Navigating the Hazards of Impulse Purchasing

iphoneThis Christmas, I received a 32 GB iPod Touch as a gift – yes, it was the main gift I received this year. Unsurprisingly, after receiving such a cool gadget, I spent much of the last week playing with it – I can now Twitter with it, check my email on it, have a feed reader set up so I can read blog posts anywhere, and tons of other things.

One of the more intriguing features of the iPod Touch (and also the iPhone) is the availability of an “App Store” with just one bump of the finger. With the App Store, you can just push your finger on the screen a few times and download new applications for the device – things like games, productivity tools, and so on. Many of these items are free, but some of them cost a few dollars. Even more tempting – with just a finger push, you can download music from the iTunes Music Store – $0.99 a song.

At first glance, you might think this is really convenient – and it often is. I don’t need to be near my computer to listen to a particular song or download a game – just a couple of finger flicks and it’s downloaded. Sounds nice, right?

The problem with that is it becomes very easy to get very used to the convenience – and download more than you think. I know I certainly ran into this over the last week. Without thinking too much about it, I downloaded two albums and five different paid apps – and the bill totaled $36. Wow.

Thankfully, I received a $25 iTunes gift card that paid for most of these expenses, but it’s actually another sign of how convenient the downloads are – I didn’t actually believe I had already spent the whole gift card until I sat down and actually added up the numbers myself.

Here’s the thing: this is bound to become a more and more prevalent problem as technology advances. I know that my wife feels a similar temptation with the Kindle she’s had for more than a year now. Instead of having to go to the library or to the bookstore, she can just click a few times on her Kindle and download virtually any book she might want to read – but for most books, it costs her a bit. Many cell phones have downloadable applications that provide a similar temptation, too.

Given that I already see myself using my new device on a daily basis, how exactly can I overcome the ultra-convenience of such purchases? Here are the tactics I’ve put in place.

Make it inconvenient to download, period. I did my best to hide the “App Store” and the music store on my iPod Touch. I actually have to put in some effort to find them now, which means that by default I tend to focus on the things that I already have. And that, my friends, saves money.

Don’t browse aimlessly. If I’m playing around with my gadget, there are plenty of things to do besides simply wandering around the shop. Sure, it’s there to be used if you’re searching for something specific, but if you really don’t have anything in mind, don’t use it at all.

Do purchase research in advance. If you’re thinking about downloading something, do your research first. Make sure you’ve figured out exactly what item you want. Listen to album samples on Amazon or somewhere else where it’s far less convenient to purchase. Read reviews of the applications online. Only when you’re sure you know what item you want should you hit the store to download it.

Use the ten second rule. The “ten second rule” has saved me from making impulsive purchases many, many times. It’s simple – each time you go to make a purchase, spend ten seconds asking yourself why you’re making this purchase. Does it actually fulfill a real need? Couldn’t you find this same item somewhere else for less money? Do you really even want it, or is it just impulsive? Why do you want it? After ten seconds of such reflection, it becomes pretty easy to not purchase that album or that silly game.

Budget for anything unnecessary. All of us have different fun things that we enjoy, but when such enjoyments become very convenient, it’s easy to spend more than we think. The best way to combat this is to create a very careful “entertainment” budget for yourself. Allot a certain amount that you’re allowed to spend each month on entertainment purchases and keep careful track of your spending. I often use an Excel spreadsheet for this when I’m keeping tabs on a specific spending area. This way, when you make an impulse purchase, it’s not going to create a major money issue as long as you keep track of it.

Appreciate the freebies. Interestingly enough, most of the best things I’ve downloaded for my iPod touch were absolutely free: Twitterific, The Weather Channel, Stanza (a book reader), Pandora, and Remote were all free and I use them all a ton. This actually applies to other aspects of life – I usually go to Sam’s Club once a week for grocery shopping and I appreciate all the free food samples that are there as they usually make up my Saturday lunch, for one, and for another, one of our favorite activities when the snow isn’t on the ground is going to the park a few blocks from our home where there’s a ton of playground equipment and an excellent free disc golf course.

Good luck with your impulsive spending!

Note: I am aware that the image above is actually of an iPhone instead of an iPod touch. However, they look very similar and I simply elected to re-use one of my favorite images.

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