Gain control over your spending habits—your bank account will thank you.

By Marla Christiansen
Updated November 19, 2018
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How to Avoid Impulse Buys, Woman Shopping in store
Credit: Thomas M. Barwick/Getty Images

Thanks to online shopping and credit cards, every impulse purchase is just a single swipe or click away. When it's this easy to shop, it's no wonder many of us end up making impulse purchases we may later regret. In turn, these financial missteps (buying a dress you don't need, or splurging on a phone you can't afford) can lead not just to overspending, but also to feelings of shame. Considering how connected our shopping habits are with our emotions, financial therapy can help us take control of our impulse buying habits.

“Impulse shopping occurs because of a lack of mindfulness around the actual transaction of money,” explains Dr. Megan McCoy, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who is the secretary for the Financial Therapy Association. But by following some simple steps outlined below by Dr. McCoy and Bari Tessler, a financial therapist and founder of The Art of Money, you can become more aware of the reasons behind why you're impulse shopping in the first place. By focusing on what's motivating you to shop and learning easy strategies to curb your spending, you can set up a system that will make you (and your wallet) happier.

How to Avoid Impulse Buys, Woman Shopping in store
Credit: Thomas M. Barwick/Getty Images

Check in With Yourself Before Buying

Being aware of the feelings that surface around money is essential to making good financial decisions. Tessler strongly recommends doing a body check-in the next time you go to buy a sweater or a pair of jeans on a whim. “All the same emotions that come up in every other area of life come up around money as well, so it's really important to understand what is the emotion or set of emotions that come up for you,” she adds.

Before you buy that couch, sweater, or sneakers, stop, pause, and notice what’s going on in your body—both physically and emotionally. Is your body relaxed or tense? Are your shoulders up to your ears or are they down? Is your breath shallow or deep? Are you excited or anxious? Mindfully observing if you feel anxious while making a purchase could be your cue not to buy the item.

Ask Yourself These 4 Questions Before Making a Purchase

Before buying, try a popular check-in technique used by support groups like A.A., called the HALT method. HALT has us ask ourselves: "Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?" Tessler explains: “If we can stop and pause and just see what’s going on in our body ... we might stop ourselves from making an impulsive buy." By taking the time to get to know ourselves better, we begin to gather more information on when we’re most likely to splurge and what state provokes these actions. For example, if you learn you often overspend when you're stressed right after work, you can learn to avoid shopping at that time to prevent purchases you may later regret.

Set Your "Impulse Buy" Budget

If you're not currently using a money-tracking app or program, now is a good time to start. There are many free apps that make it easy to keep track of what you're spending and can even help you set up a budget. Download Mint or Wally, then set up a budget for "food," "housing," "healthcare," and other common expenses. If you want to be able to still make the occasional impulse purchase but just want to curb wild overspending, make "Impulse Shopping" its own section of your personal budget. Set up a notification and the app will let you know once you've hit your limit. This way, you'll still have the freedom to make some spontaneous decisions, but that spending will still be factored ino the big picture of your budget. 

Take Some Time Off from Shopping

When shopping compulsions turn into a bad habit, you’ll need to break the cycle completely before you can shop again in a healthy way. “It takes 21 days to break a habit, so if you’ve gotten into the habit of splurging, then you need to avoid shopping for at least 21 days to learn new ways of being around shopping,” advises McCoy. She suggests staying away from shops you enjoy and online shopping and instead finding things to do that don’t require spending.

Knowing ways to treat yourself that don’t involve buying something can be extremely empowering. “You deserve something, too, but make it a bubble bath with wonderful music rather than a cashmere sweater,” proposes McCoy. After you’ve broken the spending cycle, try switching to a more concrete form of payment—cash. “It just emotionally feels more powerful to see how much you are spending rather than swiping a card and signing a machine,” she explains.

Assess Your Needs

While keeping a list of the things you actually need is a great way to cut down on impulse buys, an even better tool is having a set of questions that you can ask yourself during small, medium, and large money decisions. “When I’m clothes shopping it can be anything from, ‘Do I really need this? Do I want this? Will I really enjoy this or get value out of this?,’” says Tessler. If you don't answer "yes" to every question, you know it's time to move on.

Watch Out for Retail Tricks

Being a mindful shopper also means being aware of retail tricks. “So many of the ‘deals’ are trappings,” warns McCoy, “Buy what you need now, not what you think you may need one day because it’s a good deal.” When people buy things on a whim, they’re not letting the logical part of their brain make the financial decision, but rather the reactive part. The next time you're debating whether to buy a dress or a necklace on sale, ignore the "deal" for a moment and ask yourself the questions outlined on tip #5 instead. If you don't answer "yes" to every question, it doesn't matter how much money you're theoretically saving, you don't need to buy it.

Rein In the Holiday Shopping Spree

“The holidays are like a microcosm of your larger money story and it gets really exacerbated because this is when there’s a lot of expectations around family and gift-giving," explains Tessler. "For some people, gift-giving is their love language, for others it’s not,” she says. Rather than let your emotions run the show, set up a budget for how much you'd like to spend on each person or each gift even before you set foot in the store or start scrolling online. It's easier to stick to a dollar amount when you have one set in mind beforehand. There's a lot of social pressure to overspend during the holiday season, but coming into it with a clear budget in mind will help.