How to Curb Impulse Buys

stop impulse buying

I love to shop. You may have gathered this about me. I also love to thrift, and have spent many a pleasant afternoon scouring the racks of my local secondhand emporiums. I love clothes and feeling beautiful in my clothes, I read hundreds of style blogs every week, and I pore over countless magazines catalogs every month. My brain is brimming with products and prices and garments and outfits. I look at a lot of stuff and I buy a lot of stuff, including the occasional misfire. But I have managed to work on and nearly eradicate my impulse shopping urges. Here’s how:

I ask myself, “Will you still want this in three weeks?”

Impulse buys can feel so fun in the moment, but the moment passes. And if – days or weeks later – a bout of buyer’s remorse descends upon me, all that fun gets sucked out. And then some extra fun gets sucked out, too. I end up with a fun deficit, and that’s just lousy. So I attempt to fast-forward into the future and consider how I’ll feel about the potential impulse buy three weeks from the present day. In most cases, I can see SO CLEARLY that the item in question will be long forgotten. And if my foresight is fuzzy, I consider actually waiting the full three weeks before making a decision. Getting some real or imagined distance helps me be less emotional and more logical about purchasing decisions.

I ask myself, “What hole does this fill in your wardrobe?”

Some impulse buys turn out to be wardrobe staples, and some carefully plotted purchases turn out to be duds. But that doesn’t mean that the former is wise and the latter foolish. And it certainly doesn’t negate the importance of considering each potential purchase in the larger context of your existing wardrobe.

Now, admittedly, I have a large and varied wardrobe already. Buying items that duplicate or even resemble pieces I already own is just plain wasteful.* So I am very careful to ask myself, “Do you love this because it’s so ‘you,’ or because it’s got aspects in common with other pieces you already own and love?” I determine if an item is unlike others in my closet, and also consider if it would fill a niche that I’ve been longing to fill. Items that are unique and useful make the cut. Others get left behind.

I ask myself, “Where would you wear this?”

I DO believe in the practice of imagining at least three potential outfits for every new item bought, but more often I take this shortcut: I don’t attend a lot of balls so I have little need for tiaras, satin sandals, and silk gowns. I don’t live in a rainy climate so Hunter boots are well nigh useless to me. My meetings are virtually all business casual, so suits are a waste of money for me. Aside from my own comfort and aesthetic preferences, I try to envision context. Where will this potential new purchase be worn? A home office day? Weekend out? Fancy gathering? How practical is the purchase if the answer is a locale or activity that occurs only rarely in my life? My impulses to buy both super-fancy and super-casual items fall off once I consider location and application.

Image courtesy

* I do duplicate some items, though, and definitely know that buying staples in bulk can prove wise for many folks. Some multiples are accidentally bought non-staples – items that don’t fill any need or hole or specific, known purpose – and those are the ones I try to avoid.

Originally posted 2012-05-10 06:43:13.

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30 Responses to “How to Curb Impulse Buys”

  1. annie

    These are great tips!

    Honestly, because most of my impulse shopping was done online, I began using an amazon wishlist. When I find something I want to buy, I add it to my wishlist, and it makes me feel like it isn’t going anywhere. It kind of gives me the little thrill of impulse shopping, and allows me to wait a couple weeks and go back to the item when my head is a little cooler. It makes me feel a little more in control, like the item is there if I want it, and it will be there if I decide to buy it, so I don’t need to buy it right now.

    But really, all my shopping is limited right now by my graduate student stipend….but someday πŸ™‚

    • Trystan (the CorpGoth)

      Same here! I let impulse buys sit on my Amazon wishlist for a few days. Invariably, I come back & delete them. The few that stay there are either worth buying or maybe they’re ultimate fantasies (like a $300 pair of Fluevogs that I’ll never buy!).

  2. Beth Anderson

    Re: your comment “buying duplicate pieces is wasteful. I actually disagree in certain circumstances. Staples can and probably should be bought in bulk. You can’t have enough black trousers/skirts, or white blouses or T shirts or even black loafers. Or jeans.

    • Sal

      Ah, it’s true that staples sometimes work as multiples and I’ve written about that here:

      In this case I was thinking more about buying above and beyond your needs, even for staples. I think one CAN have too many black trousers. Some folks only need one pair, but may end up buying more because they’re not aware of what they’ve got, or can’t pass up a bargain, etc.

      My wording referred to myself specifically and not others, and I do try to avoid lots of multiples because I’ve already got plenty o’stuff. But I can see where confusion might arise. I’ll edit.

    • Katharine

      Proof that one person’s staple is another person’s… not. I can’t remember the last time I wore my single pair of black trousers. Or my single white blouse. I have a whole lot of identical sleeveless jersey chemise dresses in various colours, though, because they make a perfect underlayer for many of my outfits.

      The temptation of the wardrobe duplicate is always with me, though, because so often I don’t have the PERFECT thing. I always fondle short black skirts, for instance, and own three slightly different ones, because not one of them is precisely what I would like. One’s really nice, but too short to wear with bare legs to work — it’s a winter tights-only skirt. One’s interesting and cool, with a zipper and groovy windbreaker details, but fits kinda funny. One is the perfect length, and comfortable, but creases horribly in wear.

      I would just love to truly have that ideal wardrobe full of precisely the items that I imagine. I should get less lazy and sew more — but even that (provided I had the time in the first place) isn’t a great solution, since it’s difficult to find the right fabrics easily, let alone at a reasonable price.

  3. peter

    This is an excellent topic, Sal. I know for me, when I’m in impulse-shopping mode (usually scanning the vintage sewing machines or pattern auctions on eBay at odd hours), it can be helpful to take a step back and ask myself if I’m doing this because 1) I’m bored; 2) I’m anxious; or 3) I feel like treating myself to something special (maybe to compensate for other challenges I’m experiencing).

    Since impulse purchases have a way of bringing on regret later for any number of reasons (not only budgetary, but space, and focus, and order), it can be helpful to ask myself whether there’s something (anything) else I can do to address this boredom, anxiety, or need to reward myself with a gift. Usually there is an alternative — and one that won’t fill my life with more clutter. Sometimes it’s as simple as lightening my load by taking a day off, or just reading something affirming and/or inspiring.

  4. Mrs.M in MI

    This is very timely for me. This past weekend my husband and I made our annual sojourn to Manhattan for the sole purpose of impulse spending (and eating) – I even had cash in hand specifically for buying something frivolous!

    And then I didn’t buy anything. Well, I bought a basic blazer that I’ve been needing, but my husband seriously had to talk me into it – and this even though it was exactly what I was looking for, it fit so well that no tailoring was needed, and it was a price that couldn’t be beat.

    Something is wrong with me!

  5. alice

    Impulse buys used to be a major problem of mine, mostly because I was a sucker for sales. If something seemed like a “good buy” because it was name brand and marked down dramatically, I would buy it even if the fit wasn’t quite right and the style was for an imaginary me. Since I’ve identified a personal style and decluttered my wardrobe significantly, this hasn’t been a problem at all. I’m intensely picky now about what I bring in. I’m not sure that I’ve actually saved any money, because I find myself buying more expensive pieces, but at least I’m really getting use out of the things I buy now! No languishing items in the closet.

  6. D

    Your suggestions are excellent. I definitely can be an impulse shopper. I try to avoid temptation by avoiding any websites that sell shoes or dresses. I also try to avoid turning right when I leave my office building, because there is a mall about 500 feet away. Which makes things REALLY difficult sometimes. When I’ve failed that first step though, and I’m actually walking around in the store or browsing the website, if I find something I think I want, I try to walk away for AT LEAST 20 minutes (preferably longer!), and not think about it. If my mind keeps going back to the item, I know that I probably like it enough to get some use out of it. And if I’m in the store, I try it on every time. My methods are certainly not fail proof, but they do help me.

  7. LaChina

    I’ve gotten better at impulse shopping, but fell head first for a necklace that was outside my price range. I bought it because I rarely find jewelry that ‘speaks’ to me. I tried returning it, but it’s too beautiful for words. The sales person tried to talk me into the matching earrings and ring, but they had no appeal. And like you Sal, I envision where I could possibly wear an item and this necklace will go everywhere.

    Thanks for the tips!

  8. Joni

    I really wait to shop until I know exactly what it is I’m looking for. Once in a while though I do let myself browse aimlessly, but this is when I get into trouble. I do much better if I have a plan. Part of the fun of thrifting is not only is it affordable but it allows me the impulsive buys as entertainment and self exploration without regrets….even if I end up cutting it up into something else. πŸ˜‰

  9. Lorena

    I am awful.
    I will answer the 3 questions with a no and still buy it.
    I have fear of non buying remorse.

    • Susan

      I so relate to ‘fear of non-buying remorse’! I have recently realized that I impulse buy because I fear scarcity. I’m hard to fit and it’s hard to find suitable colors. This leads to feeling that I MUST buy when I find things. I’m working towards trusting that the universe will send suitable things my way.

  10. Alex

    After realizing that I could still justify the crap out of an impulse buy with your questions–not because they are bad questions to ask, by any means, but because I can convince myself into buying just about anything if I feel the need to have it–I have narrowed my impulse buy questions to the following two: “You idiot, do you have bills to pay?” and “Are there longer-term things that you would rather put this money toward, ie. next tattoo, travel?”

  11. Megan Mae

    I sometimes buy impulsively when I thrift, however my thrift-senses are usually pretty spot on for what I need/want/will actually wear. Otherwise I will keep things bookmarked for weeks before purchasing. When I finally start talking about buying something? I’ve probably been looking at it and researching sizing, durability, and reviews for weeks.

  12. Leigh

    I used to be a terrible impulse shopper–I’d get those email sale alerts from Gap or Ann Taylor Loft and I’d find something I *needed* every time. Some of those purchases were useful and some were not, but about 18 months ago I realized I had more clothes than I could possibly wear. I got rid of a bunch and then made a resolution that I wouldn’t buy anything, not clothes or shoes or purses, in 2011.

    I did pretty well with that resolution and spent the year only shopping in my own closet, and it really gave me some clarity about what I like and what looks best on me. Now, I think much harder about purchases and am much less likely to buy something just because I like it in the moment. I don’t shop sales anymore; I only go shopping when I need or want a particular item, and I don’t spend a lot of time browsing. I may miss out on that perfect piece that will complete my life (ha ha) but I’ve also saved a lot of money!

  13. GingerR

    The good thing about wish-list/shopping cart items is that sometimes the retailer, knowing you’ve wish-listed them, sends discount email offers.

  14. Stacy @ Stacyverb

    If anything, I have the opposite problem. My budget is so tight, I worry about each and every purchase. A crazy impulse buy for me is, say, a bottle of nail polish. Anything else I really think hard about. It’s financially responsible, but mentally exhausting. I look forward to a time when I might be able to be more impulsive with my purchasing, and when/if that time comes, maybe your questions will keep me from going too crazy. πŸ™‚

  15. Anna

    When I feel a buying spree coming on, I head for the public library and check out a huge stack of books, more than I can possibly have time to read. That satisfies the urge to splurge without costing a single cent….well, maybe for gas…. πŸ˜‰

  16. JaneJetson

    I sometimes put an arbitrary higher price on sales items.

    If I see something I think I like, I ask myself if it is a great and meaningful addition to my wardrobe? Would I pay full price, or $50 or $100? If the answer is no or probably not, it is not a bargain and I do not buy it. I hate to pay full price but sometimes it actually saves money because I buy exactly what I want and need. Sometimes I set a per-item budget and look for things within that range.

    I also try to buy online from stores that have brick and mortar places for returns. I return a lot of what I buy. I take a look at it, make sure it is truly me, not a duplicate and fits my wardrobe. Of course I cannot do this on ebay or when thrifting. I would guess a lot of my mistakes aka donations to charity were on sale. Of course almost everything I buy is on sale. I feel kind of like a sucker paying full price or not having a coupon or some sort of discount. It seems like everything goes on sale within a few weeks of being placed in the front of the store.

    I also do the add on thing. If I am a home goods store I may see something I have been thinking about or need and add it to the cart. If I don’t find what I want, I usually leave without the added items.

  17. Alison M

    I am *terrible* about impulse buys. So I have to keep a wish list. And NOT GO TO THE STORE but rather wait for a sale. And then proceed to make other impulse buys during the sale. -_-

  18. Robyn

    My thoughts on impulse buys have changed over the last few years. For a long time, I made saving for the future a priority and disciplined myself to limit impulse buys – I’d feel horrible if I “wasted” money that “should have” been saved. I saved for college, for grad school, vacations – then saved for my house downpayments, kids’ college education, a new kitchen, and every other thing on my acquisition list – I even saved for my impulse buys (really! cash! in a special drawer!)

    The financial crisis and recession that many of us are recovering from put things in a different perspective. Saving for a rainy day and being debt-free is not always my highest priority, and now I feel great when I use my money for something tangible. This is just my experience – part of my personal recovery from being too responsible πŸ˜‰

    I’m not a total wild woman (yet). One tactic I use to keep boundaries on crazy spending is to splurge on fabric or yarn to copy a beautiful skirt or silk lingerie or expensive jeans. I enjoy making things just as much as shopping – usually more! My goal is to constantly improve my skills so the end result looks as beautiful and fits at least as well as the one in the lovely boutique.

    If it’s makeup I’m lusting for, I buy one thing in the line (or two), then go home and take a bubble bath.

  19. Kim

    I have trained myself to keep receipts πŸ˜‰ But I’ve noticed that _any_ kind of shopping will take the edge off wanting that impulse buy. Sometimes I go and get eggs and milk, and by the time I’ve compared prices, picked out pretty packaging, stood in line, swiped a card and had everything packed up in a bag my “need” for that impossible pair of shoes diminishes quite a bit. Maybe it’s the ritual of shopping that we crave, not the result.

  20. Corinne

    I learned a very helpful tip from Oprah when she was listing some of her cast offs for charity on EBay a couple of years back. Ask yourself ” is this for my REAL life, or my FANTASY life”