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11 ways to stop impulse buying for good

You know how it goes: You pop into the supermarket for an avocado and emerge with an armful of groceries. But what causes this impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour? Are the deals too good to miss or are we being manipulated? No matter why we do it, we’ve come up with some ways to stop impulse buying.

Compulsive buying behaviour is commonplace in Australia. Five dollars here, one hundred dollars there. Research indicates that nearly 60% of Australians made at least one impulsive purchase in the last 12 months and spent an average of $108 each time.

Ways to stop impulse buying: A chart showcasing the percentage of people who say they’ve made a sales-driven impulse purchase in the last quarter and broken-down by generation.
At an average hundred bucks a pop, it’s easy to see how impulse purchases can eat into your budget and sabotage your financial goals. Image source: PayPal

Gen Z and Gen Y shoppers are the most likely to engage in unbudgeted shopping, with nearly one-in-five people reporting that they feel like they’re losing money if they don’t buy an item they see on sale.​

Impulse and compulsive buying behaviour: What’s the difference?

Before describing ways to stop impulse buying, let’s start by defining what impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour is, and what it is not. Impulse buying describes an unplanned purchase. This could be something as small as a packet of chewing gum or as big as a car. A car? Yep, a car.

True story: Two of my friends went to test drive a new car. One needed a new car and the other was there to make sure they didn’t fall victim to sales tactics or emotional impulses. And guess what? The salesperson sold cars to both of them. So much for controlling their emotions!

This is the thing with impulsive purchases – they can be out of character or break with usual purchasing patterns. I say this with confidence as someone who owns a knee-length Peruvian poncho. It seemed like a great idea at the time but, on reflection, rather impractical for Queensland, where I live.

Fortunately, I don’t make a habit of buying impractical ponchos and that’s where it’s important to clarify the difference between impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour. Uncontrollable spending is known as Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD) or the clinical term ‘oniomania’.

CBD is a psychological disorder described as ‘an urge resulting in excessive, expensive and time-consuming retail activity.’ For the sufferer, it usually has serious social, personal and financial consequences, and often co-occurs with anxiety or depression. If you’re worried that your spending behaviours are uncontrollable, you should talk with a doctor.

Retailers know how to get us

One of the most effective ways to stop impulse buying is to be aware of the tactics retailers use to lure us in. Ever wonder why IKEA stores are built like a labyrinth or the milk is always at the very back of the supermarket? This is where the ‘convenience’ in ‘convenience store’ becomes a misnomer.

Merchandisers know that positioning high demand items at the back of the shop (in the least convenient location) ensures that shoppers have to walk past a lot of other products –and temptations that can lead to impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour.

If you’ve ever been guilty, therefore, of impulse buying – and let’s be honest, we all have – you should not judge yourself too harshly. Merchandising has gone from being a creative art to a veritable science that almost encourages impulsive and compulsive buying behaviours.

And in case bricks-and-mortar shopping wasn’t a big enough challenge, these days we also have to contend with online shopping. If you’re trying to find ways to stop impulse buying then you also need to know how to stop impulse buying online. Each new day presents a barrage of shopping offers via email, social media and wily Internet marketers.

It’s certainly no accident that the product you Googled this morning is appearing in your Facebook newsfeed tonight. These ‘big information’ companies have access to trillions of pieces of data that they analyse and build into sophisticated algorithms designed to drive compulsive buying behaviour.

Psychology behind impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour

But before we hastily condemn marketers and computer coders for manipulating us, we should pause to acknowledge that their tactics are only effective because human behaviour is so predictable. When it comes to humans, certain stimuli produce certain responses.

As science gains deeper insights into human psychology and neurology, we are gaining a better understanding of what happens inside our brains when we’re exposed to stimuli, such as shopping environments. As we shop in-store or online, unbeknownst to us our brains are releasing a cocktail of neurochemicals.

One of these is the powerful ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter dopamine. In evolutionary terms, it’s believed that dopamine’s purpose is to reward exploration. After all, exploring new things is pretty important in a survival setting.

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Dopamine can also team up with other neurochemicals, such as oxytocin, which brings about feelings of bonding and belonging.

“At a basic biological level,” says brain researcher Steven Kotler, “we need to relate to others to survive and thrive and, as a result, we are neurochemically motivated to fulfill this need.”

Kotler’s latest book is a great primer on the neuroscience behind many human behaviours.

This chemical cascade is also why “retail therapy” can feel so good. Shiny new things light up the pleasure circuits of the brain which, coupled with spurts of dopamine and oxytocin, make you feel buzzed and lead to compulsive buying behaviours.

Neurochemistry is why my friend accidentally bought a new car. “I don’t know what happened,” he said afterwards, “But when I’m in the car, I feel like a better version of myself.” (That’s the dopamine talking.)

11 ways to stop impulse buying

If our own brains are being used against us to lure us into impulse buying situations and compulsive buying behaviour, is all lost? Do we have any control? Is there anything we can do to resist the temptations of spending and are there genuine ways to stop impulsive buying?

There sure is! It’s all about becoming comfortable with delayed gratification. Psychologists say that impulse control is like a muscle that gets stronger the more you use it. The key is to make new positive habits easy and to make bad impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour habits hard.

Here are 11 strategies to get you started:

1. Limit your contact with the shops

One of the easiest ways to avoid developing impulsive and compulsive buying behaviours is to reduce the amount of time you spend at the shops, for example:

  • Order your groceries online for click-and-collect or home delivery
  • Do your grocery shopping just once a week
  • Do your shopping at a centre where there’s no or little other retail stores
  • Pay for your petrol at the pump
  • Bring your lunch from home, so you don’t have to go out to buy it

2. Reduce your time on social media

If you’re trying to find out how to stop impulse buying online, then social media is a good place to start. Limiting the time you spend on social media is a good way to avoid advertisers wooing you with the latest fashion, gadgets, courses and various other ’must haves.’

Social media can also draw us into unhealthy, unrealistic comparisons where our own lives look lacklustre against the Insta-worthy perfection of others. Hypnotherapy expert Marisa Peer says to repeat this mantra aloud every day: I have enough. I am enough.

3. Always take a shopping list

Lists are a great way to stop impulse buying and stay on-task. Write a shopping list each and every time you go to the shops and stick to it, even if the list has just one item on it.

4. Create a shopping budget

There’s nothing wrong with shopping if it fits within your budget. In fact, one of the most liberating aspects of budgeting is that you give yourself permission to affordably spend on things you want, guilt-free. Download a free budget template and workbook here.

5. Unsubscribe from emails

Wondering how to stop impulse buying online? Unsubscribe and then create a dedicated email address that you only use for mailing list purposes. This will keep sellers from clogging up your personal or work inbox.

6. The ‘sleep on it’ rule

If a deal is good it will still be good 24 hours later. Ask yourself “do I really need this or is it the dopamine talking?” By sleeping on it, you pump the dopamine brakes and stop impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour in its tracks, giving the rational centres of your brain time to analyse the purchase. This is one of the simplest ways to stop impulse buying.

7. Practice impulse control at home

Have you heard of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment? A child is offered a choice between one small but immediate reward, or two small rewards if they wait for a period of time. You can practice similar tasks of delayed gratification on your own or with your family. Scientists have found that people with good self-control have more neural activity in the area of the brain that regulates dopamine rewards.

8. Don’t auto-fill your credit card or payment details

One of the easiest ways to stop impulse buying online is actually to make it harder for you to purchase items online. Say no when your phone or browser offers to save your payment details for later. Have they already been saved? This is how you remove them from your browser.

9. Create a wish-list

See something you want? Rather than getting sucked into compulsive buying behaviour, add it to your wish-list. Having a wish-list acknowledges that you desire a certain thing, but not right now. You can also build in an ‘if-then’ factor, such as “If I pay off my credit card, then I will buy a new outfit”.

10. Save for a goal

Are you prone to buying chewing gum, lollies, drinks or other impulsive treats? A great way to stop impulse buying and start saving at the same time is to get yourself an empty soft drink bottle and for every treat you do not buy, put $2 in the bottle and watch it add up. Even better, write a goal on the bottle (eg. ‘date nights’ or ‘holiday fund’.) A 600 mL bottle will hold $1000 in $2 coins; a 1.25L bottle will hold $1900!

11. Splash cash, not cards

Planning a big night out or wanting to hit the shops? Set yourself a budget and carry it with you in the form of cash. When the cash is gone, it’s gone. In fact, if you’re doing the bottle challenge above, those savings could become your ‘splash cash!’

Still wanting to know more ways to stop impulse buying in its tracks?

Impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour doesn’t have to define you. There are loads of effective ways to stop impulse buying in-store and online, the hard part is putting them into practice.

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Ready to find out more? Call 1300 300 922 to book your free budget consultation or enquire online.

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11 ways to stop impulse buying for good

About the writer

Kylie Hughes

Kylie Hughes has worked in financial services in Australia and overseas, and has been writing about money, personal finance and budgeting for more than a decade. As a mum, she understands the real-life challenge of balancing financial priorities and budgeting for a fun, inspiring, affordable family life!

This article has been prepared for information purposes only, and does not constitute personal financial advice. The information has been prepared without taking into account your personal objectives, financial situation or needs. Before acting on any information in this article you should consider the appropriateness of the information having regard to your objectives, financial situation and needs.