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Why we impulse buy — and how to stop

You just bought the latest must-have sweater making the rounds on TikTok. Your adrenaline rush is fading fast. Now, you’re not even sure you like it. And you’ve blown your budget. So why did you buy it?

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Impulse buying is a tough habit to break — retailers stack the odds against you. Read on to learn about the emotions behind impulse buying and 10 tips to break the habit.

What is impulse buying?

An impulse purchase is anything you buy that you hadn’t planned to.

  • That pack of gum you threw in your grocery cart at checkout
  • That new couch you ordered online because the store was having an 80% off sale
  • That upgraded technology package the dealer pressured you into adding for your car

Wants vs. needs

On the surface, the difference between wants and needs seems simple.

  • Needs: Things you have to have to sustain your life (food, water, clothing, shelter)
  • Wants: Things you desire but can live without (brand-name clothing, electronics, concert tickets)

But it can be easy to confuse the two. Sometimes, wants can feel like needs. Like when you’re grocery shopping. You need food — but you don’t always need the more expensive brand names. A “buy two, get one free” sale may make you feel like you need to buy more of something. But you don’t. Food shopping is one of the top places where impulse buying happens.

The emotions of buying

If impulse buying feels like a vicious cycle of emotional highs and lows, that’s because it is.

Dopamine: The “feel good” hormone

That rush you get when you snag a bargain? It’s real — and also known as dopamine. A neurotransmitter, dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. It’s where we visualize rewards and decide to take action to move toward them. Surges in dopamine can begin when we think about shopping. Meaning, it’s not just the final purchase, but the thrill of the hunt that makes us feel good.

Emotional motivations of impulse buying

Ever bought something as a reward for a job well done? Or ordered takeout because your day was awful and the thought of cooking or doing dishes made you want to cry? How your day goes is a major factor in impulse spending. Which of the below are times you’ve found yourself impulse buying?

  • You had a bad day
  • You’re rebelling against rules
  • You had a great day
  • You’re celebrating something
  • You’re bored and scrolling
  • It’s the holidays

Buyer’s remorse

Buyer’s remorse sets in when you realize you don’t need what you just bought. Buyer’s remorse can feel like anxiety, guilt, regret, even shame. As awful as it sounds, try to remember how you feel in these moments. Then, the next time you’re about to hit “buy,” call these feelings back up. Ask yourself: Is the dopamine making me buy this? Is it worth it? 

Retailers want you to spend more

Triggering your gotta-have-it impulse is a big goal for retailers. Whether online or in-store, retailers craft everything to nudge you to buy more. This includes sales promotions, the store’s layout, the checkout experience, and more. Retailers try to trigger our fear of missing out (FOMO) response by:

  • Suggesting items to complete a look or room
  • Showing “what other people often buy with this” options
  • Offering free shipping for spending over a certain amount
  • Holding promotions like “buy one, get one” and “50% off today only”
  • Winding checkout lines through a maze of shelves
  • Adding pop-ups reminding “you left something in your cart”
  • Hosting a loyalty club that offers additional discounts

10 tips to battle impulse buying

Tip 1: Create a spending plan

No matter how much you make, creating a spending plan is a must. With a budget, you’re in control of your money.

Tip 2: Cut advertising noise

Cut back the content you get from retailers. It’s normal to “follow” places you frequent. But adjust your communication settings. That way, you aren’t tempted 24/7. Get one email a month rather than weekly. Mute Instagram stories and feeds. Tap “not interested” on TikTok reels.

Tip 3: Be body conscious

Don’t go grocery shopping if you’re hungry or thirsty. Take stock of your emotional state when you’re scrolling. Refocus your energy to other things you may want. Your body also craves sleep, fresh air, and time away from screens.

Tip 4: Wait out unplanned purchases

Wait 24 hours before buying an unplanned item. How much you “need” that item a day later may surprise you. If you don’t buy it, empty your cart. You might still get those, “Hey, you forgot this item and now it’s on sale!” emails. Delete them.

Tip 5: Set time limits  

Smaller purchases can be even easier to impulse buy. Consider pausing 1 minute for every dollar you’re spending. Costs $15? Wait 15 minutes. Give yourself breathing time.

Tip 6: Track “unplanned” purchases

Add up your unplanned purchases each month. Include all hidden costs, like taxes, shipping, and gas to get to that impulse-buy concert. Receipts are a healthy reminder of the true costs of impulsive buying behavior.

Tip 7: Follow the “one in, one out” rule

Get rid of something similar to your new purchase. Bought shoes? Donate an old pair to charity. Bought a new jacket? Get rid of an old one. This can help you take stock of what you already own.

Tip 8: Start a gratitude journal

Write down the things that truly bring you joy. Before you buy something unplanned, read your gratitude journal. Ask yourself if this impulse buy brings you long-term joy — or if it’s the dopamine talking.

Tip 9: Save the amount you splurge

To make an occasional splurge really count, double down. Transfer the same amount you spent into your savings account. Even if it was $10, that money can add up. At double the price, it’s another way to decide if the purchase is worth it.

Bonus tip: If you turned down the splurge, transfer the money anyway. Put the same amount you would’ve spent into savings. Here, your money makes you more money. With Numerica’s Bonus Saver account, you can earn up to 2.05% APY on balances up to $2,500*.

Tip 10: Pay off your credit card

Impulse spending on your credit card can rack up interest. Pay off your credit card bill each month. If you don’t, add those interest charges to the “true cost” of your impulse buy. And if retailers ask you to save your payment info online, say no. Typing in your information every time is a great gut-check if you need the item.

Numerica: Helping you live well with money

It’s OK to splurge every once in a while. And now that you know the emotions behind impulse buying and how retailers stack the deck, you can be more savvy. Check out our library for more resources about budgeting and managing your finances. Or connect with a Numerica team member to discuss options to help you save. Drop into your favorite branch or call 800.433.1837.

Here’s the legal stuff: This article is provided for educational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of a financial advisor, tax accountant, or similar professional. The examples provided within the article are for example only and may not apply to your situation. Since every situation is different, we recommend speaking to a professional you trust regarding your specific needs.

*APY = Annual Percentage Yield. Terms and conditions apply. Deposit bonus: 1.00% APY after 6 months of consecutive deposits of at least $25. No withdrawal bonus: 1.00% APY after 6 consecutive months without a withdrawal. You already earn 0.05% APY. Rates and APY are accurate as of 3/01/24 and subject to change after account opening. APY is accurate as of the last dividend declaration date. Bonus rates apply to the first $2,500 in the account when qualifiers are met. Balances over $2,500 earn 0.05% APY. After qualifying timeframe, each month requires same activity to earn qualifying rate or 6 consecutive count renews. Fees may reduce earnings on the account. Open Bonus Saver with only $25.

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April 16, 2024