Curb impulse buys

An impulse buy is an unplanned, spontaneous purchase. That Snickers bar at the checkstand qualifies, as do the five extra boxes of pasta you picked up that weren’t on your list, but were “buy 4 get one free.” An impulse buy can be smaller grocery items like these, or big things, like a painting you saw at the local Art-in-the-Park event that you simply had to have.

We aren’t going to call the impulse buy cops for the on-sale pasta, but most impulse purchases — stuff that was not on the grocery list — are things we don’t necessarily need. America’s is not a boom economy, and recovery from the downturn that began in 2007 has been painfully slow. In the Fed’s 2015 survey on Household Economics and Decision Making, 46% of adults said they would struggle to cover an unexpected $400 expense. Fully one fifth of us spent more than we earned in the 12 months leading up to the survey, and close to a third have no retirement savings or pension. (1) We are cash-strapped and money-stressed, by and large.

After the 1973 recession, when money was tight and stress was abundant, my mom did not enter a store without her handheld 4-digit money counter, which added up her purchases before she even got to the checkstand. The money counter said “no” to impulse buys and kept her within budget. Although handheld money counters are a thing of the past, one way we can control spending is by being aware of and restricting impulse buys.

Impulse item stats

  • Up to 20% of the average grocery bill is impulse items. (2)
  • 88% of impulse purchases are in reaction to a sale or a good price. (2)
  • Food items are the number one impulse buy, followed by clothing. (2)
  • Impulse buys are often emotion-driven: they make us feel better. (3)
  • Most impulse buys are in stores rather than online. (4)
  • Online impulse buys occur most often when customers browse category links rather than searching for a specific items. (4)

How to limit impulse buys

Today’s Team Better challenge is to not buy anything on impulse. That means sticking to planned purchases and resisting the temptation to pick up extra items for any reason — not an easy task while holiday shopping! That is just for today — no one is asking you to eliminate impulse buys forever. And besides, some can save you money, since you are stocking up on things you would buy anyway that happen to be cheaper today.

That said, limiting impulse purchases can only be beneficial to the wallet.

  • Polls have shown that folks who take public transportation or walk to the store — no surprise — buy fewer impulse items. (2) If impulse buys are depleting your cash reserves, consider this extreme method of self-discipline. No way will you pick up that extra bottle of wine if you have to carry it fourteen blocks.
  • Ask yourself, “Do I really need that?” If the answer is “no,” just walk away. This includes those dark chocolate truffles that seem so important to your well being at any given moment. (Although, if we put them on the list first, it is not an impulse buy. Something to consider.)
  • Give it time. Tell yourself you will pick it up next time if it still seems important to you. This tried and true method has saved me hundreds, nay, thousands of dollars when faced with pushy door-to-door salespeople.
  • In the absence of my mother’s 1970s handheld money counter, try cash economy. Bring only as much money as you want to spend to the store rather than swiping the credit card.
  • To keep online impulse buying at bay, search for what you want by name rather than browsing categories. In an Ernst and Young shopping experiment, 87% of impulse buys resulted from browsing category links and resulted in an average of three items added to cart in excess of what was originally sought.

Happy budgeting, Team! A day of going on impulse buy restriction is the best present you can give your bank account. You can do it — eye of the tiger!


  1. Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2015. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. May 2016.
  2. 18 Dramatic impulse buying statistics. BrandonGaille website, Sep. 15, 2014.
  3. Kossman S. Survey: 5 in 6 Americans admit to impulse buys. website. Accessed Nov. 11, 2016.
  4. What causes customers to buy on impulse. E-commerce white paper: User Interface Engineering. Feb 2002.
Dana Vaughan

About Dana Vaughan

Dana completed a Master of Public Health (MPH) and a Master of Social Work (MSW) at San Diego State University, and has worked in family planning education, prenatal counseling, and child development. She loves her mountain bike, her husband, her kids, and her faith—although possibly not in that order.

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