How to Stop Making Impulse Purchases: Wants Vs. Needs

Chonce Maddox

By Chonce Maddox
Chonce Maddox runs the blog My Debt Epiphany and contributes personal finance stories to many other online publications.
Posted on 06/06/2019

How often do you make impulse purchases?

Whether you thought a new flat screen would look nice in your living room, a sweater from the mall was too good of a deal to pass up, or a frozen yogurt would be a tasty treat to enjoy on your way home from working out, you're probably familiar with making purchases based on impulse and emotions.

An impulse purchase or impulse buying involves an unplanned decision to buy a product or service, usually made right before the purchase.

Impulse purchases become dangerous when they become second nature.


There's nothing wrong with wanting something. However, it's easy to get into the habit of wanting more and never being satisfied, which turns into a never-ending cycle.

According to Psychology Today, wants are often driven by emotion and a feeling of unhappiness. We tend to want things so we can look better, feel a certain way, or reach certain results.

What's worse is that when we actually get the things we want, we only feel better temporarily, then start the cycle of wanting more all over again.

To sum it up, wanting more and more is not the answer. It's more like a trap, which is why it may be best to avoid impulse purchases whenever possible.

I used to buy on impulse a lot—especially during college, since I didn't feel so good about my income and situation. Buying the latest trends gave me a status boost but put me in the hole financially, and I had nothing to show for my efforts once I lost or forgot about all my things.

If you're eager to limit impulse purchases this year, I recommend a few tips to help you curb your spending.


What's the common denominator that causes you to make impulse purchases? Is it a particular store or television ad? Do you receive sales emails from brands regularly, or feel tempted to walk into the department store next to your dog's groomer just to "browse?"

It's important to identify your triggers so you can practice avoiding them. I found that the mall is where I used to do most of my impulse purchases, so I avoid going unless I really need something.

There are two big malls in my town and one of them just expanded to add 150 additional stores. People look at me weird when I tell them that I've only been to the new and improved mall once over the past 18 months.

I no longer have a desire to go because I'd rather avoid any unplanned purchases.


After you eliminate your sources of temptation, you'll need to focus on confronting and managing the emotions that surround making new purchases.

Look at your childhood and your past experiences with spending money. Also, identify how spending money makes you feel and how you can capture that pleasant feeling by doing something else.

For example, I used to buy clothes when I was feeling bored or down because it made me feel happy to get something new. I loved the atmosphere that surrounded shopping, the smell of new clothes, and how confident I felt when I wore a new item I'd purchased.

When I decided to get a tighter grip on my money, I had to become aware of my emotions and deal with them in a healthier way. When I felt bored or sad, I'd talk to someone or ask my husband to go for a walk around the neighborhood.

I started doing more fulfilling work so I didn't feel a void anymore, and I tried establishing new hobbies that didn't involve me spending money all the time.

Dr. April Benson, a psychologist who works with recovering shopaholics, recommends that people stop and ask themselves why they're really shopping and what emotional needs their spending helps soothe.

"It's important to determine whether it's love or affection that you need or the need for autonomy and the feeling of belonging," Dr. Benson says.

Dr. Benson conducts an exercise with her clients where they pretend to look in on their own funeral and listen to what people say about their life.

"Thinking of what people might say about your values is an effective way to bridge the gap between who you are, who you'd like to be, and how you'd like to be seen—which is commonly referred to as the self-discrepancy gap," she adds.

On Dr. Benson's website,, she provides helpful tools and resources for people who want to avoid impulse shopping, such as cards with key questions that will help you determine whether or not your purchase is based on emotion.


There's nothing wrong with spending money on things you actually need and that make a difference in your life. By getting your emotions in check, you can get a clearer understanding of what you really value so you can spend more intentionally.

It also helps to focus on your end goal and understand how impulse spending may slow your progress toward that goal. If your goal is to get out of debt, you may want to ask yourself if certain purchases are worth it, as they would take you further away from reaching your goal.

"Keep those long-term goals in the front of your mind," Dr. Benson says.

"Put a little sign on your computer, wall, or in your wallet so you always know what you're really aiming for."

Try to give yourself at least 48 hours to decide if you should make the purchase. Ask yourself if you really need the item and if it will add value to your life.

If you're not thinking about the purchase at the end of the 48-hour period, you'll have your answer.