Impulse buying: What it is and how to avoid it

Have you ever gotten your credit card statement and been surprised by the amount you owe? Maybe you reviewed the charges and noticed several purchases you didn’t need—or had already forgotten about. This can be a sign of impulse buying.

A single impulsive purchase might seem harmless. But overspending can add up—and lead to financial stress. Read on to learn why impulse spending can happen and how to break the habit.

Key takeaways

  • Impulse buying is typically an unplanned purchase that may not fit into someone’s budget.
  • Impulse buying can be influenced by a number of factors like the shopper’s emotional state, need for instant gratification and brand loyalty.
  • With a few practices like budgeting, saving and making shopping lists, it’s possible to stop impulse buying and stay on track with long-term financial goals.

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Impulse buying definition

You may be wondering: What’s the difference between a regular purchase and impulse buying?

According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an impulse purchase is usually unplanned and may lead to someone spending more than they can afford. And when it comes to making buying decisions, it might help to think about a want versus a need.

A need is something that a person can’t live without—like food and shelter. It can also go beyond that. Students need school supplies, homeowners need furniture and commuters may need a car.

On the other hand, a want is something you may desire but could live without. Not all wants are impulse purchases—they can be planned and budgeted for. But if many of your purchases are spontaneous and your wallet feels light, it might be worth examining impulse buying habits.

Impulse buying examples

Impulse buying can come in many forms, from grabbing a candy bar in the checkout line to getting sucked into a sales pitch at the mall. Here are just a few scenarios where someone might purchase something they want but don’t need—and haven’t budgeted for.

  • Grabbing treats at the store that weren’t on the grocery shopping list.
  • Purchasing last-minute concert tickets because friends are going.
  • Getting talked into buying expensive sunglasses from a mall kiosk.
  • Splurging on a watch because it looked good in the display case.
  • Signing up for a streaming subscription to watch one movie and never canceling it.
  • Having dinner delivered instead of sticking to a meal plan.
  • Buying a gift card because it’s being sold at a discount.
  • Making an unexpected investment that seems too good to pass up.

Signs of impulsive spending

Just like there are symptoms of the common cold, it’s possible for someone to recognize when they’re spending impulsively. A few signs may include:

  • Seeking instant gratification or a mood boost.
  • Spending beyond their budget.
  • Not being able to pay off bills.
  • Feeling buyer’s remorse.
  • Returning, not using or even hiding a purchase.

Reasons why the impulse purchase cycle may happen

Research shows that between 40% and 80% of purchases are impulsive. But if this spending habit can impact personal finances, why do people do it?

Impulse buying isn’t always logical—it can be highly emotional. Things like the store environment, self-esteem and emotional well-being may affect a buyer’s decision. Here are a few reasons why an impulse purchase might be hard to resist.

Emotional state

Many different feelings can trigger impulse buying—like fear, hunger, boredom and envy.

Emotional spending can even happen more during national events. Remember those toilet paper shortages? Or the rise in airline ticket prices after a couple of years of staying home? Research shows that impulse buying and revenge spending tend to increase during inflation, presidential elections and economic downturns.

Instant gratification 

Psychologists use the term “present bias” to explain what’s happening behind instant gratification. It describes the tendency to choose a smaller payoff now—in the present moment—instead of a larger payoff in the future. When someone impulsively swings through the drive-thru for an $8 pick-me-up latte on a bad day, that might be called instant gratification.


Advertising is often aimed at getting shoppers to spend more money—and one way to do that is by encouraging impulsive spending. 40% of people spend more than they planned while shopping in a physical store, compared to the 25% of people who overspend online.

Advertising tactics may include deals and promotions, product placement and stimuli like the store environment and salespeople that influence customers.

Brand loyalty 

Car manufacturers, tech companies and clothing designers are often known for their repeat customers. Convinced that there’s a best brand of car to buy? Can’t wait for the new smartphone model to come out? Need to have the latest sneaker? That’s brand loyalty. And it might impact how quickly someone buys a brand’s product once it hits the shelves.

How to stop impulse buying

People with impulsive spending habits may want to stop—but don’t know where to start. Sticking to a budget, setting savings goals, using shopping lists and paying in cash are all ways to try to limit impulse buying. Financial freedom could be just around the corner.

Keep a budget 

Creating a budget is like drawing a map—it shows you the way to your financial goals. The CFPB offers a few simple steps to get started:

  1. Identify where your money comes from, including any income plus benefits or financial support.
  2. Categorize where your money goes and start tracking spending. This step is important for curbing impulse buying because every time a purchase is made, it shows up here.
  3. Take note of all your bills and when they’re due so you can pay them on time and in full.
  4. Create your budget using the help of a budgeting tool.

With a clear financial picture—including what’s coming in and what’s going out—impulsive shoppers might be more motivated to stick to their planned spending.

Create a savings plan

Managing income and expenses is often the first part of budgeting. But setting savings goals comes next. According to the CFPB, a SMART savings goal answers the following questions:

A chart displaying the five metrics of a SMART savings goal.

The bigger the savings goal, the less opportunity for impulse buying. Instead of swiping their card for a dose of instant gratification, someone might envision the college tuition, home or emergency fund they’re saving for instead.

Make shopping lists

A simple way to start saving money is to make a list before going shopping. Navigating the grocery store, mall or even an online retailer becomes easier with a plan in hand. That way, the only purchases made are ones that fit into the budget.

Pay with cash

Carrying and paying with cash can help limit spending—compared to paying with a credit card that might have a high credit limit. It’s a handy trick for folks who are learning how to rein in their purchases.

As you get better at avoiding impulse buying, a rewards credit card might make sense. With responsible use, you could use it to build credit and earn rewards on purchases. It could also help to learn a few tips for budgeting with a credit card.

Ask these questions before buying

Before pulling out your purse, it might be worth asking yourself a few questions like:

  • Are any of the items in my cart unplanned purchases?
  • Is this item a need or a want?
  • What emotions are affecting my desire for this item? What about advertising?
  • Could I come back for this item in 24 hours—or later, if it’s over $100?
  • How long would I have to work or save to buy this item?

By taking a pause before making a purchase, shoppers can better avoid unwanted spending habits.

Impulse buying in a nutshell

Although impulse buying can look different for everyone, it’s a habit that might not benefit your financial goals in the long run. With a few tactics like building a budget and making a shopping list, you could begin saving money for the things you really need.

Looking for other ways to set healthy limits for yourself? A spending limit on your credit cards can help curb impulsive purchases until you’re on track.

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