How quickly can you spot an impulse buy?

Published February 22, 2016   Posted in How to Save

Impulse buys – they are one of the amazingly tricky types of buying that exist for most people. It’s tricky because, as its name implies, these are emotional purchases. We see. We want. We buy. Even if it wasn’t on our shopping list. Even if we’re a money saving expert.

How to prevent impulse buysOkay, here’s a case in point: A few months ago my wife and I were at a furniture store looking for a picture frame. On our way up to the cash register, we spotted a little table that would fit perfectly underneath our wall-mounted television. Wow, how freaking cool – we didn’t even go to the store for this, but yet, here it is.

I guess it was “meant to be” and stuff…

Both my wife and I quickly discussed the purchase. We even picked the table up and looked at it from all angles to make sure it looked just right. Then, I put the table back down, glanced at my wife, and remarked: “This feels like an impulse buy“.

We checked out without the table.

Here’s another: A couple weeks ago we were at a grocery store and walked past a display of on-sale liquor – the one that caught our eye was a bottle of butterscotch flavored vodka priced at $7 bucks. Damn, good price. We quickly gave ourselves an excuse as to why we “needed” this item and proceeded to carry it around with us for about 20 seconds.

My wife then asks, “Wait, do we really need this?” The answer, of course, was no. We put it back. Honestly, I felt a little ashamed that we had even considered such a purchase. I mean, how could we? We are supposed to be better than this!

Impulse buys are tricky sons-of-bitches, aren’t they? They tug at our surface-level emotions with delicate cries of “you want me, so put me in your cart!”…”come on, you know you want to”.

Even my wife and I, who are Jedi masters of frugality (ha!) are susceptible to this phenomenon. Though we didn’t go through with making these purchases, weΒ both mentally rationalized the purchase to ourselves. It’s only natural. After all, we are humans, not robots!

What is amazing to me is the fact that we successfully recognized these situations as impulse buys. Somehow, our conscious brains cut through the emotional drive provided by our subliminal wants and desires before making the purchase. Though I was ashamed we had even considered them, I was also a little impressed with our ability to recognize them for what they truly were. This isn’t always so easy, and in the past, I totally sucked at this process.

Wow, there's a ton of stuff to wade through at the typical supermarket!

Wow, there’s a ton of stuff to wade through at the typical supermarket!

And let’s be honest, stores play into our very natural impulse buying tendencies. Product placement in most grocery and department stores is incredibly well-researched. Companies know where we are most likely to wander to first. Even our sense of smell comes into play. Ever wonder why bakeries are very often close to the front of grocery stores? Or why products that the company expects (and wants) you to buy tend to be around eye-level?

Related off-site post: 6 ways to save money on food without coupons.

There is a ton of science behind this. Check out how this stuff works if you like.

How easy is it to recognize an impulse buy? Answer: It isn’t easy. It’s damn tough, but there are a few ways that can help us prevent impulse buys from happening.

How to prevent impulse buys

1. Understand that impulse buys happen to all of us – Rather than telling yourself that impulse buys never happen to you, understand that yes, they can and probably DO. If we try to convince ourselves that we never buy impulsively, then as if by magic, every purchase we make automatically becomes sound and reasonable…at least in our own heads. If we tell ourselves that we need an item, then mentally, we believe that we do. Resist the temptation to trick yourself into believing that you are somehow “above” impulse buys, because unfortunately, most of us are not.

2. Never shop without a shopping list – Lists help keep us focused on the items that we truly need. Make your list while outside of the store, preferably where you’ll use those items (like the kitchen for a grocery list). If an item is not on your list, then you shall not buy. The idea is simple: if an item fails to make it onto your list, then you probably don’t need it bad enough to make the purchase – at least yet.

3. Shop with a full stomach – Whenever possible, do not shop while you are hungry…especially for groceries. We are more likely to throw additional tasty food items into our carts when we feel hungry. Again, the emotional side of us takes over, hell-bent on satisfying our craving for food. Closely related, try not to shop when you are upset or angry, as our need to make ourselves feel better can prompt an additional purchase or two (or three).

4. You can look, but never touch! – The instant that we touch an item, we feel a connection with it. That connection instantly increases the likelihood that we will place that item in our cart rather than back on the shelf. Whenever possible, don’t touch items that are not on your shopping list. Resist!

Are there any techniques that you use to help prevent impulse buys in your life?

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31 responses to “How quickly can you spot an impulse buy?”

  1. Impulse purchases are tricky! I try to shop as little possible. This actually arose out of having children, which makes shopping more of a hassle at times, and I’d rather take them to playground, anyway. But when I started optimizing my shopping–taking a really thorough list to the grocery store once a week, stocking up on household items at discount stores or Amazon Subscribe & Save–I decreased my impulse purchases significantly.

    For non-food items, I also try to imagine what it would look like in my home or my closet. I suppose that would’ve been dangerous for your table example, but mostly it just illustrates to me that I don’t need the item, I already have enough, and it might crowd my space or not complement what I already have.

    • Steve says:

      Shopping as little as possible is an excellent tactic to prevent impulse buys because it keeps you out of the buying environment to begin with. I like your tactic of envisioning where that item would sit before making a purchase. It truly does help make us realize that, probably more times than not, you’re spending good money for something to just sit there the majority of the time.

    • I lived in a 20 x 20 foot studio apartment for ten years. After I had it fully furnished (it didn’t hold a lot), I would still see things that I liked. But buying something new required me to get rid of something I already had and that put a big brake on new purchases. Small living spaces make frugal-ites of us all πŸ˜€

  2. My wife and I use the magic phrase “If you don’t know, don’t buy” when we go shopping. As you say, oftentimes impulse buys are emotional wants that don’t get full consideration. Our magic phrase puts the purchase to the test – do we really KNOW we want this? If not – it goes back on the shelf. It has saved us thousands of dollars over the years (including buying a speedboat once!)

    • Steve says:

      Excellent, MrFireStation! It takes us a few seconds sometimes to realize what we’re doing, but I think we do implicitly ask ourselves this question as well. That’s probably what prompted us to put those items back on the shelf rather than in our carts.

      And wow…a speedboat. You dodged a huge, expensive bullet with that one. If you had bought that thing, you might not actually be retired today. Imagine that! πŸ™‚

  3. Immediately recording my spending helps so much. Even the thought of having to type it in really gives me pause. We’ve lived in our house for over two years, and we still only have a coffee table in our living room. My mom and one of my friends are always asking when we are going to get end tables, and I think the answer is never. They’re just clutter keepers. Between tracking my spending and thinking “how often will I use this in a month?”, my spending on things is virtually zero each month. Number 4 made me smile: my babysitter used to tell me “look with your eyes, not with your hands”. It was a way to prevent us from breaking things at the store, but it serves me well in life now, too!

    • Steve says:

      Hah, I like it! The responsibility of recording those purchases can definitely provide the negative reinforcement necessary to prevent the purchase. Good technique!

  4. Mr. SSC says:

    We found that we tended to spend more when we shop at Target, so now we limit our trips there to no more than once a month. Also, we use lists when we go anywhere, and now even if we go to Target, which has fallen by the wayside since it got out of our routine, we stick to the list period.

    Talk about a way to kill a grocery budget, shop hungry. Maybe that’s why our November budget was so high, too many hungry grocery shopping trips. πŸ™‚ That stuff adds up quickly though. We also found sending only one person to grocery shop helps cut down non-list items being added to the cart.

  5. Kate says:

    I agree that lists are the key to cutting back on impulse buys. The hardest items to resist are the cheapest — way too easy to buy something (and justify it) when it’s a dollar or less!

  6. Impulse buys are incredibly tough!! I can even recount times we’ve gone to the grocery store, I snatched up an item and put it in our cart, and then it took me over an hour to realize “Wait…we don’t need this!” At that point you’re already on the other side of the store, which is tricky – I don’t like being one of those people that restocks an item in the totally incorrect place lol. One major prevention method is that I don’t shop on pay days. In the past, pay day was a major day to go shopping with friends, or by myself. Even though my willpower has changed, I still somewhat make that connection “Huge deposit, let’s go shopping” which typically was just impulse buys! Getting rid of that mentality and recognizing that a large deposit is just the normal ebb & flow helps me avoid impulse buys.

    • Steve says:

      It’s funny that you mention not liking to re-stock an item in the incorrect place, because back when I worked at Safeway as a high school kid, we always had the job of putting those items back in the correct place every night. By the end of each day, there were CARTS full of items that people lazily put back anywhere to avoid walking. πŸ™‚

      Good idea about not shopping on payday. I like it!

  7. Matt Spillar says:

    Definitely great points Steve, and a message that all of us need to hear. I recognized some of these points, but the two that stood out to me most that I really liked: “Try not to shop when you’re upset” and “Look, but don’t touch.” I had never really thought of those before, but they are very true!

  8. Something I consider to be in the impulse category is paying for a “better” version of a product on the spot. I remember a few years ago when I was at the Apple store buying an iPad, I let the sales rep convince me to buy the 64gb version instead of the 16gb that I went there intending to buy. The extra storage is nice but certainly not a must have.

    Now I make sure that I do my own research sufficiently before I go purchase a product. I find when people go into a store with open questions on what to buy, they can sometimes be convinced to spend more for features that are nice to have but they don’t really need.

    • Steve says:

      Good point, very true! Upgrading items to something more expensive on the spur of the moment can very much be impulsive, no doubt! It’s the “upset factor” that salespeople count on.

  9. Chris Muller says:

    Steve! So sorry it’s been such a long time. I have to say I’ve been off the grid lately – not because I’ve wanted to though. I love your stories on impulse buys. Thing is, it happens to all of us, all the time. The worst impulse buys are the smallest ones – the pack of gum here, the candy bar there, the $4 coffee on our way to the store… etc. And how about Target putting Starbucks in their stores now? If that doesn’t drum up a sweet impulse buy I don’t know what does! The one rule I know you and I have talked about before is “does it add to your quality of life”. My wife and I tend to use this approach as often as we can before buying something. So will that bottle of butterscotch vodka (which sounds disgusting by the way) add to my quality of life? If I can justify it doing that, then I’ll buy it. But most likely I’d wait and come back. I figure if I REALLY want something bad enough and it makes sense to buy it, I’m willing to drive back up to the store another day to get it. Hope all is well brother! I’m hoping to get back to reading some blogs again soon! Things have been crazy around the house just getting ready for the baby!

    • Steve says:

      Hey Chris! I bet things are pretty hectic for you guys out in your neck of the woods. Baby proofing a house is probably a full time job – sounds like an excellent first blog post for the new blog that I think you’re starting up. πŸ™‚

      It’s true…the smaller the impulse buy, the more insidious it is because we don’t notice those purchases nearly as much as the bigger ticket items. But it all adds up in the end, and that is something that I keep in mind as much as I can. It all adds up…

  10. That IS some serious Jedi action — nice job turning down the table and vodka. My big weakness is the grocery store, and not the chips or other junk, but veggies that look extra good, or some yummy new salsa, that kind of thing. Some of that I’m okay with, within reason, but I think being aware that Whole Foods is my *danger zone* helps me mentally steel myself before I go in. And for online purchases, we have a policy that things have to sit in our cart for a whole month. If we still need them after that, great, but usually we pitch that stuff out of the cart and wonder why we ever put it in to begin with.

    • Steve says:

      I have a little of that affliction as well. Truthfully, my vice is grilled cauliflower. I love the stuff. Add some lime juice and Adobo seasoning and I could eat that every day until the day that I die. Unfortunately, cauliflower is expensive…at least where we live.

      The month-long waiting period sounds pretty darn reasonable to me. Amazon might be the most dangerous thing of all. One-click buying…it’s the devil! πŸ™‚

  11. Shopping with food in my system is a huge boost. I try to make sure my husband’s not hungry either, because his ADD makes impulse buys a struggle as it is.

    We still tend to walk out with at least one item I didn’t go in for, but trust me, that’s a huge feat of self-control for him. And he’s not always the one adding something off-list to the cart. Sometimes progress isn’t perfect.

    • Steve says:

      There is no sense in shooting for perfection – it doesn’t exist. Slow steady progress is where real, long-lasting improvements are made as far as I’m concerned. πŸ™‚

  12. If I see something that is likely an impulse buy (something I wasn’t planning on buying), I take a picture of it with my cellphone. I tell myself that I can buy it if I want but I will have to wait 24 hours and then return to the store. I tell myself I can have whatever I want but I have to wait a day and return to the store if I feel so compelled. Funny thing is that I never feel compelled to come back. I still have the picture to remind me of it and I may go back a week or a month later after deciding to buy it. But the see-want-need cycle is broken and I don’t feel like I am depriving myself.

  13. I always add a sweet treat to my shopping cart at the grocery store. But since I’ve sworn off sugar for lent shopping has become so much easier. Having that hard rule in place – no processed sugar at all – means I don’t even look at the chocolate bars conveniently placed right beside the register. Totally agree on shopping with a list and I’d also add don’t take children or spouses with you. They always want something extra and I usually give in to avoid tantrums.

    • Steve says:

      Hi Emma! Yeah, I bet bringing your kids or spouse shopping with you can make things worse, especially if they tend to give in to their impulsive buying habits. Kids I understand that happening to, though. πŸ™‚

  14. Jim Wang says:

    I think it’s amazing that you picked up the bottle, CARRIED IT AROUND, and still realized it was an impulse… that’s amazing. I think sometimes we (personally) trick ourselves into thinking we’re “stocking up” when in fact it’s really an impulse buy.

    • Steve says:

      Yeah, we were a little bit surprised about that too. It’s tough enough not to pick things up, but it’s even tougher to put things back after you did! πŸ™‚

  15. […] spreadsheet to help out! You also need some kind of budget to know how much you have to spend on “fun” impulse purchases. How strictly you budget is totally up to you but if you don’t have goal, it’s hard to […]

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