How to Stop Buying on Impulse

Not too long ago, I was the queen of impulse shopping. I could go into a convenience store for a drink and come out with two bags of junk. A trip to Target for a shirt often turned into a whole new wardrobe. Oh, and you know all that random stuff in grocery store checkout aisles, like batteries and lip gloss? Yeah, I was a huge fan of that, too.

When I decided to get out of debt, my addiction to stupid purchases was one of the first things I had to control. And it SUCKED. I had never shopped from a list - or if I did, I bought lots of things that weren’t on the list. Half the time I didn’t even realize I was grabbing the items until I got home and wondered how I spent so much money. With that kind of history, I wondered at times how I would ever learn to stop buying on impulse.

Decision Trees

One of my favorite images from the internet is this one, a decision tree that tells us when it’s appropriate to use, “Oh, snap!”

When I was trying to stop impulse shopping, I decided I would make my own decision tree. Since I had so much trouble discerning smart purchases from dumb ones, a decision tree would give me a list of questions to ask myself. The choice would already be made before I even got to the store; I just had to follow the arrows until I got to it.

Choosing the Questions: Prioritizing

To select the questions I would ask myself before buying something, I had to learn how to prioritize. I wrote out a list of “good” and “bad” reasons to buy something. Then I picked the most relevant ones and ranked them in order of importance. This is the list I came up with:

Do I need it to live? This puts food, clothing, etc. at the top of the list.

Do I already own something that will meet the same need? This prevents me from buying McDonald’s when I have food at home, or buying a new coat when I already have 10 of them.

Will it solve or prevent a real problem? I don’t need toothpaste to live, but it prevents cavities and bad breath so I’m going to buy it. I may think that boredom requires a new DVD, but that’s not a real problem so it doesn’t pass the test.

Will it provide SOME kind of value? Sometimes things aren’t necessary, but we want them anyway. For example, I bought an Apple TV last year. It allows me to stream Netflix, which made it possible to cut off my cable. So even though I don’t need an Apple TV to live and it doesn’t necessarily solve a real problem, I still decided it was worth buying.

Can I afford this item without going into debt? If I have to go into debt for something I must have to live, I can deal with that (though I’d rather not). But if it’s not a need and I’ve still decided to buy it, I have to make sure I can do it without pulling out a credit card or incurring overdraft fees.

Will someone be angry if I buy this? Will I have to hide it or hide the receipt? Now that I’m divorced, I don’t have to picture the wrath of a spouse. But when I was married I used to pull the tags off new clothes and sneak them into my closet all the time. (Hint: This is probably a sign I shouldn’t have bought said clothes.) These days, I pretend that Suze Orman will be going through my shopping bags when I get home.

Could my money be better spent elsewhere? Can I really justify buying a pair of shoes if I know my car needs an oil change? What if I need to buy a birthday gift for a friend next week?

Is the “something else” really important? Am I spending money that needs to go toward bills? If so, not buying. If the money is just earmarked for a competing “want,” I’ll have to make a choice.

Do I still want the item after all this? If none of these questions made me give up, I’m probably buying it. For something silly like nail polish, I probably would have given up a long time ago.

Using the Decision Tree

For a long time, I actually had a handwritten decision tree in my purse. It was more of a list with some haphazard arrows, but I knew what it meant. And I would literally pull it out in Walmart or the mall to decide whether I would buy something that wasn’t on my list. Did I look stupid? Probably. But I didn’t feel stupid when my spending decreased dramatically.

I made a pretty version of my decision tree, just because I love you guys. You can click and it gets bigger, or you can download your own in PDF format to print and use:

How Decision Trees Stop Impulse Buying

Using a decision tree, whether it’s the one above or one you make for yourself, is an awesome way to keep yourself from overspending. If you’re disciplined enough to use it, you’ll talk yourself out of a LOT of random purchases. For some reason it’s hard to argue with something in writing. And the time you spend looking at your piece of paper is usually just enough time to think about what you’re doing.

In other words, by adding an extra step to the purchase process, you are training yourself to stop and think instead of blindly throwing things in a shopping cart. When you’re walking around with your decision tree in your hand, you’ll remember to think things through.

And, if you’re like me, you’ll eventually train yourself to go through the process mentally, whether or not you’re holding the decision tree. It becomes a habit to replace the impulse buying habit.

Are Your Impulses Under Control?

Most people don’t have to put forth this much effort to prevent impulse shopping. They can evaluate the pros and cons of a purchase in their heads in a matter of seconds, making the right choice almost every time. But if you’re like me and struggle with nickel and diming yourself to death every month, it’s worth a shot.

Have you ever struggled with impulse buying? What steps have you taken to control it? Would a decision tree help you make better decisions?


How to Stop Buying on Impulse58 Comments

  1. Great post. I'm not much of an impulse shopping because I tend to research everything and debate everything in my head, but there are always those moments!

    • Those are the things I'm trying to teach myself. Now it's becoming the opposite issue - I debate things I really shouldn't! I can spend 10 minutes trying to decide which bag of dog food to buy. I know I need it, I'm definitely going to buy it, but I can't help comparing prices per pound. And while part of me goes, "I'm only saving $1," I'm realizing that nickeling and diming savings works much better than nickeling and diming spending!

  2. I'm a recovering impulse buyer as well. I used to order stuff on Amazon Prime on a whim. It was just too easy, so I had to cancel my Prime membership.

    This is a great chart, and I know it will help me and others if I pull it out every time I'm going to make a purchase. I'm going to keep it on my iPhone for those times that I need it!

    • OMG. Amazon Prime was one of the worst offenders for me. Knowing I could order something today and get it tomorrow made it so hard to resist. I canceled my membership too, and a lot of times, just knowing I'll have to wait 4 or 5 days to get something is enough to talk me out of it.

  3. I'm always proud of myself when I make it through the store and buy only the items on the list. I failed yesterday because some delicious candy jumped in the basket when I wasn't looking. On a random note, am I the only one who does in store amazon price checks? I did this yesterday and saved about $5 bucks even though I have to wait until Thursday for the book.

  4. I love these things. I actually printed out one from And Then She Saved a few months ago and gave it to a couple friends. They loved it.

  5. I like to add: "Can it wait?".  Deferring a purchase can matter too, especially if something will decrease in price (say, electronics). Also, sleeping on a purchase might change your mind.

    • Good point! I have a self-imposed rule that I must wait 30 days before buying anything over $100 unless it's an emergency like car repair. So that supersedes the decision tree - I already know I'm going to wait on a big purchase. But I could stand to do that on smaller things as well; the little things add up just the same.

  6. Andrea, I wish you had made this decision tree 6 years ago and we had been blogging then, you would have saved both of us a lot of heartache!!  If I ever feel like I'm losing my willpower again when it comes to shopping, I'm referring to the SOD decision tree.  

    • I know, right? Six years ago I was at the height of my addiction, though, and there's no way in hell I would have been organized enough to use a decision tree. Sucks how those things always seem to come to mind after the fact. :)

  7. I used to be horrible at it and now have very few relapses.  My biggest is grocery shopping while hungry-I've impulse bought so much junk that way.  So therefore, no shopping while hungry.  I also try to use the envelope system and only bring the envelopes that would apply in that situaion and if I still want it, it has to be from my personal money.  I hate spending my personal fun money on junk when I don't get that much so that really helps.

    • In the past, if I shopped when I wasn't hungry, I wouldn't buy enough to last the week. So I always shopped on an empty stomach even though I knew it was the wrong thing to do. Now I make my grocery list when I'm hungry and shop when I'm full. It's made a huge difference.

      The envelope system is so awesome for so many people. Cash is like water in my hands, so I don't use it, but several of my friends have gotten out of debt that way. Glad it's working for you - I always enjoy seeing your updates!

      • Well, hopefully I keep my updates interesting and keep you reading! :) And I "thought" I was doing good but realized I still need to work on that whole impulse thing a little bit more.

        I do like the making the list while hungry-I'll have to try that. I tend to forget things when I'm making my list now.

  8. I’m a recovering impulse buyer as well. I used to order stuff on Amazon Prime on a whim. It was just too easy, so I had to cancel my Prime membership.

    This is a great chart, and I know it will help me and others if I pull it out every time I’m going to make a purchase. I’m going to keep it on my iPhone for those times that I need it!

  9. I am a total impulse shopper. Everything that you've done, I've done. What helps me lately is just challenging myself to not buy anything new (I really don't need anything) except consumables (food, hygiene products). I am watching myself right now if I can avoid mall for at least three months. It is short term now but I NEVER went a month without buying something for myself that I don't really need.

  10. Excellent outline of the process. Love it- especially the prioritizing questions. I too used to be an impulse shopper. It was hard breaking the habit. What helped me was prioritizing. What did I want more and what was my limit? This helped me make those tough decisions. 

    • Having a savings account that allows me to create categories has helped a LOT. When I knew I could either spend $20 or add it to my iPad fund last year, for example, I chose the iPad fund almost every time. Having that visual reminder did wonders.

  11. hey i just wanted to say that it's not even halfway through January and your already 70% to your goal for this month! how exciting Andrea

  12. I'm generally not an impulse shopper. Actually, I suppose I'm not really one at all. When I do buy something that I want (even if I shouldn't) it's something I've been wanting for months, or even years, and have been preventing myself from buying. I struggle to let loose and buy things that I want, and that causes its own problems.

    I've been wanting a TV since my roommate moved out and took his home theater system with him. I had a group of friends over for a Firefly marathon once (since the one lives with her parents still, and nobody else was set up for having people over.) We had to watch it on my little computer monitor, and it was pretty miserable. In the meantime, I've spent a lot of money going out with friends to eat, or even watching movies a few times. I finally broke down and put a gift card towards a TV purchase, and now I'm hoping I can start getting people to come over here instead of going out. In theory, it will ultimately save me money, despite the upfront cost. Hopefully that actually ends up being the case.

    • Oh, how I'd love to have that problem! My mom is the same way - we moved to a new house when I was 9 or 10, and we didn't have living room furniture for like 2 years because she wouldn't make a decision. Finally my dad threatened to pick it out himself and that seemed to stir her into taking action. She just hates parting with money.

      I'm getting better, especially for consumable things with no long-term value. But I can justify the hell out of certain things if I want them badly enough. I wish there was a magic way to stop doing that.

      • Furniture is easy for me, since I don't really care what I have… as long as it's free. The only thing that I've bought, to my knowledge, was small L-shaped computer desk—and that's only because I wanted to get as much desk as possible into a very tiny spot, and this one fit perfectly.

        All of my other furniture has either been hand-me-downs or Craigslist/Freecycle specials.

        Kitchen gadgets are the one thing I could drop some serious money on…

  13. I need to work on my impulse shopping when it comes to groceries. I usually try to stay away from the mall for the most part. My problem isn't so much impulse shopping when it comes to clothes but more like I feel either entitled or I feel like I want to prove to the salesperson that I can afford things….stupid I know. Most of the time I'll walk out of the store but I have been known to make some questionable purchases in the past. In short…I haven't gone to the mall in a little over 4 months. :)

    • I've been to the mall 5 times in the past year or so, so I feel your pain. From December of 2010 until this past July, I didn't go into a mall at all because I couldn't handle it. I've improved a lot since then.

      I'm awful when I go grocery shopping! I've learned to quit buying STUFF, but I'm still bad about adding unnecessary food items to my cart. I always justify it by saying, "But it's food! We need food to live!" but it's kind of out of control. I spend way too much on food for a family of two.

  14. I like this post! I don't have problem with impulse buying, but I sure like to procrastinate when it comes to doing certain things.  I can see it now:  Is it important to get this done? "yes", is this other thing more important? "no", will you be less stressed out if you get the important done now? "yes".   Then do it already!

    • I need a decision tree for procrastinating, too! I'm horrible about putting things off until it's absolutely necessary that i get them done. I've done well with full time blogging because I have a to-do list for every single day, but certain things (guest posts mainly) get pushed aside constantly. If you ever decide to make a decision tree for that, please let me know and I'll promote the shit out of it!

  15. I love the decision tree idea!  Wish I'd had something like it 4 years ago when I decided to stop hoarding.  It was soooooo difficult to quit shopping 'n' stashing cold turkey.  I kept trying to justify potential purchases even though I was at the end of the line financially.  I still have my impulsive days mind you but I'm better able to control myself as time goes on.  Thanks for stopping by my blog today ~ I'm enjoying reading yours :)

    • Thanks for visiting! I'm still amazed by all the stuff I got rid of when I got divorced in 2009. These days, I can't even participate in friends' yard sales because I actually use almost everything I own! I threw away more clothes than most people probably ever own. The level of impulsivity/stupidity still astounds me.

  16. I have found that I spend more if I have my kids with me.  I get distracted or rushed and I lose my focus of sticking to the list.  I usually leave them at home (older one babysit younger ones) if I am grocery shopping or limit them to only asking for one extra grocery item.  

    How do you like your apple tv?

    • Oh, I LOVE the Apple TV. We watch Netflix constantly, and every now and then I pay to rent newer releases through iTunes. The best part, though, is being able to stream movies that are already in my iTunes library straight to the TV. I've been working on ripping all our DVDs to iTunes - I'll be able to get rid of the DVDs and still have all our movies! Are you thinking about getting one?

      • Considering it.  We just cancelled cable last month.  We live in Atlanta so our antenna reception is quite good and it has been nice to see the kids reading and riding their bikes more.  The house is much quieter too.  I didn't realize how much the TV just stayed on.  Now we pick our shows together and have actually had all 6 of us watching together several times since we can't record & watch at different times.  So anyway…I'm gathering info about other options but am not in any hurry to add more variety at the moment.

        I didn't know about burning dvds to iTunes though.  That is an awesome feature!

    •  Problem with me is I usually make a list, but when it comes to shopping I always find I see something at a good price or something I just fancy at that moment. I can't remember when I stuck 100% to my list, though as a memory aid it is better to have one.

  17. SIGH,  single mom= poor choices,   What is with this epidemic of single moms?,  GEE hears a thought,  USE BIRTH CONTROL OR DONT HAVE SEX

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  21. Great post - I should print it out and give it to my hubby!  

    I've become weary of the malls because the parking at the mall closest to my house sucks and I absolutely hate sitting in traffic.  The last time I was at the mall was on 12/23.  That said, if I don't make a list before going to Target or the grocery store, I tend to lolly gag and buy useless things.  I won't go anywhere without making a list now.  

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  24. I sometimes find myself being an impulse debt-payer.  A few times I've thrown extra money against a student loan.  But I also have found myself putting in an order online at Kohls.  If I see a really good deal, I tend to jump on it.  Which is why my closet is full of too many clothes!

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