Let’s face it, we’ve all been in this situation: We’re at the grocery store for a gallon of milk, we see that bag of chips, 2 liters of our favorite orange soda, or a 6-pack of beer and end up walking out with more than we wanted. Impulse buys.
It happens to all of us, and impulse buys add up.
Impulse buys are those insidious purchases that we make because we see something and immediately want it. We didn’t plan it. We didn’t even think much about it. But, we saw it, mentally loved it, and then plopped down additional cash to buy it.
It’s a very common spending phenomenon.
In fact, consumers rack up $5,400 a year in impulse buys, according to CNBC (2018). “Most of the spur-of-the-moment outlays go toward food,” the report said, “with 70.5 percent of respondents saying that category was the major culprit.”
Impulse buys work because retailers are clever with their advertising – both what and where they advertise deals and other product promotions. And if you buy online, you’re statistically less likely to compare prices, which means you’re a sitting duck with many online stores.
This phenomenon is especially true with young people. CNBC writes:
Of the millions of Americans who bought something online this year, a CreditCards.com poll of more than 1,000 U.S. adults aged 18 or older finds that almost half, or 44 percent, made an impulse buy on the Internet in the past three months. For younger people, the numbers go up even more: 21 percent of 28-to-37-year-olds say they made a spontaneous online buy in the previous week.
Overall, “only 21.8 percent of older millennials and 23.3 percent of Gen Xers say they have never made this type of purchase,” the site reports. “That means almost 80 percent have made a split-second buying decision while perusing the web.”
How do smart consumers keep from spending extra money on things that they don’t need?
What Causes Impulse Buys?
Several factors affect our willingness to buy extra stuff, like:
- Our addiction to spending money on “deals” or promotions (even if they aren’t)
- Fear of missing out on the next best thing
- Spending makes a lot of us feel better
I have been especially guilty of impulse buying. A lot, in fact.
And let’s be honest, stores play into our very natural impulse buying tendencies. Product placement in most grocery and department stores is incredibly well-researched. Companies know where we are most likely to wander to first. Even our sense of smell comes into play. Ever wonder why bakeries are very often close to the front of grocery stores? Or why products that the company expects (and wants) you to buy tend to be around eye-level?
There is a ton of science behind this. Check out how this stuff works if you like.
And worst of all, our impulse purchases very often result in very little genuine happiness.
“Impulse buying is related to anxiety and unhappiness, and controlling it could help improve your psychological well-being,” writes Psychology Today. “The concept of vicarious ownership is related to another impulse buying motivator, which is a connection between a consumer and a product. When we’re connected to a product it literally changes the way our minds perceive it.”
“The impulse buyer may feel unhappy and may think that being seen with an expensive new purchase will bring respect and happiness. This perceived road to happiness motivates the impulse buyer to go shopping. Once in the retail environment, a product catches the impulse buyer’s eye.
“S/he looks at it, probably picks it up and inspects it, and maybe thinks of a friend who owns it. The impulse buyer likes the product and experiences pleasure at the thought of being able to purchase it immediately and go home with it. The impulse buyer can’t resist the urge to buy the product and does so, without considering whether it’s too expensive and/or frivolous. This inevitably leads to buyer’s remorse, paradoxically bringing unhappiness, the very feeling the impulse buyer wanted to stop experiencing.”
How easy is it to recognize an impulse buy? Answer: It isn’t easy. It’s darn tough, but there are a few ways that can help us prevent impulse buys from happening.
How to Prevent Impulse Buys
1. Understand that impulse buys happen to all of us
Rather than telling yourself that impulse buys never happen to you, understand that yes, they can and probably DO.
If we try to convince ourselves that we never buy impulsively, then as if by magic, every purchase we make automatically becomes sound and reasonable…at least in our own heads. If we tell ourselves that we need an item, then mentally, we believe that we do.
Resist the temptation to trick yourself into believing that you are somehow “above” impulse buys because, unfortunately, most of us are not.
2. Never shop without a shopping list
Lists help keep us focused on the items that we truly need. If an item is not on your list, then you shall not buy.
Make your list while outside of the store, preferably where you’ll use those items (like the kitchen for a grocery list).
The idea is simple: if an item fails to make it onto your list, then you probably don’t need it badly enough to make the purchase – at least yet.
3. Shop with a full stomach
Whenever possible, do not shop while you are hungry…especially for groceries. We are more likely to throw additional tasty food items into our carts when we feel hungry.
Again, the emotional side of us takes over, hell-bent on satisfying our craving for food.
Closely related, try not to shop when you are upset or angry, as our need to make ourselves feel better can prompt an additional purchase or two (or three).
4. You can look, but never touch!
The instant that we touch an item, we feel a connection with it. That connection instantly increases the likelihood that we will place that item in our cart rather than back on the shelf.
Whenever possible, don’t touch items that are not on your shopping list. Resist!
5. Create a 30-day waiting period for larger purchases
Instead of buying something off the cuff (especially if it’s an expensive item), make yourself wait for a month before plopping down your hard-earned money on it. If you still want it after 30 days, then you probably really want it.
YOUR TURN: How often do you make impulse buys? Do you have any other tips that you’d like to share to help avoid them? Please leave a comment below and let us know!
Steve Adcock is an early retiree who writes about mental toughness, financial independence and how to get the most out of your life and career. As a regular contributor to The Ladders, CBS MarketWatch and CNBC, Adcock maintains a rare and exclusive voice as a career expert, consistently offering actionable counseling to thousands of readers who want to level-up their lives, careers, and freedom. Adcock's main areas of coverage include money, personal finance, lifestyle, and digital nomad advice. Steve lives in a 100% off-grid solar home in the middle of the Arizona desert and writes on his own website at SteveAdcock.us.