7 Ways to Break the Impulse Shopping Habit

Have you joined the FREE 5-Day Jumpstart Your Budget Challenge yet?

On Day 1, I talk about being “all in”, and I ask you to let me know what your biggest challenge is to really being ALL IN with your budget. I’ve received over 200 emails so far (amazing!) — and the most common answer I hear is the one I address in this post: Impulse shopping!

If you struggle with impulse shopping, I’m reprising this post for you.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

  • You go to Target with a list of four things, but end up with a full cart.
  • You’re at the mall to pick out a child’s birthday gift, but the sale sign at Nordstrom draws you in.
  • You walk into Costco for milk and eggs, and somehow walk out with a $200 bill.
  • You love getting a bargain, but spend money you don’t have just to score a “great deal”.
  • You experience feelings of guilt or “buyer’s remorse” after shopping.

What do all these scenarios have in common?

Impulse shopping!

By definition, anything that isn’t planned is an impulse.

Now, impulses aren’t necessarily bad – and I’m all for embracing your inner free spirit.

But when left unchecked, impulse shopping is the fastest way to blow through your budget and get off track for your long-term financial goals.

Even if you can “afford” the unplanned splurges in the short-term, those purchases may be derailing you from saving for your future.

After all, even if it’s “just” $25 a month of splurges, saving that same $25 a month would net you more than $19,000 in 20 years. (Assuming a 10% rate of return.)

But math alone isn’t going to be enough to break the impulse shopping habit for most people — I know it wasn’t for me! So here are seven strategies to help reign in those unplanned purchases.

#1. Avoid your triggers.

Do you know you can’t get out of Target without spending $100? Then avoid Target until you feel more in control.

Are you a softy for the clearance racks? Then avoid “eye contact” and walk the other way. Sure, you’ll miss out on some 70% off doodad, but that savings won’t feel like much of a blessing if you’re trying to kick the impulse habit.

Or have you noticed, as I have, that you can easily spend $20 more than you normally would when your kids come shopping with you? Try to shop at night or on the weekends. Or better yet, have your husband do the shopping (assuming he doesn’t also struggle with impulse shopping!).

There are mood triggers, too. Many shop when they’re feeling down, while others shop to reward themselves. These triggers can be very subtle, and may require some soul searching to identify.

#2. Make a mantra.

It goes without saying that you must bring a list with you into the store, but if you find that even a list doesn’t stop you from going “rogue”, try having a mantra, too.

Even something as simple as, “Today, I’m only going to buy lettuce, milk and pasta” can help. Then, when you find yourself slowing in front of an endcap to check out the specials (a possible “trigger” for you), repeat this little mantra to yourself. Say it aloud if you need to!

#3. Plan for your splurges.

I know, it seems like an oxymoron, but if you know that splurging is your thing, go ahead and build that into the budget. At my house, we call it “blow money” – and it gets its own line item in our budget.

Blow money gives you the freedom to splurge, but with the peace of mind that you’re not undermining your family’s finances.

As an added bonus, blow money can also reduce any marital conflict you might have over money. While this subject is a much bigger issue than I can adress today, I have found that blow money is good first step toward calming those waters.

For example: Let’s say your husband wants to upgrade his iPod, but you think it’s a waste of money. “Your current one works just fine,” you tell him. Rather than get into a knock-down drag out fight over the iPod, he can use his blow money. As long as he doesn’t exceed the blow money “budget” the two of you have agreed on, there’s no need for conflict.

By the way, even if you’re not married, I think blow money is super awesome for the first reason alone!

#4. Shop online.

Everyone’s different, but online shopping has been hugely beneficial for me. And not just because it gets shipped right to my door!

I’ve actually noticed that I’m much less likely to make impulse purchases when shopping online vs. in a store.

When I shop online, I don’t “window shop”. I go to a site with a specific goal in mind (eg. buy new shoes for my daughter). Even if I get tempted to add some other items to my online shopping cart, I can close the window, walk away and evaluate.

The experience of shopping in a brick-and-mortar environment doesn’t give me this same breathing room. And even if I pay a bit more for an item online than I would in the store, I’m ultimately saving since I’m avoiding those extra impulse buys at the check-out counter. (See my More Money than Time post for an example of this.)

#5. Give it time.

If you find yourself in the store, or online, about to buy something you hadn’t planned, take a deep breath. And put the item back.

Then tell yourself that if you still want it in ___ hours (I like to do 24 hours, but even 2 hours will probably be enough to cool your heels), you can go back and get it.

This cooling off period allows you to regroup and reevaluate, once you’re out from under the spell of the urge.

(If you’re afraid the item might sell out, bring it to a sales member and ask them to hold it for you.)

#6. Ask for help & support.

Weight loss experts extol the benefits of having a buddy to go thru the journey with. Breaking the impulse shopping habit requires the same support.

Call your buddy when you’re standing in the store about to buy a $30 gadget you had never even heard of 5 minutes earlier. And call them again when you put that gadget back and walk out of the store proudly with only the items you planned to buy!

(If your impulse shopping veers more toward compulsion, you may want to seek professional support as well — especially if you find that you are maxing out credit cards and hiding purchases. According to this 2006 study from Stanford University in the American Journal of Psychiatry, about 6% of both women and men are compulsive shoppers.)

#7. Shop with cash.

Have you read the studies that say McDonald’s consumers spend an average of $7 when paying with credit cards vs. $4.50 when paying with cash?

While McDonald’s may not relevant for most KOABers, but the underlying lesson is: Spending cash hurts. Swiping a credit card doesn’t.

Credit cards are so removed from being actual money that it’s far, far easier to justify a splurge when you’re swiping. If the first six strategies don’t work for you, try taking the cards out of your wallet and replacing them with cash.

Have you struggled with impulse shopping? I’d love to hear about your strategies for fighting that urge!


  1. The last tip is the one that helps me. We are down to only one credit card and I don’t keep it my wallet–it’s in a drawer at home. We need alot less than I used to think we did (most of my impulse purchases was clothing). I think much more about what I am buying knowing that I have x amount of shekel in my wallet and still have x amount of weeks until that can be replenished.

    And blow-money is crucial. We also have it as a line item. I use a chunk of it to go out for coffee or dinner with friends. And other fun splurges.

  2. I also find that if I am unsure if it is really something I need, I will buy it, and not wear it or use it and hold it for awhile and then make a less emotional decision and often return it.

  3. Thank you, these are all helpful! I have a couple to add:
    1) When I go to a big store like Costco or Target I always put back at least 2 things before checking out. Usually it saves at least $20 per visit. My friend taught me this trick with accessories: look in the mirror before you leave the house and take off one thing. I apply it to shopping.
    2) If I only need 2-3 things I will use a handheld basket or no basket. A shopping cart just begs to be filled.
    3) As for online, I am a sucker for free shipping and %20+ off coupons on clothing. I try to wait to use those coupons until I have a lot that we really need, or to stock up for next season so that I’m not buying tons of extra stuff just to make the minimum for free shipping. On Amazon I always compare the price of Prime with free shipping to non-Prime plus shipping. The free shipping doesn’t always come out better. With store coupons I always ask myself would I pay $XX for that if it weren’t 20% off? And of course I apply the “take 2 things out of the basket” rule (see above).
    4) This probably goes without saying, but *never shop with kids* if you can possibly avoid it. They are the worst impulse shoppers!

  4. It may be a little ironic but I felt that when I first started following KOAB I would do a lot of impulse buying from the deals you posted. It was something like: that’s such a great deal, I better get it now. Now, that I have been a fan of KOAB for a while I see how many sales and deals follow a cycle and will usually happen again at some point I don’t seem to be rushing to make a purchase. If it is something that I wish I had taken advantage of, odds are it will be on sale again. I just need to give it time. Plus, I have gotten a better sense of what type of sales stores run over a longer time period. For example, it helps to not just jump at a 10% off sale when you know that the store will have a 30% sale twice a year.

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