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Why you could be an impulse shopper and how to control it
Most people have spent more money than they should have on occasion. For some, the problem is deeper and more expensive than a mere financial misstep. - photo by Jeff Wuorio
If youve ever left a store wondering how on earth a quick, one-item errand turned into a bona fide spending spree, youve got plenty of company.

According to a recent survey by, 3 in 4 Americans have made impulse purchases. And those spur-of-the-moment buys can be costly. Of the impulse buyers included in the study, 16 percent said they spent $500 or more on the purchase and 10 percent spent $1,000 or more.

A consumer's emotional state underlies most knee-jerk buying decisions. Of the people included in the survey, nearly half (49 percent) said they were excited at the time of purchase, with another 30 percent saying they bought something out of boredom.

Our emotions can lead to overspending, whether it's because we're sad, angry, depressed or even happy, said Gerri Detweiler of Nav, a business credit management company. Who hasn't had something good happen and said, Let's go out and celebrate?"

Are you impulsive?

To prevent that celebration from getting out of hand, experts say its important for shoppers to monitor their emotional and mental states to gauge whether a simple shopping experience may turn into a problem.

The survey wound impulsive purchases came because those surveyed were excited (49 percent), bored (30 percent), sad (22 percent), angry (9 percent) or intoxicated (9 percent).

The brains of truly impulsive shoppers are wired a bit differently than the brains of other consumers, said consumer psychologist Bruce D. Sanders, author of Sell Well: What Really Moves Your Shoppers. For instance, impulsive shoppers brains are fascinated by bright colors and movement. When looking at a shelf or rack in a store, are your eyes not just drawn to the bright colors but also magnetized by them?

None of these conditions that stimulate impulse shopping exist by accident. Stores are designed and arranged to attract and engage shoppers in all sorts of circumstances, Sanders explained.

Smart retailers know what appeals to the impulse shopper, such as items in the store that are easy to reach, he said. Waiting times in the checkout line that are long enough for the shopper to grab items, but not so long as to encourage reflection; surprise discounts, as contrasted with the coupon discounts which attract most every type of shopper.

Impulse shopping can carry significant financial aftereffects for men and women. For instance, in the study, 21 percent of men said they spent $500 or more, including 7 percent who said they spent more than $1,000. Among women, 9 percent said they hit the $500 mark with an impulse buy, with 5 percent topping $1,000.

Impulse shoppers can even plan to overspend, said Sanders, citing another study in which shoppers were asked to estimate how much they expected to spend on a particular shopping trip.

For more than 75 percent of the shoppers, the amount they thought theyd spend altogether was more than the amount they estimated to be the cost of items they planned to buy, he said. These consumers had prepared themselves to come across both (the) needs theyd forgotten to include on their shopping list and (the) items they wouldnt realize they wanted until (those) items were in front of them or in their hands.

Strategies that can help

It raises the question: If many shoppers effectively plan to overspend, what options are available to disrupt what they already anticipate? One idea is to bring along a buddy to keep you in check more specifically, a relative.

If you want companionship, shop with adult family members, said Sanders. Consumer behavior research finds adult family members help impulsive shoppers sidestep misguided temptations.

Although it may sound outlandish to a plastic-focused consumer community, another strategy is to leave credit cards behind and, instead, carry a specific amount of cash.

One idea is to leave your credit cards at home, said Detweiler. If you know you are shopping for a budgeted amount say $150 in groceries take that much in cash and you'll know you can't overspend.

Other tactics include:

  • Making a shopping list: Creating a long shopping list uses up mental energy, and that, ironically, reduces impulse purchases, said Sanders.
  • Using a waiting period. By definition, impulse shopping means a decision made on the spot. If you see something you like, give it a few days. Theres always the chance that time will soften the seeming need to buy something.
  • If you use a credit card, limit it to one. The more cards you have to keep track of the harder it is to track your spending and, consequently, pinpoint when you went overboard.
  • Keeping a shopping diary: Knowing you'll have to enter the purchase later can be enough to make you think twice, said Detweiler. It operates on the same principle dieters use when they log everything they eat. If you know you'll be held accountable even to yourself you're likely to spend less.