Why We Can’t Stop Impulse Shopping Things We Don’t Need

Mind over matter (literally).

by Natalia Lusinski

We’ve all been there: We’re at the checkout when something catches our eye, either near the register or across the store. We have to have it — and maybe we even get out of line to grab it. But what is the psychology behind this seemingly insignificant act of impulse shopping? Is it signaling a deeper issue?

Money-Saving Expert Andrea Woroch says impulse shopping, also referred to as “retail therapy,” is something almost every single person does to varying degrees, from buying extra food at the grocery store because a certain display looks appetizing to buying something as a way to cope after a bad fight with a partner or long day at the office. “Some people also can’t resist those tempting sales that lead to a rush of excitement for scoring a bargain and those ‘limited-time’ deals that create a sense of frenzy to buy now before the discount disappears,” she tells TZR in an email. “But the instant gratification you receive from buying a new item will quickly fade — and this can create a vicious cycle of impulse shopping as you search for that feeling again.” Woroch says impulse shopping may seem harmless in the moment, but consistent unplanned and unnecessary purchases can quickly derail your budget and cause you to take on debt. “Not to mention, it’ll keep you from reaching various financial and savings goals you’ve set for yourself,” she adds.

Therapist and owner of Pruden Counseling Concepts Keischa Pruden says this type of shopping is a form of addiction — albeit more accepted than other types of addictions, like to drugs or alcohol. “We live in a consumer-driven society,” she tells TZR in an email. “We associate shopping with fun, achievement, and socioeconomic status. However, our image of someone who may shop to excess is far different from someone who may abuse alcohol or drugs.” She says impulse shopping often satisfies an emotional craving, much like chocolate can satisfy a physical craving — and we immediately feel euphoric before and during the purchase. So many people may not see it as a problem… until they see their credit card bills or their partner starts to question their purchases and spending habits.

Ahead, Pruden, Woroch, and other experts weigh in on the psychology behind excessive impulse shopping — and how you can recognize if it’s become an issue in your own life.

The Psychology Behind The ‘Shopper’s High’

Cheryl P. Pinto, president & CEO of Wealth Works Solutions, says there are two very different types of shopping — need-based and emotion-based. While need-based is pretty straightforward and essential, emotional-based is triggered by hormones and chemicals in our brain. “Most of the time, we have no clue that it’s happening,” she tells TZR in an email. “Our hormones make us feel and act in ways that we may otherwise even consider irrational. Dopamine is the chemical that makes you feel pleasure — it's a built-in reward system. When we shop, our brain triggers dopamine and we get a dopamine hit — a ‘shopper’s high.’ And it’s the same hormone that is triggered when people gamble, experience sexual activity, or use drugs.” Pinto adds that a 2014 study by the Journal of Consumer Psychology reported that shopping reduced a sense of sadness and helped restore a sense of control people felt in their lives. However, it can have detrimental results.

Dr. Cali Estes, clinical psychologist known as “The Addiction Coach,” says shopping and spending can easily become addictive. She says you may want a new bedroom set and budget $3,000 — but then you find one you love… for $8,500. You get it with a credit card and figure you’ll pay it later. “The problem is, once you get the bedroom set and enjoy it for about a week, the luster wears off,” she tells TZR in an email. “Now you feel you need something else — and still haven’t paid for the item you have. So you go back out and maybe buy new rugs and new pillows for the room that you didn’t really need and put that on a credit card, too. In about a week, that wears off, and now you’re buying new sheets and towels…” She says people justify this by saying they “need” these items and use them on a daily basis. “But you are still spending outside your means and budget,” she says. “This is a classic addicted brain. ‘I need the high now — I will deal with the consequences later.’” Estes says that, in therapy, she helps clients get to the root cause of the issue and solve it. “Each client is different and treated depending on their shopping style, their trauma, and underlying issues — and their history of utilizing shopping as a stress relief, retail therapy, or impulse buy.”

How To Know If Your Impulse Shopping Is A Problem

Pinto says to consider this: You may impulse shop to alleviate stress — but the factor that caused the stress is still very much there once the shopping is over. “This may lead to shopping becoming compulsive,” she says. “We know it’s a problem if we are doing things such as: constantly buying things we don't need and feeling shame or regret afterwards; spending more than we’d like to (or can afford); not saving any of our own money, and instead, giving it away to retailers; running up debt; hiding what we buy; and having it get in the way of our interpersonal relationships.”

Dr. Elisa Robyn also says there are several ways to recognize if your impulse buys have become a problem. She has a Ph.D. in educational psychology and has taught several graduate courses on the psychology of money. “Often, we only become aware of it when we reach the limit on our credit cards, cannot pay our bills, or have no more room in our house,” she tells TZR in an email. “We still might consider that we are overbuying or even hoarding if we have a storage room or storage space. And, at times, our shopping behavior overflows into our work environment — an office with every type of sticky note, pen, and other supplies based on impulse buying.” That can also apply to a stuffed closet filled with clothes you rarely wear or a kitchen full of cute appliances you never use, she adds. And if you don’t notice the problem, someone else usually will and point it out to you.

How To Prevent Impulse Shopping

Pinto says the first step is to identify your shopping trigger — and then write it in a journal each time you feel the urge to shop. “When you become aware, only then can you begin to control it or stop yourself from doing it,” she says. Woroch agrees and says you then must try to eliminate your triggers. “If you can’t walk into Target without buying a bunch of cute clothing and home goods, don’t go in,” she says. “Instead, shop online and opt for curbside pick up — impulse temptations eliminated. Also, if you find yourself wanting to shop because of something you saw on social media (hello, FOMO!), unfollow the accounts that make you feel this way or just stop using that social site.” Then, you can come up with different ways to deal with the emotions that were causing you to impulse shop. “For instance, if you constantly find yourself wanting to buy something to make yourself feel better after a rough day, think of better ways to manage those emotions. Go for a long walk or do a rigorous workout — like boxing — to punch out those feelings.”

Woroch says positive emotions may trigger your spontaneous splurges, too. “You may go shopping as a reward when you’re feeling really good about something,” she says. “But spending your money unnecessarily isn’t a great way to reward yourself. Instead, call up an old friend to catch up or give yourself some ‘you time’ in nature.” In other words, something more productive — that won’t cost a dime. Woroch says another trick is to keep your goals visible — whether it’s saving up for a dream trip or buying a house. “Leave them out so you can see them to remind yourself of why you are not making an impulse purchase that day,” she says. “You can even go as far as to write it on a sticky note and wrap that around your credit card!”

Pinto has a method where, when she wants to buy something, she puts it in her online shopping cart and leaves it there. “If I still want it a few days, or a week, later, I’ll go ahead and buy it,” she explains. “I say give yourself three days before you decide to buy it, one day at minimum. Usually just the act of putting it in your cart will have given you the dopamine hit and you won't feel the need to buy it.” Similarly, if you’re shopping in a store, she recommends asking the staff to hold the item(s) for you so you can return and pick it up the next day if you still want it. “In all likelihood, the emotions that triggered you to initially buy it would have faded and you may have no need or interest in buying it the next day,” she says.


Estes has techniques she uses with her clients, too, like making a “want versus need” list. “These are very different,” she says. “If you have a sofa to sit on, you don’t need a sofa, you want a sofa. That’s different from needing new shoes because your shoes have holes in them. So teaching someone ‘want’ versus ‘need’ is step one in what I do.” The second thing she has them do is, if they're going to buy high-ticket items, they are only allowed to purchase them at a consignment store, thrift store, or something within their budget. “We will make a list of acceptable places to shop and they will be given an allotment of money per week in their budget,” she says. “This way, they are still able to get the dopamine rush of shopping and the thrill of getting new items, but not break the budget.” And when it comes to clothing, she has a “one item in, one item out” rule. “So say they go shopping and come home with five new dresses. They will then have to remove five items from their closet and either donate them to charity or sell them online or to a consignment shop. The ‘one item in, one item out’ rule forces them to consistently think and see how much they’re really buying and spending.”

Getting To The Root Cause Of Impulse Shopping

Robyn says uncovering the underlying need that we are ignoring is key when we replace it with shopping: Are we exhausted and attracted to the sugar at the checkout aisle? Do we have a crying child who we just want to calm down? Are we unhappy in our relationship or career? Or do we lack financial literacy? “The way to stop is to acknowledge that there is an issue, work with someone — such as a financial advisor or therapist — to clarify the underlying cause or pain, and then find a different way to deal with the need for fulfillment,” she says. “We need to find a way to replace the endorphins and dopamine in the moment and across our life.” She says it is also helpful to keep track of each impulse buy or supposedly “necessary” purchase — like a take-out coffee — and add up the total for each month. “People are surprised to discover that saving that money will pay for an airplane ticket and trip in only a few months,” she says. “Often, people find more pleasure in experiences than purchases, but dismiss the power of saving for a new adventure or experience.” Speaking of which…

What To Do With The Money Instead

So if you try Robyn’s suggestion and realize your impulse buys are costing you a lot of money, there are practical, proactive things you can do with that money instead. Woroch says a survey from Slick Deals found that Americans spent $183 on impulse purchases each month in 2020, which amounts to almost $2,200 in one year. “Even spending a few extra bucks here and there can add up and bust your budget,” she says. “But you can budget for impulse purchases and give yourself a certain amount of money each month to spend as you please — but make sure you’re tracking these so that they don’t impact your finances and savings goals.” She says you can also use a certain debit or credit card for impulse buys so you can track them better, like that card with the sticky note about your dream trip or savings goal.

Pinto adds that when we are shopping, we think we are doing something for ourselves. “But if that were truly the case, there would be absolutely no regret or shame, but instead, a feeling of pride after we’ve bought what we just did,” she explains. “The truth is, when we buy things, we are paying the retailer, not ourselves. They win, we lose.” However, she says there’s no shame in admitting that you’ve bought into the campaigns of the smart retail and advertising companies. “Their budgets are in the billions, so it’s no surprise we think that shopping is a form of therapy,” she says. “Instead, use your money to truly give yourself something, including a therapist, financial coach, saving up for something, a vacation, or whatever you most value.”