10 Tricks To Prevent Impulse Buys (Both In-Store and Online)

by Andrea Norris-McKnight

DIY Landscaping for Less photo

Too many unplanned purchases can leave you broke and in debt. Use these tricks to prevent purchases that you and your budget will later regret and create a plan to turn those have-to-have impulse buys into planned purchases.

Impulse buys are those little and sometimes big unplanned purchases we make throughout the month that throw the budget out of whack and often leave us with a feeling of buyer’s remorse.

And they are probably costing you more than you realize.

How Does the Cost of Your Monthly Impulse Buys Compare to the Average?

An annual Slickdeals impulse spending survey reported that in 2022, people spent an average of $314 per month on impulse buys. That number was up from $276 in 2021.

Depending on your budget, $314 is quite a big leak and can leave you wondering where in the world your money went.

So How Do We Stop That Impulse To Shop?

If you were trying to resist impulse purchases, pre-internet, you stayed out of the local mall and only went to the grocery store with a list in hand and the resolve to keep anything not on that list out of your cart. You threw away those glossy mail-order catalogs without so much as a glance, and you turned off the TV when the late-night infomercials started.

While the same tips can prevent online impulse buys, the shopping temptations we face any given day are much greater than they once were.

We no longer need to leave the house to shop, not even for groceries. The stores have come to our home. Impulse buys are just a few quick clicks from our email inboxes and social media feeds.

We need some new tips.

10 Tricks That Can Help Keep Impulse Buys and Your Budget in Check

By using the following tricks, you can turn those impulse buys into planned purchases that fit snugly into your budget, no matter how tight, and avoid making purchases you’ll later regret.

1. Shop with both a Buy List and a Wish List.

Before entering a store or going online, write out your shopping list of planned purchases (your Buy List). As you put things in your cart, whether physical or virtual, cross them off the list.

And don’t put anything in your cart that is not on the list!

As you spot an impulse buy, add it to your Wish List instead of your cart. Most online stores already have this feature available to those with an account. If shopping in a store, use your phone to snap a photo of the desired item, including the price, and keep a digital Wish List.

Once a month, view your Wish List(s). Often you’ll find you no longer want many of the items on your lists. You might not even remember why you thought some items were appealing to begin with. (I’ll tell you why in the next step.)

Remove these items! You’ll be glad you saved your money, which is a much better feeling than buyer’s remorse.

As an added incentive, you might even want to keep a list of all the items you remove from your Wish List and the number of dollars you save. It can help motivate you to avoid future unplanned buys when you feel the urge to splurge.

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2. Remove the emotion from your shopping decisions.

Let’s face it. For some of us, shopping brings a lot of pleasure. Whether it is the thrill of scoring some incredible deal or the excitement of receiving a package from FedEx, shopping can result in a lot of joy. Sixty-two percent of respondents in the Slickdeals survey mentioned above reported that they feel happy after an impulse purchase.

But it can also result in an out-of-whack budget and a load of debt.

If you’re a pleasure-driven shopper, find out why. If you can better understand why you shop for pleasure, you can better find ways to control it. Take a look at The Emotions Behind Buying Stuff for more info on emotional shopping.

Your Wish List can be key to removing the emotion from your shopping decisions and preventing a whole lot of buyer’s remorse.

Allow emotion to let you add items to your Wish List. When you later revisit your Wish List, if the initial thrill you felt when you first saw the item is gone, reason will have you remove it from the list (and save you from that buyer’s remorse).

If seeing the item on your Wish List makes you just as excited as when you first saw it, then that is an item to consider working into your budget.

3. Make your Buy List as specific as possible.

When your Buy List is very specific, it is much easier to ignore everything in a store that is not on your list.

For instance, when your grocery Buy List is specific with brands and sizes, you can walk straight down the grocer’s chip aisle and grab the family-size on-sale Cool Ranch Doritos that are on your Buy List.

When your Buy List simply lists “chips,” you typically end up wandering down the chip aisle trying to decide which chips look good and then leave the chip aisle with potato chips, nacho chips, and pretzels tossed in your cart.

Maybe you need a new pair of sandals. Don’t go online browsing the “Shoes” section of Kohls for sandals. Instead, use the site’s search functions to look specifically for “black flat sandals,” so you will be less tempted by all of the other sandals that might be really cute but that you really don’t need.

4. Play “Would You Rather.”

If keeping a Wish List is not enough to help you be less impulsive, perhaps a familiar game will help.

First, select a big purchase to put on your Wish List. Something you truly want but never have the money to buy. Perhaps it’s a new laptop, a newer car, or an expensive vacation.

Any time an unplanned purchase tempts you, ask yourself, “Would I rather have these new jeans or a new laptop?” “Would I rather have another cute throw rug or take a cruise?”

You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to pass on a small purchase when a much more rewarding purchase is awaiting you.

Another “game” that can help weed out purchases that aren’t as important as you think is figuring out how many hours of work it takes to pay for an item.

For instance, If you make $15 per hour and those boots you think you can’t live without cost $125, you’ll have to work 8.3 hours to pay for them.

Are those boots worth one entire day of work?

5. Find a browsing substitute.

Whether in-store or online, browsing is browsing, and it can be detrimental to your budget.

If browsing has become an expensive hobby, find a suitable replacement to help you fulfill that itch.

Rather than strolling through the local mall or thrift store, stroll through a park instead. It’s free, and you can get a bit of exercise while you people-watch and catch up on your favorite podcast.

If browsing online stores is your vice, browse Pinterest instead. Pinning things to a board can feel like adding stuff to an online shopping cart.

But your budget will still be intact when you leave the site.

Just steer clear of pins for cute outfits, home décor, or any other pin category where retailer pins might be lurking. Instead, search for craft tutorials, recipes, fitness routines, or some other topic of interest that won’t inspire you to spend. Or browse for vacation destinations you’d like to visit with all the money you’re going to save by curbing your impulse shopping habit.

And if you can’t stay out of the online stores? Make a list of your favorite websites where you tend to overspend and have your partner or a friend enable parental blocking controls on your devices to prevent you from accessing these sites.

A bit extreme? Sure. But not as extreme as your debt problem can get if you can’t stop shopping.

Have you overspent your way into debt?

Make a plan to get back out. Get How to Conquer Your Debt No Matter How Much You Have and create a debt payoff plan personalized to your budget and lifestyle.

6. Keep retailers out of your mailbox and your inbox.

It can be tough to resist slick advertising and seemingly good deals. And retailers love to dangle discounts in front of potential buyers.

While most no longer inundate our mailboxes, they certainly love to fill our inboxes, at least once we invite them in. The good thing is you can kick them back out with a simple unsubscribe.

Why not commit to unsubscribing from any retailers’ emails that hit your inbox this month? Or at least from most of them?

If fear of missing out on great deals has you hesitant to unsubscribe from all of your favorite retailers, at least have them delivered to someplace where you won’t see them every time you check your email.

Create a separate email account strictly for retailer emails. Don’t check that email account unless you need to buy something, or limit yourself to only checking it every few weeks.

You can also use an app such as unroll.me. This app lets you “roll up” all of your subscriptions into a daily digest that you can choose to view…or not. The significant benefit is that it prevents you from seeing any enticing subject lines that make you click to find out more and spend more.

Finally, don’t subscribe to any additional retailers’ email lists unless you’re looking to buy something specific from them and they are offering a special discount for subscribers. And after you make your purchase, unsubscribe.

7. Don’t shop with credit cards.

Before the days of online shopping, if you wanted to control spending, it was recommended to always pay with cash. The idea was that if you never carried more cash than your budget allowed, you couldn’t make any impulse buys that would hurt your budget.

But how do you use cash in an online world? You don’t.

That doesn’t mean you have to use a credit card, though.

One trick that can work well for a frequently-used site is buying a reloadable gift card. Only reload the card with a pre-budgeted amount once per month and never spend more than your gift card balance allows.

And if your favorite site doesn’t have a reloadable gift card option? You can use a reloadable debit card (not a debit card tied to your checking account).

8. Understand how credit cards can contribute to impulse buying if you decide not to give up the plastic.

You might be considering the rewards points you’ll miss out on by ditching the credit cards. And it is a legitimate argument for using a credit card if you successfully pay off your balance each month. Those rewards points add up!

But psychology studies show that we spend more when paying with credit cards than with cash, especially when it comes to impulse buys. You can learn more about why here, but a primary reason is that paying with plastic removes the “pain” we feel when we fork over cash.

And many of us are probably even further removed from that payment pain since we no longer have to enter our credit card information online. We either have our card info stored on our favorite online shopping sites or use a digital wallet.

If studies show that we tend to spend more using plastic than when using cash, I wonder what studies say about how much more we spend using a digital wallet rather than a physical credit card?

So what can you do? For starters, don’t store your credit card information online. Retailers didn’t give us this functionality to save us time when shopping. They did so to make it easier for us to give them our money with a few quick clicks. They took away the little time we previously had to weigh our purchasing choices before buying.

Some online retailers, such as Amazon, give us a 1-click buying option if our card information is stored. It might as well be called the impulse buying option. You don’t even have the chance to view those items in your online cart.

So if you choose to continue shopping with credit cards, be very aware of how much of your spending is unplanned and consider whether the rewards points are worth those extra purchases.

9. Keep your receipts for all returnable items.

Some impulse buys are not returnable – not that candy bar you grabbed in the grocery checkout line or those tickets to that concert you bought mere seconds after seeing the “on sale now” ad.

But you can get your money back for many of the impulse buys you make.

Make a point to leave the tags on that new pair of jeans, and don’t open the box for that new kitchen gadget. When that buyer’s remorse kicks in, you’ll be able to get your money back because you’ll have the receipt. Even paying for the return shipping will be worth it on pricier items.

And if you’re still loving that item after a few weeks? Remove the tags or open the box, and then find ways to cut back on other budget areas to cover the purchase price.

10. Create a budget category for impulse buys.

Suppose all of these other tips can’t help you control those impulse purchases. In that case, you need to get control of your budget by creating a budget category specifically for impulse buys.

If you set aside a certain amount to allow yourself a few impulse purchases per month, you’re less likely to go over budget or get further into debt.

And even if the first nine tips help you cut out those impulse buys, having this budget category could still be beneficial.

Consider times you’ve discovered a clearance item you hadn’t planned on purchasing now but will save you money later or that special treat you decide to get your child as a reward for a job well done.

You’ll no longer have to stress about how small treats or unplanned smart buys will impact your budget.

Which Tricks Will You Use To Prevent Impulse Buying?

If impulse shopping is a problem for your budget, pick at least two tips to start using right now to help keep your spending in check.

Whether you unsubscribe from the many retailers’ email lists you are on or you put a stop to the “browsing as a hobby” habit, these small changes can go a long way in keeping more of that $314 impulse buy expenditure in your budget.

Reviewed October 2023

About the Author

Andrea Norris-McKnight took over as the editor of The Dollar Stretcher and After 50 Finances after working under the site founder and previous editor for almost 15 years. She has also written for Money.com, GOBankingRates.com, HavenLife.com and The Sacramento Bee.

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