How to Stop Impulse Spending

Stressed woman holding credit card and talking on phone.

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.

Why do we make impulse purchases?

We all make impulse purchases. Sometimes they're small, like a quick stop at Starbucks for the latest seasonal sugar rush in a plastic cup. Sometimes they're timeshares that take years and thousands of dollars to escape from.

Why do we do it? Well, there's a variety of reasons: excitement, boredom, sadness, anger, intoxication, and more. Sometimes we make impulsive decisions to counteract bad feelings or extend good ones. It may be hard to see in the moment why we're making the choices we're making, but they're often influenced by our emotions.  

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.

Three steps to preventing impulse spending

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 at home 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.

If bad spending habits have put you in a tough financial situation please know that help is available. The best place to start is working with one of the financial experts at MMI. We offer free financial counseling 24/7, online and over the phone. No cost, no judgment, just good advice and support when you need it most. 

Tagged in Smart shopping, Psychology and money

Jesse Campbell photo.

Jesse Campbell is the Content Manager at MMI, with over ten years of experience creating valuable educational materials that help families through everyday and extraordinary financial challenges.

  • Better Business Bureau A+ rating Better Business Bureau
    MMI is proud to have achieved an A+ rating from the Better Business Bureau (BBB), a nonprofit organization focused on promoting and improving marketplace trust. The BBB investigates charges of fraud against both consumers and businesses, sets standards for truthfulness in advertising, and evaluates the trustworthiness of businesses and charities, providing a score from A+ (highest) to F (lowest).
  • Financial Counseling Association of America Financial Counseling Association of America
    MMI is a proud member of the Financial Counseling Association of America (FCAA), a national association representing financial counseling companies that provide consumer credit counseling, housing counseling, student loan counseling, bankruptcy counseling, debt management, and various financial education services.
  • Trustpilot Trustpilot
    MMI is rated as “Excellent” (4.9/5) by reviewers on Trustpilot, a global, online consumer review platform dedicated to openness and transparency. Since 2007, Trustpilot has received over 116 million customer reviews for nearly 500,000 different websites and businesses. See what others are saying about the work we do.
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development - Equal Housing Opportunity Department of Housing and Urban Development
    MMI is certified by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide consumer housing counseling. The mission of HUD is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD provides support services directly and through approved, local agencies like MMI.
  • Council on Accreditation Council On Accreditation
    MMI is proudly accredited by the Council on Accreditation (COA), an international, independent, nonprofit, human service accrediting organization. COA’s thorough, peer-reviewed accreditation process is designed to ensure that organizations like MMI are providing the highest standard of service and support for clients and employees alike.
  • National Foundation for Credit Counseling National Foundation for Credit Counseling
    MMI is a longstanding member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling® (NFCC®), the nation’s largest nonprofit financial counseling organization. Founded in 1951, the NFCC’s mission is to promote financially responsible behavior and help member organizations like MMI deliver the highest-quality financial education and counseling services.