The Impulse Buy

I looked at my hand in confusion and was almost in shock.

“Did I just really do that?”  I asked aloud.

I look at the screen again.  “Yep”

I just bought a ebook on impulse.  Oh my, is the world ending now?  But wait this is the second impulse buy I’ve done in the last two months. I bought a DVD on impulse in January. Will I be struck down by a vengeful god?


But in all honesty, both events were highly unusual for me.  I’m so used to doing just about everything via delayed gratification that when I impulse buy I’m a bit rusty at the experience.  It’s much more normal for me to consider a purchase for a while and then after a week or two finally buy it or not.  At least when it come to consumer goods.

Food on the other hand I’m practically an expert in impulse buying.  Most of my lunches out at work are not planned.  In the grocery store I often pickup one extra item that I want, but don’t need and wasn’t on the list.

How do I justify this Jekyll and Hyde on my spending?  It’s simple…I planned it this way. WTF?!?!

I know after many years of trail and error my week point in spending is books and movies.  As such I tend to plan those purchases out a long time in advance.  Typically at a minimum a few weeks, this tends to keep down the amount of both items I buy and forces me more often than not to use the library instead to try out something I’ve never seen or read.  After that if I still like the book or movie a lot and it has a high degree of potential for watching/reading again and again then I will consider buying it.  Even then I still tend to think about it for a while.

Yet exercising that degree of self control over everything I buy can be exhausting, so rather than try to control everything.  I focus instead on my main weak spots and big purchases.  Then I allow myself more slack when it comes to food purchases that I make with my spending cash.  Buying a cookie because I want one isn’t a major issue so I’m not going to turn into one.

In the end, the impulse purchases above were notable since they were from my typical weak points of spending.  To me it was a clue to watch myself a bit more in the weeks ahead to ensure I don’t slide into my old patterns of buying too many books and movies.  Yet both purchases did point out something interesting to me.

The movies purchase was in fact season one of a TV show I had borrowed from the library and enjoyed a LOT.  So when I came across it for about half price I decided on impulse to buy it.  Do I regret it after the fact? Nope, not really.  This brings up an interesting point for me. Should I consider the occasional impulse buy being okay if the item in question I would have purchases anyway and it is on for a deep discount? While this has the potential to be a slippery slope, I think I will allow myself a bit more latitude on these items in the future.

The second purchase of the ebook also brought up an interesting point.  We had two older gift cards (like months old) in the house with only a few dollars left on them.  My wife had just finished buying some ebooks and used up one of them.  So I took a look around and bought an ebook on impulse to use up the other gift card.  I found one that looked interesting and was rated fairly good on Goodreads.  What this showed me was I tend to have a disconnect around gift cards compared to actual cash, since I don’t think I would have bought the book if I had been paying with my credit card.

That particular effect is rather well known in academic circles as the pain of paying (see here for a description from Dan Ariely).  The more disconnected we are from cash the less careful we are with the money.  In the world of pure reason, a $1 on a gift card is exactly the same as a $1 cash but in real life we treat them differently.  We are more willing to spend a gift card than cash.

I had thought since I knew about this issue that I had made so progress on overcoming it…while the ebook purchase proved me wrong on that front.  Ugh.  Anyway, lesson learned I need to keep up the controls about spending especially with gift cards since I tend to be a bit more lose with spending them.

In the end, an impulse buy is only bad if you treat it that way.  You don’t have to control yourself at all times, but I do recommend some rules of engagement that you create for yourself to help you out with your problem areas of spending.  It won’t be perfect, but it should help cut down on the junk purchases in the long run.  Just don’t freak out when you break your own rules…use them instead as a means to learn why you did and if any changes are required.

How do you manage your impulse buying?  Do you use any rules for it or not?

2 thoughts on “The Impulse Buy”

  1. Impulse buying, is just that. Impulse. I think the main difference of those with equal means is will power. I’ve in effect been retired for 3 years and counting. My friend, who earned as much, and often more than me, has nothing; and still works pay check to pay check. He has always needed instant gratification. I guess I’m saying that the small things add up. At this point in my retirement, I enjoy splurging, eating out and leaving a $20.00 tip on a 20 dollar meal. I impulse buy things like a coffee etc; but now I can afford it. Watching others head off to work, makes me smile. Sometimes I wave:)

  2. Oh goodness, impulse buying will be the death of my early retirement plan. Not just for me, but for my partner too. My downfall is clothes, which is why I will not be purchasing any this year. When the answer is always no, it makes the decision making easier. But restaurants are a hard one to resist. We probably spend 400 a month on restaurants. That is $48,000 over ten years, without calculating in inflation. Oy. This one will forever be a work in progress.

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