woman learning about impulse buying
Budgeting & Saving

Impulse buying can happen to anyone. We’re out and see something we want, like clothes, a tech gadget, or sports gear. Maybe it’s on sale, maybe not. Either way, into the cart — and often onto a credit card — it goes.

But what’s responsible for our “thoughtless” purchases and why do we do it?

What is impulse buying?

A way to think about impulse buying is to consider it a spur-of-the-moment purchase that makes us feel good but is done without much consideration of what it might mean to our budget. Let’s break down the main components of an impulse buy:

  • The purchase is immediate. Before we saw it, we hadn’t planned to buy it.
  • There’s instant gratification. It makes us feel good — for a short while.
  • We don’t think about the need. There may not be a good reason, or any reason.
  • We don’t consider future impact, whether financial, emotional, or on our health.

Past consumer research of shopping behavior has shown that unplanned purchases counted for more than half of everything bought. That’s a lot of impulsive shopping — and a lot of money that could be put toward savings or paying off debt. Learning how to avoid impulse purchases might leave more money in your bank account every month.

Why do we engage in impulse buying?

Psychological factors are a driving force behind impulse buying. Knowing why you are susceptible to impulsive purchases, and how merchants sometimes encourage impulse buying, could help you dodge the lure. Let’s look at some factors and how they affect self-control and spending habits.


A product image, whether you see it in-person or when you’re online shopping, triggers a memory. If that memory is good, your brain wants to repeat the positive feelings. Advertisers know this and choose their images to nudge you to buy items. For instance, you’re in a grocery store and see a poster of a birthday cake. Your last birthday was fun and it included a delicious cake. Without thinking about it, you buy a cake to take home because you want to feel that same excitement. But it’s not your birthday, and that cake probably won’t be as good as you remember. Our past experiences drive the impulse-buying tendency, and the experience we have after we impulse shop often doesn’t live up to the memories that prompted the purchase.

Point-of-sale items

After picking up the grocery items you need, you’re standing in the checkout line. Look there beside you — a cooler of ice-cold energy drinks and sodas. Right next to it, a big rack of tasty snacks and candies. Sure, you could go back, buy a two-liter bottle for a quarter of the price, or get a better deal on a pound bag of chips or candy. But here you are, and it’s a hot day, and it’s been a while since lunch.

Next thing you know, you’re reaching for a candy bar and frosty can of soda. Besides adding extra empty calories, it also adds extra dollars to your bill. Impulse buying strikes yet again.

Store atmosphere

Next time you’re shopping, note what’s playing over the sound system. Most likely, it’s upbeat, catchy music. That background music steers you to stay in the store longer. The longer you stay, the greater the odds that you’ll engage in impulse shopping. Retailers attract and hold targeted shoppers with a different store environment for each shopping demographic. Music, lighting, colors — even fragrances all help sell products.

Walk through an upscale department store’s makeup aisle and many times the clerk will happily apply makeup or spray cologne on you, then tell you how good you look or smell. That preys on your self-image, implying you didn’t look or smell good before that moment. Then the clerk doubles-down with, “You know, these are on sale today.”

Identifying these tactics and knowing you’re being motivated with sensory experiences to get you to make impulse buys, can help you resist the tricks and keep your money in your pocket.

Social media and online traps

Google, Facebook, and Instagram ads often use your search history to target you with advertisements. If you’ve searched for “best cat litter,” you’re sure to be pelted with litter box ads.

Your search for “best cat litter” also generates ads for cat toys to exercise your cat, premium all-natural food to keep your cat healthy, and dietary supplements to keep Mimi flexible and young. The impulse buyer is goaded by targeted advertising into spending money on items they don’t need.

On top of that, seeing posts of friends and family with a new item may make you want to have one, too. FOMO — fear of missing out — can prompt those impulse buys that leave you wondering, “Why did I buy this?”.

Vicarious ownership

Vicarious ownership is a psychological factor that can affect impulsive shopping. When we see something fun, our mind starts thinking about that item as if we already own it. Imagine seeing a new convertible sports car at a dealership. You imagine tooling down a winding road, car top down, cool breeze on your face. “Hey, this car is you,” says the salesperson.

Then maybe you start thinking how awesome it might be to drive by your friends, neighbors, and coworkers, showing off your new ride. They’d respect you more, wouldn’t they? Perhaps ask you for a ride. All that makes you feel good — until you realize that, maybe, buying that new car wasn’t the most responsible way to spend your money.

Personality traits often have a big influence on consumer buying behavior. Recognizing what yours are is a good start on controlling the urge to make an impulse purchase.

How do we stop impulse buying?

Retailers do a great deal of research into consumer behavior. They know how to appeal to impulse buyers. But we have some methods of our own to thwart their schemes:

  • Make a budget. Knowing your monthly expenses lets you allocate proper amounts, including how much to spend on fun stuff.
  • Shopping list. Create a list of what you need before you go shopping. Avoid buying items that don’t appear on your shopping list.
  • Don’t linger. Browsing can prime you for impulse buying. Get what you need, then check out.
  • If you see something you want, add it to your list — but wait 30 days to buy. See if you still want it then.
  • Use a debit card, not a credit card. When cash is drawn from your account, purchases have immediate consequences. Or pay in cash, if that suits you.
  • Avoid retail therapy. Don’t shop sad or mad. Having positive emotions makes it less likely you’ll engage in compulsive buying behavior to feel better.
  • “Buy one get one free” still means you’re buying one. Do you really need one, let alone two? Are you motivated by the idea of saving money rather than the actual need for the item?
  • Disable targeted ads. Many online sites let you disable targeted ads in the account’s settings. You’ll still see ads, but they won’t be based on your search history or other personal data.
  • Don’t beat yourself up if you slip. It’s okay to buy yourself something fun, now and then. But do it on purpose.

Knowing how you’re being pushed to impulse buy, whether from within or without, helps you get the upper hand on your finances. With knowledge comes power, and that power could make you a better shopper. To learn more about personal finance, read these articles at Best Egg:

What is a Debt Consolidation Loan?

Credit Card Refinancing vs. Debt Consolidation

This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide financial, tax or legal advice. You should consult a professional for specific advice. Best Egg is not responsible for the information contained in third-party sites cited or hyperlinked in this article. Best Egg is not responsible for, and does not provide or endorse third party products, services or other third-party content.

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