As fun and relaxing as Hollywood makes retail therapy look, the reality is not all that glamorous. A 2018 survey commissioned by the discount shopping site Slickdeals found that Americans spend an average of $450 on impulse purchases per month—that adds up to $5,400 per year.
Impulse buying is mostly emotional, and usually the result of some form of distress. This could be issues around self-esteem, anxiety, sadness, or even boredom. "Impulse buying gives us a little spike of dopamine, which is rewarding and motivating," says Alexandra Emery, a licensed psychologist at Grit City Psychology in Seattle.
Emery recommends checking in with yourself before making a spontaneous purchase to see if you're suppressing any negative emotions. Retail therapy might make you feel better in the moment, but the feeling can quickly wear off once you realize that you have gone over your budget. We tell ourselves that we deserve to buy something or that we've earned it, but make sure it's not self-harm disguised as self-care, says Marter. "It's not really self-care if they are accruing credit card debt, or putting themselves in financial stress by overspending."
In a Finder.com survey on impulse buying, 44 percent of people reported feeling regretful after an impulse purchase. Here are ways to set up your lifestyle and budget to prevent impulse spending and build healthier money habits.
Delay your purchases.
Give yourself 24 hours to think about something you want to buy. Leave the items in your cart, and physically move away from your phone or laptop. Marter recommends having a mental checklist you can go through to ask yourself if the item you want to buy is actually something you need, or if buying it will cause you more harm than good.
"If you still want it after 24 hours, then you've also had time to see how it would fit in your budget," says Kimbree Redburn, an accredited financial counselor and coach at Illuminate Financial. "This will help you take some of the impulse out of it."
Get clear about your budget and savings.
Have a clear budget and review it every month. Marter recommends Consumer Credit Counseling, which offers free budgeting help and debt consolidation. Creating a budget you will stick to will help hold you accountable when you have the urge to shop.
Set up direct deposits so part of your paycheck goes straight to your savings account. "That way the money isn't there for you to spend," says Marter. This will allow you to invest your money in ways that will secure your financial future, like building retirement savings.
You can also set up a sinking fund that you can add to each month to offset some of the costs from impulse buying. "You will have some money set aside when things come up that you want to buy," says Redburn. This gives you some wiggle room for impulse buys without completely ruining your budget.
Make it harder to shop.
We pretty much have access to shopping 24/7 and from the comfort of our own homes. This makes it even harder to control impulsive spending habits. Set up some obstacles or checkpoints for yourself to be more mindful when you shop. Delete shopping apps from your phone so you actually have to go to the store website. Redburn suggests deleting your credit card information that's been stored automatically on your favorite shopping sites. Taking these steps will give you more time to think about what you're buying.
Allow for healthy spending.
Healthy budgeting is like healthy eating—you have to give yourself some sensible flexibility, or you'll end up snapping one day and eating (or in this case, buying) everything in sight. "You can't expect yourself to be super militant and not buy anything for fun," says Marter. Build some flexibility into your budget for some splurges once in a while. Being too restrictive with yourself will end up discouraging you from sticking to a budget altogether, and might make you go back to unhealthy spending habits. "Allowing yourself some 'fun budget' will also help you to feel the benefits that come with purchasing something exciting, without all of the guilt," says Emery.
Don't try to do it alone. Finding support and accountability can go a long way in preventing you from impulsively spending. Marter recommends checking in with an accountability partner once a month. This can be a spouse, friend, or someone who is also working on their financial health. Have monthly check-ins where you share honestly about how you're doing and get feedback and support.
Having a financial counselor or advisor can establish a healthy financial lifestyle and help you manage impulse buying. "It's like going to the dentist or doctor," says Marter. "It's taking care of our financial health, and we need to be honest and accountable or we can get ourselves in trouble."
Do something else.
If you're feeling anxious, stressed, or sad, and you find yourself shopping, stop and do something else. Go for a walk, listen to music, or call a friend. Taking care of yourself in ways that don't involve money will keep you from making those impulse purchases to self-soothe.
Before making a purchase, connect with your body and notice how that item makes you feel. If your gut is saying you probably shouldn't be buying something, listen to it.
Above all, show yourself compassion—and know your worth. "We are not our bank account; we are not our debt," says Marter. "That's how we are, not who we are."
Although there is a lot of shame around overcoming impulse buying and building a healthier relationship with money, it's something many people deal with. With the right support system, information, and resources, you can create a lifestyle that helps you save for the important things—and still gives you room to have fun, too.