts out of the 10 or so I?ve purchased, I?ve decided to conquer this impulse by leaving my credit cards at home. Instead, I bring my ID and let my husband pick up the bill for pints (we have a shared account). He?s much less prone to impulse buys than me, and I?m not about to beg him to buy me a shirt we both know I don?t need.

Return It

Unless you eat it or stain it, you can typically take back impulse items. In fact, my husband and I once returned an impulse purchase a whopping seven minutes after swiping our card. We thought we wanted a Wii gaming console, and $407 later we realized what a dumb purchase it was for two non-gamers. We walked straight to customer service and got our money back. Bottom line: There?s no shame in acting on buyer?s remorse by returning the item.

Cut the Cord on Communications

While signing up for retail newsletters and following brands on social media can result in coupons, they almost always result in impulse buys. I can attest to this personally: After seeing a not-to-be-missed deal from my favorite retailer on Facebook, I placed an order for four items (even though I only had my eye on two). I immediately felt remorse and contacted customer service to cancel my order. Then, I unsubscribed from their newsletter and stopped following them on social media. You know what? I don?t miss them a bit.

2 thoughts on “How to Keep Impulse Buys in Check”

  1. I used to be fall for the bargain buys. I repeat the words, “a bargain isn’t a bargain if I actually don’t need it.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top