20 Simple Ways to Slam the Brakes on Impulse Buys

Compulsive shopping and impulse purchases can put finances and relationships at risk. These strategies and tips can help you get on a better path.


Shopping can cause problems in your life, whether you are a compulsive shopper or an occasional impulse buyer. Spending more than you can afford, running a balance on credit cards and feeling stressed out from debt — all these behaviors can pose a risk to your financial stability.

Turning the pattern around involves changing habits. Here are 20 tips, strategies and skills to help when you want to stop impulse spending:

1. Shop only from a list

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Using a list keeps you focused. Write down what you need, take that to the store and do not buy anything that’s not on the list. It’s that simple.

Actually, it might be wise to create two lists: groceries and to-dos. Keep the lists on the fridge or other central location. Train family members to add to the grocery list when they’ve used the last of something.

Making lists clears your head and helps calm you when you’re on overload. Binge shopping often is a refuge from stress, so keeping stress from escalating is key.

2. Procrastinate

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When you get the urge to buy, give yourself a cooling-off period — an hour, a day, a week. It’s a chance to come to your senses and make certain the item you want is something you can afford and that truly contributes to your life.

Experiment to find out how much time you need to break the retail trance.

3. Shop with cash

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Leave the plastic at home. Take enough cash to purchase what you need and no more. You can’t spend what you don’t have.

4. Snap a picture

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Take a photo of the thing you think you can’t live without. Photograph the price tag, too. Don’t buy yet. Bring your photos home and use them for comparison shopping online and to help you think about the purchase.

Go online and look up users’ reviews to see what they have to say about the product you want. If reviewers give it low marks, it might not be worth buying.

5. Shop alone

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The confusion and chaos of shopping with kids or a spouse can lead you to make purchases without thinking, or buy stuff to pacify noisy kids. Shopping solo may give you a calmer, more in-control experience.

6. Shop with a (trusted) friend

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Do you have a friend or family member whom you can share this struggle with, someone doesn’t judge but simply has your back? If so, shop together and ask for the friend’s help staying focused on avoiding unplanned purchases.

You may even be able to light-heartedly enlist other friends (not shopaholics) without confiding your difficulties. Say something like, “I’m saving for Christmas so I’ve made a vow to buy nothing that’s not on my list. Can you help me stay tough?”

7. Be savvy about sales

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We all know this, and yet it’s hard to remember: Buying something you don’t need on sale doesn’t save money. It’s a form of overspending.

Instead of aimlessly cruising sales, plan your attack by reading ads. Decide in advance what you’ll buy, then get in and get out.

8. Shop your own closet

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If you have a shopping problem, you probably also have a closet problem — as in you’ve got more stuff in there than you need or use. Satisfy your hunter-gatherer impulses by trying on clothes you haven’t worn in a while, finding new looks and combinations.

9. Rest up before shopping

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Shopping when you’re exhausted can put even the most disciplined consumer at risk. If you have a problem controlling impulse purchases, you’re most vulnerable when you’re in a store while you’re tired. Rest up and eat something before you shop.

10. Watch your feelings

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Being upset or angry makes you vulnerable to overbuying. When you find you’re overwhelmed, sit down with a cup of coffee or take a walk, breathing deeply until you gain focus. Be willing to go home and put off shopping for another day. Or get the two or three items you need most and get out of the store.

11. Channel the impulse

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At a beach near my home, on any sunny day you’ll find people avidly hunting for shells, beach glass and special rocks. They stare fixedly at the ground as they stroll slowly, reaching down to pick up treasures and add them to a bag heavy with beach loot.

It’s apparent they’re doing something deeply satisfying and it costs nothing. Look for gratifying, cheap ways to quench your hunter-gatherer impulse. Creativity — crafting, painting, carving and baking, for a few examples — is another way to satisfy your weary soul.

12. Practice calming

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When breaking a habit or launching a new behavior it’s important to build relaxation and exercise into your daily routine. Try a brief meditation and make time for yoga, walking and other exercise that feeds your soul and helps manage stress.

13. Plan your splurges

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Total withdrawal from shopping probably isn’t possible. Try setting aside funds for sporadic treats, once a week or maybe once a month, and pledge not to indulge yourself otherwise.

14. Get your credit use under control

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Psychologists Ryan T. Howell, Grant Donnelly and Masha Ksendzova studied the connection between uncontrolled buying behavior and money and credit management. Howell writes in Psychology Today that they learned:

[A] lack of money management predicted individuals’ compulsive spending, regardless of their personality, gender, age and income. In particular, out-of-control shopping was primarily driven by poor credit management, such as not paying attention to credit card statements, not paying credit card bills on time, and exceeding credit limits.

Learning to manage money and use credit safely may help you restore your balance.

15. Start using a budget

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Nothing’s more helpful in getting spending under control than having a realistic grip on your finances. You probably know that a budget is the way to do that. But you may not know how rewarding budgeting can be. Read “Resolutions 2016: Budget Your Way to Your Financial Goals” for budgeting in six easy steps. PowerWallet, a MoneyTalksNews’ partner, is one of many free tools available for tracking spending.

16. Know yourself

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If shopping is your weakness, one way to deal with it is to sidestep it. Meg Favreau at Wisebread avoids stores when possible:

One of the things I love about shopping online is that it’s much easier to ignore extraneous items — I go to Amazon, put what I need in my cart, and check out. But I know if I try on clothing in a store, I’m much more likely to happen upon a dress that I suddenly really want. The solution? Except for groceries, pharmacy items, and thrift-store finds, I rarely shop in physical stores.

Bottom line: Know yourself. Identify what trips you up, and devise a strategy for staying out of harm’s way. For example, if you waste money on mindless magazine purchases, go five aisles out of your way to avoid the magazine rack.

17. Stop shopping as entertainment

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If hitting the mall with friends on weekends is undermining your finances, change your idea of entertainment. You may even want to rethink your choice of friends. Don’t drop the old ones, just look for other ways to enjoy them while adding new friends whose lives don’t revolve around shopping.

Find other things to do with your friends who are impulsive spenders. And make friends who are careful with money and successful at saving. Their habits will likely rub off on you.

18. Share the load

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If you’re the only one in your family doing the grocery shopping and errands, it’s time to sit down with your sweetie and split up the job.

19. Don’t buy anything you can’t return

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If you have saved receipts and purchased only items you can return, you can undo the damage after you sober up from a shopping binge. Before taking out your wallet in a store, ask about the return policy. Don’t shop a sale if purchases are final.

20. Get help

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If overspending is damaging your finances, relationships or self-respect, you probably are dealing with something too big to tackle alone. Get the help and support you deserve.

Debtors Anonymous is a free, 12-step program whose purpose is “threefold: to stop incurring unsecured debt, to share our experience with the newcomer and to reach out to other debtors.”

Do you have experience with out-of-control spending? Share what worked for you by posting a comment below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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