In an ideal, not at all plausible world, every penny you spent would be accounted for in your budget. Your money would flow in and out, all in accordance to your grand financial plan. All purchases would be plotted well in advance, with no deviations from the plan.
Unfortunately, our brains are not wired to be so accommodating.
While it would be helpful (if not exactly all that pleasant) to function entirely on cold, hard logic, many of our decisions are influenced by feelings. And when those feelings cause us to deviate from our carefully crafted financial plan, we call those deviations impulse purchases.
Running on impulse
We all make impulse purchases. In a recent survey from CreditCards.com, 84 percent of respondents confessed to making at least one impulse purchase in their lifetime, with 77 percent claiming to have done so within the past three months. And we’re not just talking about picking up a candy bar in the checkout aisle – 20 percent admitted to making an impulse purchase in excess of $1,000.
Why do we do it? Well, an earlier survey from CreditCards.com on the same subject found that respondents commonly cited excitement (49 percent), boredom (30 percent), sadness (22 percent), anger (9 percent), and intoxication (9 percent) as factors. Those factors, however, don’t speak to what’s happening inside our brain when we make unplanned purchases.
Writing for Psychology Today, behaviorist Philip Graves notes that “the act of buying is an act of empowerment that may be felt all too rarely in other aspects of life.” While the exact feeling will be different for everyone, making an impulse purchase almost always produces an immediate sort of satisfaction. In the moment, we feel like we just did something positive for ourselves. The problem comes later, when we realize that our satisfaction was short-lived.
Most occasional impulse purchases aren’t the end of the world. We all buy things we know we shouldn’t from time to time. When these purchases happen regularly or when they begin to impact our ability to meet our financial obligations, then something needs to be done.
Step 1: Identify when you are most likely to make impulse purchases
When are you most vulnerable to making rash spending decisions? Do you find that you spend a little too freely on pay day? Do you turn to shopping during periods of sadness? Are you just a sucker for good sales?
With no shame, take a hard look at when and why you spend outside your budget. Patterns will often emerge.
Step 2: Identify the feeling you get when you make impulse purchases
Once you get a firm grasp on your state of mind when making impulse purchases, ask yourself what the act of spending feels like to you in those instances. Do you feel rewarded? Do you feel distracted? Do you feel hopeful?
When you buy something on impulse it makes you feel a certain way. And that’s ultimately what you’re buying – that feeling.
Step 3: Find alternative ways to achieve that feeling
Once you understand the feeling you get from impulse spending, the final step is to identify a replacement activity that produces the same feeling (but without the budget-busting expense).
I used to go to a certain big box store every weekend, not because I needed anything, but because I was bored. Running errands made me feel productive. It turned out, however, that doing certain chores around the apartment also made me feel productive (and didn’t cost anything).
It’s a process, and some alternatives work better than others. You have to keep in mind that the reason you’re using spending to achieve this feeling is because that’s the easiest way. So finding and adapting to a new method may be difficult. It’s worth the effort, though, especially when it puts you in a better position to meet all your important financial goals.