Updated on 11.16.10

Impulse Control

Trent Hamm

As I’ve mentioned on here several times, I have a weekly piano lesson, something I enjoy very much. On my way to my lesson, I drive by a bookstore and a game shop. On my way home from my lesson, I drive by that same bookstore and same game shop.

Every week, especially on the way home, I’m tempted to stop. I see the game shop coming up on the right and I get an impulse to stop there. I see the bookstore a little bit later on the left and I get an impulse to stop there.

Yet, almost always, I resist.

Five years ago, I would have stopped, almost every time. I would have went into the game shop, thought about my friends, and picked up a new game to play with them (even though I have quite a few already). I would have stopped at the bookstore and picked up a few new books to read (even though I have a book backlog right now).

Today, at most, I’ll stop once every two months at one or the other of the shops, and even then, rarely do I walk out of the store with an item. If I do buy at such stores, I usually walk in the door knowing exactly what I’m looking for and walk out the door with just that item.

What caused this (hugely financially beneficial) change? Aside from the trite answer of “I just changed my perspective on life,” I found that a handful of tactics really facilitated this change.

Avoid impulsive moments
For me, the best immediate move to make was to simply get myself away from impulsive moments. I started driving a different route to work. I avoided social activities that revolved around buying stuff. I started even re-evaluating my hobbies in order to seek out ones that didn’t encourage impulsive buying (like walking in the woods, for example). The biggest reason for doing this was to simply break the cycle of impulsive buying.

Reflect (at length) on the times when you give into your impulses
If you do discover that you’ve given into an impulse, spend some time thinking about that event and why it happened. Why did you spend that money? Are you really happy with that purchase? What can you do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? You don’t need to beat yourself up over it, but you will find great reward in thinking about the “why” of the matter, as it will lead you towards not repeating the mistake.

Minimize your stress
When you’re stressed, you’re more impulsive. I certainly observe this in my own life – when I feel a lot of pressure and stress, I usually just seek immediate ways to relieve it, even if it’s not a good long-term choice. A new game or book feels good, so I’ll sometimes fall right into that. Thus, it’s useful to seek out ways to reduce the amount of stress in your life. I meditate, pray, play games, read, and play with my children – all of these help me de-stress.

Be accountable to someone else
This is particularly easy if you’re married. The way we do it is by having completely open bills – credit card statements, bank statements, and other such things are reviewed by both of us. Because of this, it’s impossible to “hide” things – we have to be fully honest with each other. If you have a spouse, I highly recommend this. Of course, if you don’t have such a partner, you may have more difficulty doing this – a trusted friend, perhaps.

Allow yourself some impulsiveness – but keep boundaries on it from the start
My wife and I each have some leniency when it comes to impulsive buys. We essentially each have an “allowance” with which we can each buy whatever we’d like. Often, I’ll buy a game or a book – my wife usually buys a book. This “allowance” often gives us just the freedom we need to not have a sense of being deprived while also keeping very good control over our personal finances.

Use the ten second rule and the thirty day rule
The “ten second rule” basically means that you should spend ten seconds thinking about any purchase you’re about to make before making it. This helps you to reflect on potential impulse purchases and often put them directly back on the shelf. The “thirty day rule” means that you should spend thirty days before buying any item that costs more than a certain threshold – say, $25. This prevents you from drowning yourself on an expensive impulse buy.

What’s your impulse?
Most of us have impulses that work in opposition to our financial goals. We buy gum or a bottle of soda at the checkout. We pick up a DVD. We buy some new clothes. We purchase a new gadget or a new book. Most of the time, these decisions are heavily impulsive – done on the spur of the moment – and we often feel bad about them later, particularly when we find we’re not using them much and now we’re facing a bill that we can’t easily handle.

Breaking free of such impulses can have a very large and dramatic effect on your finances. It becomes easier to budget and plan ahead. You suddenly have more resources each month with which you can save, pay off debts, or invest for the future. Best of all, you find that you value the things that you do buy a lot more than you used to.

Impulse control is an essential tool for personal finance success.

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  1. Jamie says:

    One thing that I do (in lieu of sharing the billing statement with my spouse– I’m single) is that I keep a running tally of “Misc” purchases in my Monthly Budget spreadsheet– purchases that aren’t food-related or part of my monthly bills.

    It’s kind of like counting calories! Knowing that I’ll have to bump up the Misc number at the end of the day makes me less likely to “bite” when I have the urge to buy impulsively.

  2. friend says:

    would have gone.

  3. valleycat1 says:

    I have a cc that I pay off every month & use mostly for ‘wants.’ I set up an online alert that emails me when I reach the amount I’ve specified.

    I’m learning to not make immediate purchases from catalogs – I mark or save the page and file it for the next bill-pay day or payday. Usually by the time that rolls around, I’m no longer so interested – or decide to wait to see if the item goes on sale. And if I save the whole catalog instead of marking the page, often I can’t figure out why I saved it/what item I had wanted.

  4. Josh says:

    Controlling your impulses is the best idea. I think if you just take a few days to make financial decisions and purchase decisions, you will make better decisions.

    Finance yourself and then your financial purchases help build your wealth instead of moving wealth to banks.

  5. Julia says:

    My impulse buys are almost always fast food. By fast food I’m including anything that I buy because I’m too tired, impatient, or hungry to go home & cook. I always have plenty of groceries on hand, just rarely have the energy to do anything with them.
    Since moving to a new city, I’ve been eating out more than ever. I’m finding that when I implement impulse control, I usually end up not eating (I went without dinner 4 out 5 workdays last week, without breakfast twice, and went out lunch every single day).

    My plan: hurry up and find a permanent home so I can get unpacked and start building a routine.

  6. Daria says:

    I was really consuming the McDonald’s Caramel Frappacinos. I was buying them in the afternoon when it was buy one get one free from 2-4. I would put the second one in the freezer for another day. However, while visiting family I learned from the new requirements in Phila. to put the calorie counts that a small has 450 calories. We don’t have that requirement in Texas. I have not bought one in a month and several people have asked me if I have lost weight.

  7. CB says:

    Those coffee confections are not worth it in terms of calories. Switch to a low fat latte or a hot choc with low-fat milk and a half pull. Too much sugar!

  8. Brittany says:

    I find setting a strict monthly budget allows me to keep on track financially while still allowing for impulsive splurges. I have a strict $25/week food budget, which is about $15 fruit, veggies, and milk and $10 to restock staples and splurge if there’s some left over. Some weeks it’s meat or seafood (I eat mostly veggie). Some weeks it’s nice cheese. Some weeks it’s ice cream. Some weeks I accidentally let staples get too low and don’t get to splurge. But usually I get a “treat” each week, which keeps the “I’m feeling deprived” impulse buys down, makes me happy, and keeps my expenses low.

  9. WR says:

    I share the same weakness for bookstores and game shops.

    My remedy for impulse control is to periodically organize my collection of both. I will throw on a podcast and put my books in alpha order. 9 times out of 10 I will find a ‘lost in plain sight’ book that I forgot I had, meant to read and somehow lost track of.

    I will shuffle through my games and trade-in any we have not played in a while.

    (does not always work. I suppose nothing does)

    Another thing I like to do is a pre-emptive strike. There is a great used bookstore close by. We will go and load up periodically which takes the wind out of my need for a new book for a bit.


  10. kristine says:

    Julia, the BK whopper Jr., NO MAYO is the healthiest thing on their menu. (Yes, even more so than the salads). At Mc D’s it is the hamburger. AtC- oh nevermind-nothing. A Dunkin D donut?- Get the french twist donut- it is light and air and the least awful for you. I did research on this a while ago, and keep that doc in my glove compartment. So this way, if I feel the urge, I pick the healthiest fast food item from a specific place, which coincidentally, is usually among the cheapest of items.

  11. ditchtheboss says:

    Great post! It can be hard to control impulsiveness. My weakness is take away food. I hate cooking but I love eating. Anyone sympathize to that? On the weekends I want to spend time with my wife and kids so I tend to encourage take away so we reduce the amount of time spent in the kitchen. However this can very quickly add up to a significant amount over a period of time.

    I hope to control this impulsive behavior soon.

  12. Lisa says:

    You can find some good, fast recipes online. Consider it a culinary adventure to find the recipes you like best.

    My husband discovered a great app called Epicurious that lets you type in whatever misc items you have in your frig or cabinet and come up with recipes you can use for them (you can also set for low-salt,etc.)

    Also, the crock pot is your friend ;-)

  13. KP says:

    Self-control is the key to taking control of your money. Impulse purchases can really add up and using the tips you provided definitely helps. As for me, I tend to stick with my shopping list and delay other purchases to evaluate the need.

  14. Megan says:

    My impulses often seem to come out of nowhere. Normally, I really dislike spending money, to the point of “cheap” not frugal, which I’m working on. But ever so often, I’ll say to myself, “I’m too cheap” and buy something on a whim.

    It may be something I’ve wanted for a while, but because I don’t like spending money, I haven’t done as much research on it. Or I bought it at a time when we couldn’t really afford whatever it was.

    There’s a happy medium there, but I haven’t found it yet.

  15. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    I think your first piece of advice is the best Trent, avoid putting yourself in these situations altogether. It’s very difficult to think of the long term when we’re faced with a very short term benefit. So rather than imagining ourselves capable of impossible feats of self control, just avoid putting yourself in that situation to begin with.

    I’ve stopped going to all you can eat buffets because I know I tend to overeat. I also avoid certain shopping areas because I know I tend to go into the local candy store and buy too much.

  16. Jennifer says:

    Every Tuesday I have to pick my daughter up from school and take her right to gymnastics. I have started planning many of my errands for right before that time. The first few weeks I had coupons for free Frappes at McDonalds and I would swing by and enjoy one while reading a book and waiting on my daughter. I ran out of coupons, yet kept stopping by. I have never been someone who goes through drive thus – ever. But yet, I found myself spending $2.29 every Tuesday. I am currently trying to break myself of this habit and have successfully done it 2 weeks in a row. It is hard to avoid the impulses!

  17. sheila too says:

    I hear you about the temptation of books! I have always used the library, but they don’t have all the titles I wanted to read, and so I had been buying lots of books from Amazon. I’ve since cut back on reading blogs so that I won’t have additional recommendations and thus the temptation to order more books. I’ve joined paperbackswap to help me get rid of some of the books in my collection. I’ve had more books going out than coming in on paperbackswap in the month since I joined, and I’m saving my credits to use in the coming months.

    I agree with those who have a misc. budget or an allowance for temptations. I have a “keep the change” game going. Last month, I used part of it to buy winter gloves. This month, I used a bit more when a gal pal and I went for a hike then bought coffee drinks at a local cafe so that we could hang out for a while longer and talk about books we’ve been reading. I never buy coffee out any more, unless I’m meeting a friend or I’m out on a date with my husband.

    The change game has been great, I always question if a purchase would be a good use of my funds; it takes me about a month to amass $25, and I find that I am very reluctant to spend it when the impulse to buy something comes up — unless it’s something that I am sure will be a good purchase.

  18. michael bash says:

    “… I would have went” into the game shop or some such. My god! Trent! The best game is called “Education”.

  19. Controlling “impulses” to me is simply a matter of discipline and willpower.

    But I deifinitely tie it into stress too!

    Minimizing your stress level is another great way to control impulses

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