How to Stop Shopping on Impulse

coaching money mindset Nov 16, 2020

“I need that!”

How often have you found yourself saying this, or some variation of it, when you see some gadget, appliance or toy for the first time, whether it be in your neighbour’s kitchen, on TV or on social media?

But we don’t really mean that we need that item. What we mean is that we want it. Sometimes we are willing to admit this, and we’re using the expression in a joking way. But sometimes, we end up convincing ourselves that it is an essential purchase.

I decided a couple of years ago that I wanted to start drinking celery juice every day, for health reasons (I know – don’t ask). I quickly discovered that making celery juice with a regular blender is a major pain. Suddenly, I needed a juicer. Guess what? That appliance has been sitting on a shelf for the past year, unused, and I’m now looking to sell it. (If you know anyone who’s looking for one, let me know!).

How does this sort of thing happen? Well, I have a couple of theories.

First, as our standard of living increases, our definition of the terms “want” and “need” changes.

I’m old enough to remember when having a colour television was a luxury; today, the average home has 2.5 TV sets, and chances are they are flat-screen, high-definition, so-called “smart” TVs.

I also remember when access to the internet (via the “world-wide-web”) first became available to ordinary citizens. We put our AOL (“America On-Line”) floppy disk in the drive, waited for the dial-up sequence to engage (often it took a couple of minutes to get a connection – can you imagine?) and a whole new world opened up to us. Today, the vast majority of households in North America have high-speed internet, and if it takes more than 5 seconds to get a connection, we freak out that something is wrong!

In my parents’ day, owning a home was not the norm; most people rented their living space throughout their lives. Today, it’s considered a travesty that many young adults aren’t in a position to buy real estate by the time they hit 30.

And what about cars? There was a time when owning a vehicle was a sign of wealth, and most people got around using public transit, rode their bikes or walked wherever they needed to go. As the middle class evolved after WWII, people began moving out of major cities to the suburbs, and vehicles gradually came to be perceived as a need due to the distances involved. Today, many families can’t even imagine functioning without two vehicles.

You’ve probably heard the expression, "a rising tide lifts all boats". Similarly, a rising standard of living lifts everyone’s expectations of what they should own, be, and do. What used to be an everyday occurrence (having your spouse drop you off at your workplace on the way to theirs, in your one vehicle, for example) is now seen as a major inconvenience, because it’s no longer the norm. 

If you doubt this, just think for a moment: do you know anyone in your age group or younger who doesn’t have internet at home? I would wager that very few will answer yes to this question.

Why am I singling out internet here? Because along with ubiquitous access to the web, comes exposure to an increasing barrage of advertising – and that brings me to my second theory about how wants have turned into needs, at least in our minds.

The primary underlying message in almost all advertising, is that you can’t possibly live without [fill in the blank]. It will make your life so much easier! It will make you happier! It will solve all your problems!

And the more ads you are exposed to on a daily basis, the more your brain is potentially getting programmed to believe those messages.

The internet, and particularly social media, has exponentially increased the number and frequency of marketing messages with which we are bombarded. Previously it was limited – when you had the TV or radio on, or when you picked up a magazine or newspaper, for example.

Now, we are on our phones ALL DAY, every day. Since 1970, the number of ads we see per day has increased by a staggering 625%!  Also, new innovations like product placement in TV shows mean we are subliminally exposed to suggestive messages encouraging us to want things.

We thought that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause a big shift in society’s perception of what we actually need – and at first, it did. During lockdown, we learned to do without many of the things we previously thought were essential, and rediscovered the joy of simplicity.

But that got old pretty fast for many people; stuck at home, they were being exposed to even more advertising than ever before, and it wasn’t long before they started feeling deprived. To make matters worse, online shopping made it even easier (and safer!) to indulge those wants.

But, why is this a problem, you may ask?

Simple. Because when we make purchases on impulse, we often don’t stop to think about how they fit into our overall financial situation. Most people don’t actually keep a household budget, and they don’t notice how these expenditures are adding up. More often than not, these purchases are made on credit, and because of accumulating interest charges, the item ends up costing them several times more than its actual retail price.

So, what can we do about this? Here are four key steps to regaining perspective about what is a want vs. a need, and taming our urge to purchase on impulse.

1. Acknowledge responsibility.

Advertising isn’t going away. We can’t just blame the marketers for our financial problems or our lack of impulse control. We are still in charge of the purse strings. No one is forcing us to spend our money; we own that.

2. Adopt a framework for all future spending decisions.

Try this: whenever you find yourself thinking you should buy something, reframe it by saying you want it, and see how that feels. Really sit with it for a few moments, and be honest with yourself. Does it still feel like a need, or does “I want” feel more true for you?

For example: you’re in the hardware store, looking for light bulbs, when you come across a display for a fancy new non-stick frying pan – only $29.99! You already have a non-stick pan at home, but it’s not quite as big as this one, and it’s a bit heavier. In the moment, you think, “I should buy this, because it’s bigger and lighter than the one I have.”

Reframe: “I want to buy this, because it’s bigger and lighter than the one I have.” If you’re honest with yourself, you realize that you don’t actually need the new pan – the one you have does the job just fine. And voilà - you’ve just saved yourself $30.

You can also ask yourself a few questions, such as:

  • Will my life be significantly better if I buy this/more difficult if I don’t? In what way? Be specific!
  • What is motivating me to make this purchase?
  • If I don’t spend the money on this, what could I do with it instead?

3. Get into conscious giving.

When we focus on giving away a portion of what we have, it dampens our desire for more. Generosity towards others helps to foster an abundance mindset, and makes us realize how blessed we truly are with what we already have.

4. Give minimalism a try.

Before you balk at this, hear me out. Minimalism doesn’t mean living in a sparse environment, deprived of things that you genuinely need. It doesn’t mean getting rid of ¾ of your wardrobe (unless you want to!) or throwing out items that have deep sentimental or family value.

I love Joshua Becker’s definition of minimalism in this blog post:

“[…] minimalism is intentionally living with only the things I really need – those items that support my purpose. I am removing the distraction of excess possessions so I can focus more on those things that matter most.”

It’s eye-opening to realize the frivolous expenditures you’ve made in the past, that seemed like good decisions at the time – like my celery juicer. Minimizing your space and life will help to reframe your concept of wants vs. needs.

Remember, the more you own, the more time, energy and money you will have to spend maintaining or storing it, particularly larger items like a house, car, boat, snowmobile, or really any “gadget” or superfluous appliance.


And ultimately, recognizing the difference between wants vs. needs will give you the freedom to focus on those things that really matter to you…the things that lead to a Momentous Life.


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