Updated on 09.22.14

10 Simple Ways to Beat Impulse Buying

Trent Hamm

About once a month as a Friday “bonus” post, I’m featuring an original article written by one of my favorite bloggers. This guest article was written by Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

The enemy of frugality and simplicity and your monthly budget is the impulse buy.

We’ve all done it, of course, and it can be incredibly difficult to stop the urge to buy once it’s in us. There’s an incredibly cool gadget that we have to have, a great pair of shoes or jeans, a book or magazine or dessert that won’t cost much.

If you’re in the store, or at an online site, the forces of advertising and marketing are sometimes too powerful to overcome. And yet, they can be beat, with some simple strategies.

The trick, of course, is to think about it. It’s when the impulse urge is subconscious that it’s most dangerous. If you give it some thought, and realize that you have the urge, you can apply these strategies to beat it.

If impulse buying has been secretly undermining your monthly budget, here are 10 simple strategies for beating the urge. Choose the method that works best for you, or use them in combination.

Beating the Urge to Spend

1. Create a 30-day list

Make a new rule: you can’t buy anything (except necessities) until a 30-day waiting period has passed. Put a 30-day list on your refrigerator, and when you have the urge to buy something, put it on the list with today’s date. After a month has passed, you can buy the item. Many times the urge will have passed and you can just cross the item off the list. This works if you stick to your rule. The only exceptions would be groceries and other similar necessities.

2. Don’t go to the mall

You only get the urge to buy on impulse if you’re in a shopping area (or if you’re watching TV). So, prevent the urge from happening in the first place by not going shopping. Don’t go to the mall or Walmart or other shopping areas. Only go to a store if you have a specific necessity to purchase, and go with a list. Don’t buy anything not on that list. Now get out as soon as possible. Don’t just walk around window shopping for entertainment, or you will be sorely tempted. Find other ways to have fun.

3. Don’t go to online retail sites

Just as the mall will create the urge to buy, so will online sites such as Amazon. They make it too easy to buy something. Instead, stay away from these sites.

4. Monitor your urges

Make it a point to monitor your urges, if it’s a big problem. Keep a little piece of paper, and put a tally mark on it every time you get the urge. This helps you to become more conscious of the urge, which is usually something we don’t even notice. Different symptoms can appear, such as faster breathing or a faster heart rate, when we have the urge. By becoming more aware of the changes in our body, we can begin to get the urges under control.

5. Take a deep breath

When you do get the urge, there are ways to calm it down. Deep breathing, self massage, walking around, and drinking water can all help control the urge. Take 10 deep breaths, and the urge will often be diminished enough to resist.

6. Calculate the value in life energy

If you’ve been a reader of The Simple Dollar for long, you know about how to calculate your true hourly wage. Keep that number handy, and the next time you want to buy something, divide the price of the item by your true hourly wage … this will tell you how many hours of your life you had to give up to buy that item. Sometimes the number of hours can be eye-opening, especially for more expensive items. Consider whether you really want to give up that much of your life for that item.

7. Plan your purchases

Making a list before you go shopping is important. If you can make it a habit to stick to that list, you’ll eliminate a lot of little impulse buys. For other purchases, make it a habit to plan them, save for them, shop around, and even see if you can get it for free. Going through this process ensures that your purchases are more deliberate, and less on impulse. Plan ahead for birthday and Christmas gifts, and other large purchases that you know are coming up in the month ahead.

8. Freeze your credit card

If using your credit card is a problem, consider giving it up completely (I did). If that’s not a good option for you, try literally freezing your card. Put it in a Ziploc baggie with water, seal it good, and put it in the freezer. Don’t write the credit card number anywhere. Now, if you want to make a purchase with the card, you’ll have to unfreeze it. That little wait of a couple of hours can be enough to stop you from making many purchases.

9. Ask questions

Before you buy anything, ask yourself a series of questions. Is the purchase going to improve your life in some important way? Is the purchase supposed to make you feel better? Does it help you meet one of your life goals? Will it simplify your life? These are useful questions to help you evaluate the value of a purchase, and why you’re making it. Be honest with yourself — don’t try to sell yourself!

10. Keep the end in mind

It’s useful to have clear goals in mind at all times. What do you want to do with your life? Do you have financial goals that you’re trying to accomplish, in the long-term and medium-term? Keep your savings goals in mind, and know when you’re about to make a purchase how the purchase will affect your goals.

Leo Babauta blogs about simplicity, frugality, productivity and happiness at Zen Habits.

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  1. Oswegan says:

    It’s funny, most of the time when I go to a shopping center or a store, I won’t want to buy anything at all.

    My impulses buys seem to come when I get convinced that I need something, and my obsessive traits take over and I can’t focus on anything else until I have the thing.

    That’s when I need to chain myself to something until the obsession blows over.


  2. Brian says:

    Great list, I especially like #8! :)

  3. The trick in our house is for everyone to know everyone else’s weak points. Stick me in a mall full of shoe stores and I won’t bat an eye. Same deal with my husband at the music store. But the book store? The movie store? That’s when all resolve dissolves. Now we don’t even go into that area of the mall, and our discretionary spending has probably dropped by half.

    Thanks, Leo. Fantastic, as usual.

  4. jtimberman says:

    The two biggest keys to stopping impulse purchases are very simple:

    1. BUDGET. Do a zero-based budget where you spend every dollar of income on paper before the month begins. This is the absolutely most important key to a healthy financial plan, because guess what? Then you HAVE a financial plan! And you plan your impulses!

    2. CASH. Use cash wherever possible for purchases. When the cash runs out, no more purchases. You already know what you were going to have money for because you did the budget first. If you want to blow some money on impulses, that’s great. Plan to blow some money. Do it on purpose, in advance, and curb the “spend more than you make” habits.

  5. Laura says:

    My husband helps me curb my impulsive buy. I love to read, but sometimes I go overboard.

  6. John says:

    If there is no impulsive buying. Then who is going to buy at my store.

  7. !wanda says:

    @John: You sell nothing that someone would want to buy after waiting thirty days?

  8. Nadine says:

    I love to read and could spend a fortune at book stores. Now, I go online and browse the bestsellers or book catagories that I am interested in. I then go to the public library web site and request a hold for those books. The books (and audiobooks!) are delivered to my local library branch. This satisfies my urge to shop and doesn’t cost a dime!

  9. Kate says:

    Yesterday I took a daytrip with my DH to NYC, something for which we’d had bus tickets for some time. I packed homemade picnic-y foods for lunch. I figured we’d have at least one restaurant meal and have a great time as a planned splurge in a year of really good frugal practices. We are serious foodies, so we planned to visit Zabar’s, Murray’s cheese shop and some other culinary meccas.

    The only food we ended up buying as convenience items to eat right away were a diet coke, two poppyseed bagels, some smoked salmon shmear, and two on-draught micro-brews for my beer fanatic husband. I just couldn’t see a visit to NYC without some fresh bagels for me or good beer for him. We spent somewhere around $100 on gourmet items.

    We visited the MoMa for the free Friday evening admission and paid for admission to the Frick. We decided not to eat dinner in the city and just head home relatively early. We were gone from 6:30 am to 10 pm.

    It was a little odd spending so freely when I normally keep such strict discipline over my purchases. I told myself that I’d only buy stuff that I had no way of finding in the much more rural area we live in. The feeling of letting go and giving myself permission to spend after living very frugally was so different from the way I used to quieten the twinge of guilt about spending by just telling myself that I deserved these things, or that I would cut back in other areas, which of course I rarely did.

    I feel great about the trip. It was a planned excursion with a moderate amount of indulgence. The weather was great. We had both a birthday and anniversary this week, and this was sort of a combination celebration for both. We’ll enjoy the stuff we bought for weeks to come. Yes, I wish stuff had been cheaper, or that we’d been able to comparison shop for better prices. But it really feels like we earned this fun, and that it was “okay.”

  10. DJ says:

    An excellent list. I really need to review this from time to time.

    As for #8, I’d tried that a couple of years ago, with my credit card frozen solid in a big lump in the back of the freezer. At the first sign of car trouble, I had it under the hot water tap, and it was free in about 1 minute or so…

  11. Susy says:

    I find not shopping to be the best strategy. My husband and I decided that for 2007 we weren’t going to buy any clothing or anything we didn’t need. After a while of shopping and not buying anything we’ve lost the urge to go shopping, even for fun. We now prefer going on a walk or just staying home and watching a movie.

    Needless to say we’re saving about $150 by not buying clothing or things we don’t need. All those little insignificance purchases really add up. All the savings are deposited into our Alaskan cruise fund (they’ll be enough for an upgrade to a balcony cabin)!

  12. Mike Stankavich says:

    One nice trick that I have found for Amazon is to add the item that catches my fancy to the cart, then immediately click the ‘Save it for later’ button. The only time that I select and buy an item from Amazon in the same session is when I have specific plan to use the item in the near future.

    I then review items that I have previously saved to see which ones still have a strong appeal. I have been able to cut my book purchases down significantly by following this approach.

    I haven’t really identified a specific time delay such as 30 days. I find that my rational brain kicks in as soon as I distance myself from that initial buzz of excitement.

  13. Mike Stankavich says:

    One other advantage of holding Amazon items in the Save for later bin is that I am able to batch my saved items to reach the $25 minimum for free shipping. I used to often search for some insignificant item that I didn’t really need to reach that $25 threshold.

  14. Matt says:

    My rule for buying DVD’s is: Don’t confuse that which you want to watch with that which you want to buy. It works pretty well.

  15. Jasmine says:

    jtimberman, your budget advice to spend all of your money on paper before you get it is right on target. This has really worked well for me, and then I know for the following two weeks exactly how much I have to spend on groceries, transportation, discretionary spending, etc. It feels really good to know exactly where my money is going. The ‘leftover’ money after expenses is divyed up between retirement and savings.

    That also forces a two week waiting period for new items to be added into the budget. I used to buy things that I needed or wanted right when they popped into my head, but then couldn’t keep track of how many extra things I was buying per pay period. The waiting period forces me to prioritize and made a conscious decision to spend.

  16. John says:

    !wanda You don’t have to wait 30 days. 1 week at the longest.

  17. Sm4k says:

    One of the things I’ve done that made a big impact on my impulse buying was unsubscribing to email newsletters from stores I found myself impulse buying from. Everything from GameStop to Amazon. I’ve also had to reign in my browsing when I’m shopping for work stuff, but that’s not too hard.

  18. Eileen says:

    My Husband & I have no credit cards. We avoid it like plague. That is for us. And we don’t see anything wrong with people who have it. But the thing is, anything we want to buy make us think a lot of times over & over again.

  19. Jett Brenner says:

    The list is key! Only buy things on the list. If you really needed it, it would be on the list! This is especially usefull for places like Costco. You see great deals! You have to resist the urge! If you really need it, put it on the list and wait a few days. You will probably find that it was a passing fancy.

  20. Pauline says:

    Reg: Amazon: what works often for me, is to put the items I would like to buy right away to my “wishlist”. A lot of items stay there on that wishlist and are pretty soon forgotten.

  21. Dave says:

    I really need to get my thinking straight for big ticket purchases. I keep setting my goals way back, last purchase was a 1700$ TV, I love it, but I also had a tv that i bought less than 2 years ago (went from 42 to 54″). This tv is much better, but I loved my old tv too, it was totally impulse, I could see myself buying this tv maybe in a year from now with no remorse but I don’t think I got the full value out of my last one and now the new one sits there and reminds me of my $ waste everyday:).
    The thing with impulse spending that I never seem to plan on is the ripple effect, it was 1700 but somehow I ended up more than 2k behind on budget! And the only reason i got on the tv kick was because I was helping a friend shop around for his first hdtv!! I had NO plans in the near future of buying one until then :(

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