How to avoid impulse buys when shopping

The problem with impulse buys is that most are clutter in your life from the moment you buy them to when you come to your senses and let them go.

Chocolate bread rolls

I was in a supermarket a while ago when I came across a very rotund woman whose chubby teenage son was pestering her to buy him some chocolate-flavoured bread rolls that had caught his eye. I wanted to say to him, ‘Step away from the bread rolls. They’re not going to help you in your life.’

Then he saw me looking at him, and as our eyes met I could see that he felt that he needed those rolls. Stuffing himself with carbs was his coping mechanism and comforter in life. He had no thought of chocolate bread rolls before he saw the lavish display in the store, but from that moment on,  he wanted them. And since his mother saw it as an act of love to let him have them, into the shopping cart they went.

How shopping can be a coping mechanism

I’ve seen the same behaviour in relation to the accumulation of clutter. To some degree, anyone who has clutter uses it to suppress their emotions in some way. It provides a protective layer to numb feelings they would rather not experience. Their children then learn by example that they can quickly and easily cheer themselves up by acquiring a new material possession. It becomes the antidote to any disappointment or setback they don’t want to feel.

You’d think this would only apply to high-income families, but money is no object. The less well-off go to discount stores, charity shops, garage sales, or the equivalent in their part of the world. Or they use websites such as Freecycle, where they can pick up tons of stuff for nothing at all except the time and expense of collecting it. If all else fails, they buy new things from regular malls or online stores and run up credit card debt they then struggle to pay off.

As with food treats, what takes over is the yearning for gratification, with no regard for the consequences that follow. And in the same way that a person gains weight one bite at a time, so clutter is acquired one item at a time. Each bite or item is the result of a yes/no choice that is made.

Become more conscious about the shopping choices you make

The problem with acquiring new things to try to make yourself feel better is that the effect soon wears off and then you want something else. The more stuff you pile into your home, the more stagnant energy will accumulate around it, and the more stuck in life you will feel.

And no amount of things is ever enough. So then you have the problems you’re trying to forget and the new problems created by the things you’re buying to try to make the original problems go away. It’s a downward spiral.

When you’re caught up in this pattern, you’re very easy prey. Billions of dollars are spent each year designing shop windows, store layouts, and online stores to encourage impulse buys. You may think it’s your own idea to buy something, but it’s more likely you’ve succumbed to a marketing strategy that’s been cleverly engineered to snare you.

Stores use all kinds of tricks

Do you know that the reason why clothing stores offer generous return policies is because the resulting increase in profits from impulse buys far outweighs the cost of processing refunds for those who come to their senses after they get home? Long-term research shows that most people are just too lazy or disorganized to take things back.

And do you know that people prefer bananas that have Pantone 12-0752 coloured skins rather than the natural shade of Pantone 13-0858? There’s only a whisper of difference between them but it translates into millions of dollars of sales. So now banana growers work with scientists to produce the exact colour of banana skin we all want without us even knowing that we do.

When you dig a little deeper, there are countless examples like this, and you discover that the “treats” you give yourself are mostly things you’ve been lured into buying. You thought they were your own choices, but they very probably weren’t.

The truth about impulse buys

On the one hand, there are the powerful advertising campaigns that lure you to buy things you don’t really need. And on the other hand, there are deeply ingrained self-gratifying urges that pop out of nowhere to engulf you. Somewhere in the middle, very hard to find these days, is the narrow pathway of free will.

The first thing to understand is that many items you may feel tempted to buy are nothing more than future clutter in disguise. A 2016 study in the UK discovered over £37 billion of unused gadgets in people’s homes, ranging from kitchen appliances and gardening equipment to hi-tech devices and other gizmos. These types of items are purchased, brought home and never used. Many are still in the box they came in or still have the price tag on.

A 2018 survey by revealed that American adults spend an average of $5,400 per year on impulse buys. 71% of the people polled said food was their most frequent type of impulse buy. Clothing purchases came in second, and then household items, takeout meals, and shoes.

Stop before you shop

If you’re ever tempted to buy something you didn’t plan to buy, either online or in a store, stop for a moment and ask yourself this simple question:

Did I want this item before I saw it?

If the answer is no, then you’re about to make an impulse buy.

Instead of caving in, ask yourself:

  • Why do I want it?
  • Do I really need it?

And in the case of an item that will take up space in your home:

  • Where will I keep it?

If you don’t have clear, wholesome answers to all these questions, walk away.

How to be better prepared

If you know you’re prone to impulse buys, here are some more tips to help you avoid them in future…

Never shop when you’re hungry
If you’re shopping for food, you’ll tend to buy more than you planned. If you’re shopping for other things, you’re likely to make choices you’ll later regret.

Don’t shop when you’re feeling down
Retail therapy doesn’t work. It only masks the problems. It doesn’t solve them.

Don’t shop to celebrate
Adding clutter to your home is not helpful in the long term. Find other ways to reward yourself or rejoice.

Don’t shop to amuse yourself because you’re bored
No amount of material possessions can ever fill an emptiness you feel inside. Use your money more constructively to learn ways to bring more meaning to your life.

Remember that a bargain is not a bargain if you never use it
Sale items are the greatest source of impulse buys. But if you save money buying something you don’t need and never use, you haven’t saved money at all. You wasted it.

Plan ahead
Make a shopping list of the things you need and can afford and have it with you whenever you shop. If you’re tempted to buy anything else, make yourself wait for at least seven days, then reassess when you feel calm and more objective.

Get to know your triggers
Keep a written log for an entire month of situations that trigger you to want to make impulse buys. The more you are aware of the triggers, the easier it will be to resist.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2018, updated 2023

Related article
The art of intercepting clutter before it even starts

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Online clutter clearing courses

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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2 Responses to How to avoid impulse buys when shopping

  1. This article comes at the perfect time for me. Thank you, Karen. I know what triggers impulse buys — sales, missing out on something, loneliness — but have not had the will to stop them. I have declared this month a shop-free month (my husband does the grocery shopping so we won’t go hungry), but realize I actually need to unsubscribe to the many online arts & crafts shops that tempt me, sometimes with daily emails.

    Then I need to do the continuing work to deal with grief and issues from childhood that suggests buying things will solve my problems. One thing I am grateful for is that my children don’t have these same issues. I think they saw me buying too much/spending too much and decided not to follow that path. . . yay!

  2. This article is such a useful package of information I plan to refer to often & share with family!

    Just the other day (when I was buying something that I actually needed & used) I resisted the urge to buy an ‘adorable’ ‘on sale’ pencil holder because I wasn’t sure I had the need.

    It took me a lot of deliberation time & was honestly uncomfortable to step away! I’m so used to the dopamine hit from filling those urges. I also online shopped and now have to take time to do returns (a pattern I would love you to write more about Karen).

    The Pantone colored bananas you mentioned was a real eye opener at how much power advertisers use to manipulate our minds! That’s why I chose NOT to go into that field, it felt morally wrong!

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