We've all been there. You're shopping and see something completely unrelated to what you need to buy. You want it. No, you need it. So you swipe your credit card, but a month later the regret of impulse shopping arrives when the bill does.
It's easy to get carried away and buy something you don't need. And stores — whether online or brick-and-mortar — are designed to separate you from your money.
"Impulsive shopping is all about seeing something and creating this very spontaneous, unmindful, unreflective urge," said Mousumi Bose Godbole, professor of marketing at Fairfield University. "Impulse shopping is a lot about a lack of self-control and not having enough self-regulating resources."
She said the best way to help curb impulsive shopping is to stop and ask yourself, "Do I really need it?" But in the heat of the moment, that may not be easy to do. Here are five tips to help you stop that late-minute purchase.
1. Don't shop hungry.
Whether it's online or in physical stores, Bose Godbole said research shows people who don't eat before they shop have a lowered resistance and tend to give into impulse purchases. That also goes for people who use "retail therapy" — shopping when their emotions are particularly high or low. If you're hungry or in an altered emotional state, you can't rely on the internal resources that might curb those impulses.
"Your ability to self-regulate is already down. Shopping is already an emotional process. Impulse shopping is all about a complex emotional urge," she said.
If you have trouble sticking to a list and controlling those impulsive urges, shop with someone who might frown on your throwing something extra in your cart, said Neal Stern, certified public accountant and member of the American Institute of CPAs' National CPA Financial Literacy Commission.
"Shopping with a friend is also a good tactic for dealing with one of the strategies that stores use to fuel the fire of compulsive spending. Especially in the higher end stores, salespeople are trained to play the role of your friend to encourage you to buy," Stern said.
2. Kill those unnecessary mailing lists.
Mandi Woodruff, executive editor at Lending Tree, recommended unsubscribing from retail mailing lists "that are all too easy to get sucked into." Although the mailing lists might contain promo codes, she instead recommends downloading a web browser tool like Ebates that will find any cash-back offers or online promo codes you can use.
3. Keep score.
Everyone shops with a phone now, so use the phone's built-in calculator to keep track of the costs of what's going into your cart, Stern says. "Especially in big-box stores, those large carts can fill up quickly with a collection of relatively inexpensive items that may add up to a shocking number when you reach the register. By the way, the carts in those stores are purposely extra-large — that's a strategy to encourage you to buy more," he said.
4. Cash is king.
It's easy to get carried away when paying by credit card, Bose Godbole said. But paying in cash puts a physical barrier between you and what you want to buy. If your body is urging you to buy, paying by cash makes you physically count out the dollars it takes to make the purchase, so it slows down how quickly the transaction happens since you need to count out the money, giving you time to think, she said.
Stern agreed. "When you have to pay with cash, the impact of buying is much more dramatic, and you're forced to see what is happening to you financially right then and there," he said.
5. Create a 24-hour rule.
Time is on your side when it comes to preventing impulse shopping. Physical stores will hold items for 24 or 48 hours, which gives you a chance to think about it before buying, Stern said.
"Even if you decide you still want it, you can use the time to look online and make sure you're really getting a good deal. There are plenty of so-called 'sales' with dramatic percentages off where the item has never really sold for the alleged list price," Stern said.
Woodruff said the 24-hour rule works online too. Put goods in your cart, but wait for the next day to buy to see if you really need whatever you dumped there.
"I'm willing to bet you'll forget all about them, and that's a clear sign you really didn't need them in the first place," she said.
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