How I’m beating impulse buying and so should you!
Later in life, I am finding that I am attached to some ideas that don’t add up. These ideas have and are having a serious impact on my life. One of them I am trying to move beyond is materialism. Many studies show that those who are materialistic have a lower social and personal well being18.
I didn’t have a whole lot of money for most of my life. I couldn’t get all the “stuff” that I desired. This was extremely troubling. I felt a “less-than” feeling around all of my peers. Notably, when I was only ten or so, I refused to leave a shoe store until my father bought be a pair of Jordan’s for me, for the upcoming basketball season. (We eventually decided on Reebok Pumps).
This materialism compounded in my twenties when I dated a young woman whose ex-husband was an air force captain. Holy beta male did this set off an explosion of self acceptance issues. I had to puff out my chest! Up until this point, I was going to be a rockstar. As a result, I wasn’t familiar with this competitive, all encasing feeling. (That’s a story for another time.) I did everything I could do to try to make myself look wealthier and to get more stuff. I bought a house, worked my way up in my company (same company I work for now) and completely changed everything in my life. Mountains were moved, in retrospect. This turned out to be a lot of really misguided effort.
In the next phase my life, I got married. This was during a positive time when my income grew. I was at the height of my materialistic journey. We took two to three vacations a year. I drove a luxury car and was going out to eat four to five times a week.
After the marriage ended, I had a bunch of … stuff. A huge television set was mounted on my wall. I was amassing a large vinyl record collection and had bluetooth speakers and/or a high end Sonos speakers in every room. I was spending more than I was making. I rationalized that I was investing in my future.
Uh…yeah, I’m not exactly sure how that works out, but I typed it, so there it stays! The only thing I was really investing in, was American Express.
I’ve made a lot of changes and still have some way to go. But I still get caught up in impulse buying. My mind has found a new way to express this desire.This is done through buying items I’ll “need”, moving away from entertainment items. I love organization, so office supplies are one of my favorites. Also, I love vinyl records. I do truly love them for a variety of reasons. But if I’m being honest with myself, the most exciting part of the whole process is clicking the “buy” button and awaiting its arrival. (Oh look, there’s a notification for one right now!)
Okay, still I have a long way to go.
But, I’m going either way…
The power of desire is incredible. It causes us to mislead, straight up lie to ourselves. We resent one another, fight, go to war, steal and bully for what we want, what we desire. The desire for material goods is just one example. There are sixteen desires including power, independence, curiosity, acceptance, order, saving, honor, idealism, social contact, family, status, vengeance, romance, eating, physical exercise, and tranquility2. So, which desire is being expressed by impulse buying?
Power mostly15, with a hint of status.
I feel powerful when I buy something. It also provides a feeling of status by using that power. But I’m not fooling the marketers, they know I feel this way. They’ve set it up this way. They have the human psyche mapped out when it comes to making purchases. There are all kinds of psychological principles at work pushing us in this direction. The Gruen effect will have you lost in a store in hopes that you are more likely to buy8. Ikea has been named in this scheme9. The Diderot effect keeps us buying things subsequently, after an initial purchase3. For example, you buy a computer. Then, you buy a new mouse, a new case, a new desk etc. Before you know it, you’re broke. And here we are, experiencing the Diderot Effect.
It’s likely that we all suffer from impulse buying to some degree. If only there was another me that would appear when I was making these rash decision that screamed: “Buying that will not make you feel better!”
Since that is not an option, let’s look at some others. This is how I’m beating impulse buying and so should you!
Delete Shopping Apps
The average consumer spends over $5,000 per year on useless items21. It is projected that online sales are to reach $4.2 trillion in sales this year and $6.4 trillion by 2024. A lot of people shop online and 62% make a purchase at least monthly22. Shopping on mobile phone apps is expected to rise by 56% by 2022. While most shopping starts on mobile phones, most online transactions are completed on a computer. This is expected to change as the trend moves us towards mobile.
Delete the Amazon app. Delete the Etsy App. Delete the ebay app.
I did it. It helps more than you’d think. The logic follows, if you can’t look it up easy on your phone, you’re less likely to make an impulse buy. Of course you could go to your phone browser and shop. Nevertheless, there is a reason for shopping apps for your phone. It creates a greater level of engagement from the user (you). Also, it is more likely that you’ll develop a habit for using the app23.
The rate of online shopping addiction is going up. Much of this has to do with the stress caused by the pandemic. However, it’s good to know the tell tale signs.
- Spending more than you can afford
- Feeling guilty for the purchases made
- Feelings of upset due to not being able to shop
- Hiding your items from your loved ones
Any of these feelings or actions should certify a red flag. You should consider the possibility of a problem.
If you’re already going to buy five grand worth of useless stuff this year, this is a no brainer. Limit your access to buying useless items.
Choose the Fruit Salad, Not the Cake…
Often when we make an impulse buy, we do it during an emotional time. Impulse buyers are often more status oriented, experience more anxiety and inability to control emotions and experience less happiness than most24. It has a mood boosting effect. If this is the driving factor influencing the purchase, this is problematic. Understand that when most of us consider making a purchase our limbic system (the part of the brain responsible for pleasure) becomes active25. Those marketing to us know this. There are several tricks they use to lure us in to make the purchase.
In an experiment conducted in 1999, a group of participants were given a two digit or a seven digit number to memorize before an interview. They were also notified they could pick a snack off of a snack cart. The snack cart offered either chocolate cake or fruit salad. Those with the seven digit number overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake.
The chocolate cake represented the “feel good”, impulsive choice while the fruit cake represented the more thoughtful, less impulsive choice. Those with “more on their mind” overwhelmingly chose the “feel good” choice. Often when we enter online or brick and mortar stores, there is some attempt overwhelm us. In providing more information and choices than we need, our perceptions are easily overwhelmed and confused. Consequently, we are more likely to make more “feel good” purchases.
This is also true if there are other things unrelated to shopping that are on the mind. If we’ve got a lot on the mind, we’re far more likely to make that emotional purchase26. When we’re stressed and our frontal lobe is overloaded or exhausted we’re on autopilot. We’re not even fully conscious of what we’re doing. This is right where companies want us.
A recommended best practice is that you make a list before you shop. Stick to the list. Don’t stray.
For larger purchases (set your own limit here ______). Then, wait it out. No need to jump on it.
The moral of the story is that if you can convert shopping to a thoughtful process instead of an emotional one, you’re far less likely to impulse buy.
Know Your Brain
We are happier wanting or desiring something, than we are when we actually have it4. This is profound.
Let’s state that one more time. We are happier wanting or desiring something, than we are when we actually have it. It’s counterintuitive at first, sure. But think about it. You’ve experienced this before. It makes sense if you understand it’s the reason why we survive. This desire had to be strong enough to move us to do crazy things like kill animals so that we could eat, at one point in time. Now, we still have the same instincts. However, they now don’t serve us quite so well in the case of driving impulse buying behavior. Understand that we are dealing with an instinct that is at the very core of who we are.
Here are some basic strategies that marketers employee to exploit these instincts.
- The cheap stuff is at the register. Marketers know that we like to buy stuff. Putting these items where we check out is a way of squeezing a few more bucks out of us and us getting a little more of a “rush” from buying something else.
- Put the prices on the left. We read left to right, so we automatically assume that number lines proceed from left to right as well. Subconsciously, we know that one starts on the left and as we move right the number increases. So this makes us feel like it’s a lower price27.
- Foods that are often bought together are separated in stores. This causes you to have to walk past a lot of other items tempting your impulse20.
- Misting produce is often to make it look more appealing20.
- The expensive big ticket items may be put in displays up front. The consumer may then see a cheaper version of what they saw when they walked in and consider the cheaper a steal. For example, a $5,000 television is put up in front of the store. You’re in the market for one. When you are looking through them in the rear of the store, you find one for $2,500 and think “Wow, what a deal!”10
It is thought that 62% of in store purchases are impulse buys. This percentage is thought to be much higher online8. Know your brain is set up for failure in this way. Be aware of their tricks.
Mindfulness can lead to cure for multitudes of mental conditions including the desire to shop. Just being aware that you are making purchases to make yourself feel better is a fantastic start. But when you sit with it, you start realizing some scary things. For those not familiar with this idea, it is not synonymous with meditation. Meditation may be used as a tool to reach a greater degree of mindfulness. However, mindfulness is this case is simply being aware or conscious of a predilection for impulsivity.
Am I buying this because I have low self-worth?
Am I making purchases, spending thousands just to make myself feel better for a few minutes?
What is the true drive behind my action?
I recommend meditation, personally. Mindful meditation is simply the act of training your mind to pay attention to your thoughts. Eventually, to have a greater control over them. In this way, you can identify when am I making these purchases? How am I feeling when I make the purchase? What are the activities that occurred prior to me making these purchases?
I will caution that a surface ask of these questions will not do. You’ll have to go a little bit deeper. Studies show that mindful meditation can improve impulsive thoughts27. Essentially, if you want to curb your impulse spending, get ahold of your thoughts. Be mindful. Acquire a tool that will help you achieve a greater awareness of your thoughts and where they stem from. There are many available to you including the raisin exercise, body scanning, mindful seeing and listening, self compassion pause and more.
Change Your Philosophy
If you are having trouble with impulse buying, there may be a misalignment between your values and your actions. Or, perhaps worse, your values and actions are aligned. Your actions are simply reflecting your values. When this is the case, it may be time to make a change. If we believe that having more material items will bring greater happiness, this may be something that you want to reconsider.
A 2014 meta analysis of materialism’s impact on well-being has found that there is a negative correlation between life satisfaction and prioritization of materialism28. This means that most research finds that the attitude that things equal satisfaction is simply untrue.
For example, I love the Green Day record American, Idiot. I haven’t listened to it for quite a long time. I heard one of the songs from the record one day, randomly. I, then, purchased the record on vinyl. I made an impulse buy. I have yet to listen to said record and I recieved it months ago.
Is my philosophy that I like to collect record just in case I ever want to listen to them? Is it that I believe buying this record, the process of ordering and awaiting its arrival the main reason I ordered it? Do I believe that I will achieve greater life satisfaction by having this record?
Yes. Yes, I do.
And so I make the buy, the impulse buy. It’s time to rethink my philosophy. My life is good knowing that this music is out there, yes. But I will change my philosophy to only purchasing records that I’ll listen to on a regular basis. Otherwise, the purchase simply doesn’t align with my values.
Examples of values around purchasing could be “I value purchases that impact my life regularly.” Or, “I value purchases that are sustainable for the environment.” Or even, “I value purchases that provide memorable experiences.” The values that I was exercising sound more like “I value the feeling experienced by making a purchase that gives me a good feeling in the moment.”
And so my philosophy needs to change to one that more closely aligns with healthier, more character and thoughtful motivations of purchasing. Evolving from “I do what feels good in the moment” to “I will do what regularly enhances my life in a positive way.”
Document Your Reasons for Purchases
Another thing I like to do is write down my reason for the purchase. This puts in place a little accountability for where I’m spending my money. For example, If I decide I need some new work clothes, I write in my notes app on my phone all the thoughts that surround this idea for the purchase.
- Can I afford it?
- Why do I feel I need new clothes?
- Is this an impulse buy?
- What would happen if I didn’t buy it?
- Is this a need or a want?
- How does this play in to the overarching theme of my personal values?
Often times this can simply help you learn from your purchasing snafus.
I was notorious for buying workout equipment. At one point, I had a really nice workout bench, weights and a pull up bar mounted in my basement. These were all impulse buys. I think I used them one time. If I would have had this practice at the time, my notes would have looked something like this:
- Can I afford it? – How can I afford not too? I’m going to look great and nothing should be prioritized ahead of health!
- Why do I feel I need this? – I feel like it would improve my overall well-being, physical fitness and life in general.
- Is this an impulse buy? – No, no, no. I’ve wanted to work out for forever.
- What would happen if I didn’t buy it? – I would continue to be out of shape and weak.
- Is this a need or a want? – This is definitely a need.
- How does this play in to the overarching theme of my personal values? – I believe you have to exercise to be healthy and thriving person in life.
At this point in your similar situation, you’ll realize what a salesman you are too yourself. These all seem like reasonable answers, so what happened?
For the first question: yes, I could afford it. But what I could not afford, is if I bought it and did not use it? I cannot afford to buy things I wont use. My initial answer to this question bypasses this whole idea. Secondly, I am right on with this answer, it would improve my overall-wellbeing and physical fitness. However, I have to commit to using it. This is the idea that I failed to consider.
Note to self: “add impulse buying question ‘Can I commit to using this item/service/purchase so that it justifies my investment?’”
This is also a good question to ask for any purchase of a service (gym membership, subscription service, streaming service etc.) I used to say things like “I better watch a movie soon, so that I can get the value out of the HBO subscription.”
What the hell?!
The third question, if I didn’t buy it what would happen? My answer circumvents the real issue here. I was attempting to find a solution for becoming for fit. But this is not the only solution. Pushups, running and yoga are examples of other things that I could do without making the purchase. Maybe I could add to this questions ‘is there another potential for the solution for the problem I am trying to solve?’
Need or want? Don’t confuse this question with the problem that you are trying to solve with the purchase. It is a NEED for me to be physically fit. However, because this is only one solution to that problem, it is a WANT.
The last question presents a similar issue. It is an overarching value that creates my need for physical fitness, but we circle around to commitment. I did not want to commit to using the weight bench. I, again, considered the purchase as the sole solution. It was certainly A solution. However, it was not the only solution.
This list is a good place to start. You can make your own notes as you go.
Give it Away
You may be thinking, “Okay, great. I have a problem. That makes me feel like crap.”
If that’s the case, that is truly not the intention. However, there are things you can do that really make you feel good in healthy way. The research is mixed on altruistic behavior in general, however the act of giving is a positive experience. Psychologist Adam Grant , refers to it as “one of the best anti-anxiety medications available”16. Even the thought of giving can release the same feel-good chemicals as thinking about food or sex.
Donating to charities is a great way to put your money towards something that is more closely aligned with your values. A 2008 study found that spending money on others makes you happier than spending the money on yourself28. So if we’re just trying to improve our feelings, buy something for someone else! Give! This will make you feel better. Another study found that elderly folks who volunteered for two or more organizations are 44% less-likely to die than others in the next five-years. This is true even when taking into consideration other highly impactful habits like exercise and smoking28.
Giving your time and money is a great way to increase positive social interactions and personal connection. We’re built for connection and truly, this is always evident in one way or another in our drives behind our actions. This includes impulse buying.
If you experience some struggles with impulse shopping and it is having an overall negative impact on you long term, you may need to spend some time considering the contents of this article.
The good news is that you can change. It is possible for you to get a hold of your spending and not buy so much on impulse. The key is to realize that the wanting is so much more powerful than the having. Be grateful for what you have. There are so many others in the world now and throughout human history that have had so much less. Express gratitude.
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