How to Stop Impulse Spending

Karlie* was a hard-working corporate attorney living in a luxury condo in Boston. She loved shopping and always seemed to have a new outfit, whether she was at work or meeting a friend after hours.

Like her mother and aunts, she was a proud "shopaholic"; a common joke among them was that shopping was "in the blood." On vacations or during weekends, nothing would make her happier than a little retail therapy and entering her condo with bags full of new clothes in hand. Discovering a box from Ann Taylor or Nordstrom waiting for her on her doorstep would spark joy in her heart. Any guilt she felt was snuffed out by telling herself she bought everything on sale or that she deserved to have nice clothes because of her position, a stressful job that required 70- and 80-hour work weeks.

However, despite being a well-paid attorney, Karlie was living paycheck to paycheck. She often found herself overspending and then struggling to make ends meet until her next paycheck arrived. Once, she didn't have enough in her checking or savings to pay her bills and had to borrow money from her fiance to cover the shortfall.

Shortly thereafter, Karlie received an unexpected bonus at work for her work on a crucial case, work that had kept her in the office well after midnight some nights and on the weekends. She was jazzed and couldn't wait to treat herself to something special. For months she'd been eyeing a pricey designer handbag on Net-a-Porter, and the bonus covered it, but not the other goodies that ended up in her online cart.

A few days later when Karlie checked her bank balances online, she realized she had almost no money left for bills and other necessities. When her fiance questioned why she hadn't used her bonus to pay bills or make good on the money she borrowed from him, she realized that not only was she having trouble with her spending, her spending habits were impacting her closest relationships ... and not in a good way. It was time to make some changes.

What Is Impulse Spending and Why Do We Spend?

Impulse spending refers to the act of making a purchase without careful consideration or planning. It's often driven by a sudden desire or urge to buy something, rather than by a calculated decision based on budget and need. Impulse spending can be a problem if it leads to overspending or financial difficulty.

There are many reasons why people engage in impulse spending. Some common ones include:

  • Emotional distress. People shop to cope with negative emotions such as boredom, anxiety, or sadness.
  • The influence of advertising. Advertisements are designed to create a desire, and this can lead people to make impulse purchases they wouldn't normally make.
  • A lack of planning. When people don't have a budget or a spending plan, it's easier to make impulse purchases.
  • A desire for instant gratification. Impulse spending can be driven by a passion for immediate pleasure or reward, rather than long-term satisfaction.
  • A feeling of competition. Some people feel pressure to keep up with their friends or peers and make impulse purchases as a result.

It's important to remember that impulse spending is a common behavior, and it's okay to treat yourself every once in a while. The key is to be mindful of your spending habits and to make sure that your purchases align with your values and your long-term goals. If you're finding that your impulse spending is causing problems in your life, like they were with Karlie, it may be helpful to seek out support from a financial planner or a therapist.

How to Stop Impulse Spending

Impulse spending can be a real challenge, especially when you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Here are a few strategies you might try to help you curb the urge to shop mindlessly:

  • Make a budget and stick to it. Having a clear idea of how much money you have available to spend can help you make more mindful decisions about your purchases.
  • Avoid shopping when you're feeling emotional. If you're feeling upset or stressed, it can be easy to look to shopping as a way to make yourself feel better. Try to find other ways to cope with your emotions.
  • Don't shop "after hours." Online shopping is open 24/7, which makes curbing impulse spending even harder. If you're spending too much money with online retailers, use a site blocker to help you avoid them or make a rule not to use your computer at times when you feel vulnerable.
  • Leave your credit cards at home. It can be easier to make impulsive purchases when you have a credit card with you because you don't have to think about the immediate cost. If you can, try leaving your cards at home and only taking cash with you when you go shopping. 
  • Hit "pause" before making a big purchase. If you're considering a big-ticket item, try giving yourself a cooling-off period before making the purchase. This can give you time to think about whether you really need or want the item.
  • Find healthy ways to cope with boredom. Sometimes we make impulsive purchases because we're bored and looking for something to do. Try finding healthy, low-cost ways to entertain yourself, such as going for a walk or reading a book.

Karlie decided to seek help from a financial planner. She learned how to create a budget and stick to it, began paying off debt (including the money she borrowed from her fiance-now-husband!), and started working with a therapist to address the underlying emotional issues that were driving her excessive shopping. As a result, she also gave up her high-pressure position and took a less stressful job at a smaller law firm outside the city where she's happier and has more time to spend with her friends and family.

With time and effort, Karlie was able to get her finances under control and live a more balanced and fulfilling life. She still gets a little buzz when she drives past her favorite retail outlets, but when she decides to shop, she does so in a mindful and responsible way.

*Name changed

†This blog is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have.Check out our upcoming financial education events

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About Author

Diana Burrell
Diana Burrell

Diana Burrell is the marketing communications director at Hanscom FCU. She has a background in magazine journalism, as well as marketing, advertising, and public relations, and has authored over a dozen books. You can reach her at dburrell@hfcu.org.

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