How to End Impulse Buying and Stay on Budget

Casey Hynes—Up Close and Personal Finance

I made a mistake recently—a silly one, the kind you see in Personal Budgeting 101. While scrolling through cocktail dresses and summer rompers online, I impulsively made a purchase, temporarily convinced it was absolutely necessary. I’m in my cousin’s wedding later this year, I reasoned to myself, and what kind of bridesmaid would I be if I didn’t show up to her bridal shower in an outfit freshly bought for the occasion?

As soon as I clicked “confirm purchase,” I felt that sinking feeling you get after you do something you know you aren’t supposed to do. It’s not that the romper I bought was particularly expensive. It was deeply discounted and I had a coupon code to boot. But I didn’t need it, and I certainly hadn’t planned for it.

What is wrong with me? I raged after receiving the confirmation email. I’d been psyching myself up about paying off my credit cards this year, but those pep talks went out the window as I eagerly input my card information and added to those looming debts.

Though I’ve spent much of the past two years improving my financial habits, occasionally I still
have days like this one. I get the idea for something I want, go online, and order it without weighing the consequences or even considering why I want it at all. “I just need it,” I tell myself, and then let my fingers do the talking.

The comedown from an impulse buy is unpleasant. I feel frustrated and angry with myself for spending without thinking — for letting my feelings dictate my decisions. But rather than stew in self-directed anger this time, I looked inward. I asked myself, why was I so convinced that I needed a new outfit for this event?

My cousin couldn’t care less whether my romper is on trend for her bridal shower, she just wants me to be there. And as long as I don’t look like a complete ragamuffin, no one else attending will care what I wear either. Everyone’s eyes will be on the bride.

Yet I still felt I needed something new. The justifications came easily while the nefarious purchase was happening: I haven’t seen a lot of my family members in a long time, and I want to look nice. I’ve gotten in better shape recently, so I need new clothes. I can’t show up to this shower in something people have seen me in before; they’ll know and they’ll judge me.

None of those were good reasons for spending money on a whim, especially when I’m learning to budget more effectively. But sorting through those thoughts helped me realize that I often spend money for other people’s sake.

Spending money is my way of telling someone I respect them. That I value them enough to shell out for something nice. And that I’m willing to put myself in a tight financial position to do so. I feel guilty when I think about not buying new clothes for someone’s special event, or not bringing an elaborate gift or dinner party treat when I visit their homes. It’s also a way of covering up my insecurities about not being especially wealthy.

I know I’m not alone in this. People buy things they can’t afford or don’t need all the time. They’re afraid of not fitting in with or being perceived as “less than” a certain social group because they don’t have luxury cars or expensive handbags.

Writer Claire Millard of Wise Bread attributes this habit to biology . We might have left our caveman days behind, but humans still experience strong drives toward social inclusion. At some level, we spend money to gain approval and acceptance, even when the spending puts us in dire financial straits.

“Faced with the perceived threat of being left behind by the herd, our instinctive responses make it far more likely we will spend to maintain or improve our place in the pecking order,” Millard writes. “And before we know it, our brains can trick us into spending on an impulse, no matter what our more rational intentions might be.”

But as Holly Johnson at The Simple Dollar notes, the person we should be most concerned about impressing is our future selves. And we can all be assured that future us will not be impressed with that sweet outfit we wore once if we don’t have healthy retirement savings or financial security.

“If you don’t want to struggle in old age, you need to buck that trend and start putting your retirement savings first. You may need to give up some things today, but your future self will be so glad you did,” Johnson advises.

I wholeheartedly agree. Future Casey does not want to be trapped in a several-decades-long cycle of financial stress and uncertainty. Present Casey knows that and wants to build for the future … but sometimes she falls back into the trap of thinking she needs to spend to earn people’s approval right now.

It goes without saying that the people who really matter in life don’t care whether the romper you’re wearing is brand-new or 10 years old. They also don’t care what kind of car you drive or how much money you earn.

But as Millard notes, it can be easy to forget that when everyone is image crafting on social media. Photos of friends’ incredible-looking vacations, sprawling new homes, and even their fancy dinners make us panic about our own circumstances. And so we spend, for fear of losing face.

I don’t know that there’s a quick trick to break out of this mental trap. But I hope by recognizing it when it happens, we can examine our misguided beliefs about how our net worth correlates to our personal value. Perhaps then we can focus more on impressing our future selves than other people (who probably aren’t paying attention anyway).