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4 ways to kill impulse buying

Instant gratification is a real budget wrecker. These strategies can help.

By Donna_Freedman Apr 18, 2012 10:12AM

Image: Sale sign in shop window © Michele Constantini/PhotoAlto Agency RF/Getty ImagesSee it. Want it! Buy it.


Every day we're barraged with tantalizing ads, limited-time deals and one-click shopping opportunities. It's far too easy to buy -- and impulse spending can wreck your budget.

I'm not immune. Recently I saw a deal of 1,800 rhinestones for $2.84 including shipping. The deal was so ludicrous that it made me laugh.

It also made me buy. See how easy it can be?

I decided to spring for this purchase as a gift to my niece, an elementary-school teacher whose kids could use them for art projects. After all, I've paid about the same price for a beverage when dining out. Why not make the kids smile? (Post continues after video.)

That's strategy No. 1: Think critically about the purchase. Can you afford it? Do you really need it? Do you have something else that would suffice? Will it make a noticeable difference in your life? (Or in the lives of some Alaska first-graders?)

A second opinion can be helpful, so ask a friend or your partner for input. I've heard of a "three time" rule: You have to handle an item or discuss its purchase at least three times before pulling the trigger.

Try before you buy

Strategy No. 2 -- learn more -- can be practiced in several ways:

  • Ask someone who's already got it. You may find out that the cupcake bakery gathered dust or the paint sprayer was hard to use.
  • Research it. Read consumer comments or visit reputable review sites such as Consumer Reports or CNET
  • Borrow it. Using a neighbor's power washer, you might learn it's too much for you physically. Borrowing your sister's bread machine could show you that (a) the appliance is more of a hassle than you thought or (b) you'd eat way too much bread if you owned one of these things.
  • Rent it. You may discover that carrying a designer handbag doesn't make you feel sparkly and magical after all. Cheaper to learn that by renting versus buying.

Satisfying the urge
Strategy No. 3: Formally acknowledge the want, and create a plan to obtain it. Start by putting it in your shopping cart/on a wish list at a retailer's website. (Old-school version: Circle the item in the catalog.)

Go back and look at it now and then. Spend some time daydreaming but more time thinking critically.


If someone asks for gift ideas, mention the item. (Unless, of course, you know it doesn't fit that person's budget.) Or ask for a gift card at the retailer that sells it, to defray the cost.

Don't count on getting either one. Instead, start a subaccount at your bank or credit union, and name it after the object of your desire. Seeing "My Smartphone Fund" might encourage you to squirrel away a few extra dollars each month.

Note: Once you've accrued that money you might feel reluctant to spend it all. And you might not have to, if you use the next technique.

How much will it cost?

Strategy No. 4: Shop around. Start with a price comparison website, especially if you're looking at a daily deal. Deadlines create urgency -- that is, the feeling that if you don't buy now you'll lose out. A price comparison site may show you similar prices with no time limit attached.

Depending on the item, you might luck out with thrift stores, yard or rummage sales, Craigslist or the Freecycle Network. Yes, this takes time, but you might get your item for free or nearly so.

Waiting will do your budget good, especially since over time you may realize you don't want this article after all. One reader fell in love with a fancy picnic basket full of plates and flatware but couldn’t afford it. She later acknowledged that she and her sweetheart had picnicked "exactly once," and carrying their food in a plastic grocery bag worked just fine.

She decided not to get the picnic basket.

Too often we fall in love with an image or a concept: a beautiful couple sharing a meal in nature, a buff guy lifting weights. That's why the tactics above are so useful. Without a little critical distance, you might wind up with a picnic hamper that gets used twice, tops, or with exercise equipment that becomes a very expensive clothes rack.

How do you steer clear of impulse buying? Got any tips to share?

More on MSN Money:

May 16, 2012 10:31AM
For the most part I can walk away but my 12 yr old son is persistant when he wants something.  He says he NEEDS it and I keep explaining needs and wants.  He used to be so good at saving his money now he wants to blow it on parts for a bike that are not even broken (next is new handlebars).  He gets the needs thing.  He tells me he is hungry and wants Logan's and says since food is a need that I need to take him there.  I explain I can make him a meal at home for a lot less than us all eating out.  Kids are the money drainers.  I swear I exhaust so much energy always says NOOOOOOOO.
Jul 24, 2012 10:34AM
When I see something at the store that I can afford at that moment but don't necessarily need, I often say to myself "leave--if you forget about it, it's not that important".  I can only think of a couple items I ever actually went back for, & one in particular I ended up trying on & found it did not look good on me at all.  Walking away gave me the critical distance I needed.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.