20 Surefire Ways to Slam the Brakes on Impulse Buys

Walking into a store is a dangerous place. We understand. You go in telling yourself you don't need anything, but sure enough you leave with a shopping bag . . . or two. Thankfully, Money Talks News has 20 solutions to put an end to your compulsive shopping days.

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Compulsive shopping is an oddly human habit. It must be at least partly kicked off by our wiring. We're hunters and gatherers, after all. And what is shopping but hunting and gathering in a modern setting?

Today, though, hunting and gathering isn't crucial to our survival. Gone haywire, our need to find and have becomes a means of expression or a way to relieve stress.

Whether you are a compulsive shopper or an occasional impulse buyer, your financial stability is at risk if you spend without thinking about what you're doing, says Money Talks News founder Stacy Johnson.

Here are 20 ways to stop impulse spending:

1. Shop only from a list

Using a list keeps you focused. Write down what you need, take that to the store and buy nothing that's not on the list. It's that simple.

Lists support financial sanity in other ways, too. Keep a master list going all week. It might read, "Chelsea's swim practice Tuesday at 5, potatoes, bacon, milk, call Mom, mail birthday gifts, get stamps."

Every day or so, take five minutes to move your notes onto two lists: groceries and to-dos. Keep the lists on the fridge or other central location. Train family members to add to the grocery list when they've used the last of something.

Making lists clears your head and helps calm you when you're on overload. Binge shopping often is a refuge from stress, so keeping stress from escalating is key.

2. Procrastinate

When you get the urge to buy, give yourself a cooling-off period — an hour, a day, a week. It's a chance to come to your senses and make certain the item you want is something you can afford that truly contributes to your life.

Experiment to find out how much time you need to break the retail trance.

"As long as you agree not to buy the item THAT second in the store, giving yourself that time to reflect and compare prices at home, will put enough distance between you and the impulse," says a reader at WiseBread.

3. Shop with cash

Leave the plastic at home. Take enough cash to purchase what you need and no more. You can't spend what you don't have.

"When you're using cash, you have a running total of what you're spending in real time," says Bankrate.

4. Snap a picture

Take a photo of the thing you think you can't live without. Photograph the price tag, too. Don't buy yet. Bring your photos home and use them for comparison shopping online and to help you think about the purchase.

Or use an app like RedLaser. It registers the product's bar code, records the item and displays competing prices at other stores. It's another way to pull back and research the purchase.

Look up users' reviews to see what they have to say about the product you want. I was sorely tempted to buy some expensive skin cream recently. When I got home, I read reviews and was grateful I'd passed it up: Reviewers gave it low marks and said it was not worth the price.

5. Shop alone

The confusion and chaos of shopping with kids or a spouse can lead you to make purchases without thinking or buy stuff to pacify noisy kids. Shopping solo may give you a calmer, more in-control experience.

6. Be savvy about sales

We all know this and yet it's hard to remember: Buying something you don't need on sale doesn't save money. It's a form of overspending.

Instead of aimlessly cruising sales, plan your attack by reading ads. Decide in advance what you'll buy, get in and get out.

Find the best price on everything you buy on our deals page!

7. Shop your own closet

If you have a shopping problem, you probably also have a closet problem, as in you've got more stuff in there than you need or use. Satisfy your hunter-gatherer impulses by trying on clothes you haven't worn in a while, finding new looks and combinations.

Some people keep track of their new discoveries by assembling an entire outfit on a hanger: belt, scarf, jewelry and all.

8. Rest up before shopping

Shopping when you're exhausted can put even the most hardened non-spender at risk. If you have a problem controlling impulse purchases, you're most vulnerable when you're in a store and tired. Rest up and eat something before you shop.

9. Watch your feelings

Being upset or angry makes you vulnerable to over-buying. When you find you're overwhelmed, sit down with a cup of coffee or take a walk, breathing deeply until you gain focus. Be willing to go home and put off shopping for another day. Or get the two or three items you need most and get out of the store.

Give mindfulness a try. Mindfulness involves observing your thoughts. It's become a mainstream stress-reduction technique. Here's a Google video of Jon Kabat-Zinn explaining how mindfulness helps with stress. Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

10. Channel the impulse

At a beach near my home, on any sunny day you'll find people avidly hunting for shells, beach glass and special rocks. They stare fixedly at the ground as they stroll slowly, reaching down to pick up treasures and add them to a bag heavy with beach loot. Some sit down on the beach and comb through rocks and sand with their hands or garden implements, oblivious to everyone around them.

It's apparent they're doing something deeply satisfying and it costs nothing. Look for gratifying, cheap ways to quench your hunter-gatherer impulse. Creativity — crafting, painting, carving, wood turning and baking, for a few examples — is another way to satisfy your weary soul.

11. Budget your splurges

Total withdrawal from shopping probably isn't possible. And, anyway, shopping's not the problem: spending is. Try making a budget to give yourself sporadic treats, once a week or maybe once a month, and pledge not to indulge yourself otherwise.

12. Get your finances under control

Psychologists Ryan T. Howell, Grant Donnelly and Masha Ksendzova studied the connection between uncontrolled buying behavior and money and credit management. Howell writes in Psychology Today that they learned:

"[A] lack of money management predicted individuals' compulsive spending, regardless of their personality, gender, age and income. In particular, out-of-control shopping was primarily driven by poor credit management, such as not paying attention to credit card statements, not paying credit card bills on time, and exceeding credit limits.
Learning to manage money and use credit safely help you restore your balance."

From our Solutions Center: Help with credit card debt

13. Know yourself

If shopping is your weakness, one way to deal with it is to sidestep it. Meg Favreau at Wisebread avoids stores when possible:

"One of the things I love about shopping online is that it's much easier to ignore extraneous items — I go to Amazon, put what I need in my cart, and check out. But I know if I try on clothing in a store, I'm much more likely to happen upon a dress that I suddenly really want. The solution? Except for groceries, pharmacy items, and thrift-store finds, I rarely shop in physical stores."

Bottom line: Know yourself. Identify what trips you up and devise a strategy for staying out of harm's way. For example, if you waste money on mindless magazine purchases, go five aisles out of your way to avoid the magazine rack.

14. Stop shopping as entertainment

If hitting the mall with friends on weekends is undermining your finances, change your idea of entertainment. You may even want to rethink your choice of friends. Don't drop the old ones, just look for other ways to enjoy them while adding new friends whose lives don't revolve around shopping.

15. Stay out of stores with shopaholics

"Don't allow yourself to shop with your friends if being with them makes you feel like you need more clothes, gadgets, or groceries," Wall Street Cheat Sheet advises. Find other things to do with your friends who are impulsive spenders.

16. Cultivate role models

Consciously choose new role models. Make friends who are careful with money and successful at saving. Their habits will likely rub off on you.

17. Share the load

If you're the only one in your family doing the grocery shopping and errands it's time to sit down with your sweetie and split up the job.

18. Don't buy anything you can't return

If you have saved receipts and purchased only items you can return, you can undo the damage after you sober up from a shopping binge. Before taking out your wallet in a store, ask about the return policy. Don't shop a sale if purchases are final.

19. Imagine it old

Here's a tip from another WiseBread reader:

"Visualize whatever you're buying as old and worn out. Visualize the new clothes as faded and crumpled. Visualize the new electronics as broken and replaced with the next new things. Visualize the new car as 10 years ahead [and] an old model that's a faded rust bucket."

20. Get help

If overspending is damaging your finances, relationships or self-respect, you probably are dealing with something too big to tackle alone. Get the help and support you deserve.

"Most often, compulsive buyers experience a great deal of negative emotion, and the actual shopping isn't the root of their problem," writes psychologist Ryan T. Howell in another Psychology Today article.

Two resources:

  • Howell's blog, Beyond the Purchase, aims to "help people make the connection between their spending habits … and their happiness."
  • Debtors Anonymous is a free, 12-step program whose purpose is "threefold: to stop incurring unsecured debt, to share our experience with the newcomer and to reach out to other debtors."

Do you have experience with out-of-control spending? Share what worked for you in the comments below or at Money Talks News's Facebook page.

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