Why we impulse spend - and how to stop

By Marianne Curphey


Thanks to online shopping, you never have to wait for a store to open to start shopping. The ability to make purchases 24/7 means impulse buying - and charging up or maxing out your cards - has become even simpler.

Here's how to spot problem impulse spending and get back in financial control.

The psychology behind impulse shopping
"When it comes to impulse buying, some people have a greater propensity for controlling themselves than other people," says Simonne Gnessen, a personal finance coach, trainer, and financial life planner at Wise Monkey Financial Coaching. "Some are hopeless at it. It comes down to how capable we are at managing our emotions."

She says managing your emotions is the key to managing your finances.  

"If you are more in charge of your underlying emotions, then you are less likely to spend when it is unplanned or unnecessary," she says.

Also, retailers have figured out how to snag you at your most vulnerable.

"Shops - both on and offline -  are designed to encourage you to impulse buy," Gnessen says. "There are items at the till to encourage last-minute purchases, and when you are online shopping you are offered other items that you might be interested in before you check out and pay. These aren't bargains - they are not there for your benefit, although it might appear that they are. They are there to make money for the retailer."

The availability of credit, and the option to shop at any time, often with "one-click" shopping, intensifies the temptation.

"It is all too easy to shop 24 hours a day and all too easy to spend when you have no money," Gnessen says. "We have a fight on our hands if we want to retain control over our emotions and our money."

Getting back in control
If you know that you are susceptible to impulse buying, or if you are aware that there are certain times of the day or night when you find it difficult to resist temptation, think about what you could do to make it more difficult to browse and spend.

"Think about what barriers you could put in your way to create obstacles and make it more difficult for you to spend at times when you have not given it much thought," Gnessen says. "If we want to stop impulse buying, then we need strategies to help us avoid buyer's remorse."

These include:

  • Become more aware of your emotions and your habits.
  • Write down what you spend and how you feel before you spend.
  • Think about the strong emotions that trigger spending sprees - are you hungry, bored, frustrated, angry? Is there another way to deal with these strong emotions rather than spending?
  • Don't save your card details on retailers' sites.
  • Unsubscribe from email marketing from shops and discount sites, such as Groupon, so you are not tempted with special offers.
  • Make a list before you go shopping, and only buy what is on it.
  • Uninstall apps that enable you to shop on your smartphone.
  • Turn off one-click purchasing on your online accounts.
  • Use apps such as DRNKPAY or browser extensions such as Blocksite to curb your spending.

"There is always a moment between the trigger - seeing something you desire - and the response, which is the urge to buy," Gnessen says.

Tuning into your feelings will help you spot that gap, and help you pause to think about whether you really want the item, and whether you need it and will find it useful.

Another way to limit impulse splurges is to only take the cash you need with you when you go out, and to leave your credit and debit cards at home. Or you can have a prepaid card.

Finally, try to give yourself some time when shopping before making some purchases. For example, if you pick up a nonessential item, ask the shopkeeper to hold it behind the counter for you. Don't return until 24 hours have passed.

"By that time, the impulse will have passed and you will probably realise that you don't want or need those things," Gnessen says. "The same strategy could be used to leave items in your virtual basket. You might return later and wonder why you were so keen to buy."

Escaping the cycle
Dan Jones, a hypnotherapist and personal development coach, says it's easy to get trapped into a cycle of impulse buying and buyer's remorse.

"Some people just love shopping," he says. "It brings pleasure and releases the feel-good hormone dopamine."

What's more, retailers are very good at making you feel keen to make the most of the shopping experience, by saying something is rare, or it's a bargain, or it's only available for a limited time.

"This helps to make the impulse-buying effect more powerful," he says. "We shop to meet needs that we may not even be aware of - for example, having a sense of control, giving and receiving attention, belonging to a group or illustrating your social or financial status."

When we are bored, sad or upset, these needs may come to the fore. While the need to belong is particularly strong among teenagers and young people, men and women of any age can be susceptible, he says.

Try reminding yourself that the dopamine buzz won't last long, he says.

"If you buy online, the boost is even less because the process of purchasing is much quicker than buying in a shop," Jones adds. Then you have to wait for it to be delivered. "You have up to a week to feel guilty about the purchase even before it arrives."

If you can't help yourself, ask a professional
Impulse buying can lead to financial difficulties if you are regularly spending more than you can afford, or you are putting purchases on credit without having a plan to pay them off.

"If things are getting out of control, talk to someone with whom you can be open and honest," says Jones. "Choose carefully and make sure it is someone who will be understanding and non-judgemental."

He suggests using cash to help you budget, and giving yourself time to think about a purchase before going ahead.

If your financial situation is starting to concern you, there are debt charities such as StepChange and National Debtline which offer free advice and counselling and can help you get back on track, or try Jones' website, Mind Changers, which he set up with chartered psychologist Davis Lewis.

Mind Changers is a new resource to enable people to be able to access free and affordable resources to help them make the first steps in being able to deal with stress and anxiety, including worries about money.

See related: Dodge non-sterling transaction fees on foreign websites, 'Buy now, pay later' offers can leave you with debt headache, Section 75 and third parties: when you aren't protected

Published: 14 July 2017