Money Wellness
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calendar icon20 Jan 2023

The psychology of impulse buying

Most of us are probably guilty of impulse buying from time to time. But if it becomes a habit, it can have a devastating impact on your finances. According to a survey by finder, 78.2% of British adults have succumbed to the temptation of impulse buying. And the amount we're spending on impulse purchases is hardly insubstantial - with ius racking up a colossal spend of £1.06 billion in a single year. An impulse purchase is an inessential item that you didn’t plan on buying. And although most of us probably splash out like this on occasion, 7.1% of impulsive online shoppers have admitted to spending unnecessarily every single day.

So, with debt on the rise and more people struggling with money as a result of the cost-of-living crisis, what steps can you take to avoid impulse buying?

What factors lead to impulse buying?

The Gruen effect

Before we consider ways to reduce impulse buying, it's probably helpful to think about some of the factors that encourage us to make unnecessary purchases in the first place.

Austrian architect, Victor Gruen is generally credited as being the creator of the first indoor, climate-controlled shopping centre, back in 1956. He pioneered a shopping centre layout that was deliberately confusing for customers. The 'Gruen effect' describes the moment customers enter a shop or shopping centre and find they're unable to simply select the product or products they came in for, pay and leave. Instead, they have to wander round searching for the items they want. This forces them to pass lots of merchandise they don't need, often causing them to lose sight of what they originally came in for and making them more susceptible to impulse buying. One of the most successful examples of a retailer adopting this approach is IKEA.

Other ways retailers encourage impulse buying

Price: By drawing attention to discounted goods, retailers increase the perceived value of products.

Ambiance: Visual and sensory stimuli both in physical stores and online can enhance the appeal of products and trigger impulse purchases. Simply lighting a scented candle or improving a website's layout can  have a significant impact on sales.

Limited availability: Merchandise marketed as unique, unusual or limited-edition can also encourage impulse buying.

The link between impulse buying and personality

There are reportedly a number of characteristics that make us more likely to spend impulsively. The main ones are if we're:

  • extrovert - in contrast, introverts are more likely to value feeling in control and, as a result, less likely to buy impulsively
  • conscious of our social status - If we're particularly aware of our social status, we're more likely to purchase items to impress others
  • anxious - when we're suffering with anxiety, we often have trouble controlling our emotions and it can be harder to resist emotional urges to make spur-of-the-moment purchases
  • unhappy - shopping can be used as a way to boost our mood 
  • naturally spontaneous - if we tend live for the moment, we're less likely to take into account the long-term impact on our finances of an impulse purchase

How to avoid impulse buying

Ultimately, the best way to avoid impulse buying is to identify your triggers. Dealing with anxiety or finding ways to control unhappiness could reduce the urge to seek fulfilment through shopping. Obviously, deep-seated emotional issues are difficult to address overnight. But there are some simple steps we can all take to help us avoid impulse purchases:

  1. Work out how much graft it would take to earn the money to buy a product

Sometimes, you just need to put things into perspective. While it may be tempting to buy a designer handbag or new Xbox, how many days would you have to work to actually pay for this item? Focusing on the price in this way can encourage restraint and stop us buying something based purely on an emotional response to the product.

  1. Make a shopping list and stick to it

This is old-school, but effective. Making a list is one of the easiest ways to avoid impulse buying and can be used anywhere from a clothes store to a supermarket.

  1. If you’re feeling down, find something else to lift your mood

Unless you have an obscene amount of money in the bank, spending to improve your mood isn’t viable long-term and could increase your chances of falling into debt. Start a new hobby, exercise, cook or read a book - anything that will increase your serotonin levels and stop you from spending.

  1. If you’re going to spend money, do it in moderation

Cutting out little treats altogether may be unrealistic and potentially counterproductive, possibly resulting in a gigantic splurge. If you know you’ll never fully curb your spending habit, treat yourself, but in moderation. Rather than spending £100 on a pair of shoes you want (but don’t need), shop elsewhere for a cheaper alternative or force yourself to wait a few months until you've saved the money. The key here is to spend thoughtfully rather than impulsively.

  1. Leave your debit card at home

If you’re heading to the supermarket and know how much you’ll be spending, take the cash you need and leave your cards at home. That way, you can't impulse buy, even if you want to.

  1. Don’t shop when you’re emotional

Shopping when you’re emotional should be avoided if possible. Retail therapy is a dangerous habit to fall into and could be detrimental to your financial wellness. If you can, wait a day or two before shopping and find your pick-me-up elsewhere.

  1. Block shopping sites on your computer

We’re all guilty of the occasional online ‘window shop’ to pass the time, but is it really as innocent as it sounds? Absolutely not - browsing online to curb boredom can easily lead to impulse buying. If you’re committed to reducing your impulse spending, try blocking some of your favourite online stores.

  1. Create a savings account

Spending can certainly induce positive feelings, but so can a growing bank balance. If you ever feel tempted to buy something on a whim, consider transferring that money into a savings account instead. You may find you get just as much of a buzz from saving as you do from spending.

Avatar of Rebecca Routledge

Rebecca Routledge

A qualified journalist for over 15 years with a background in financial services. Rebecca is Money Wellness’s consumer champion, helping you improve your financial wellbeing by providing information on everything from income maximisation to budgeting and saving tips.

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