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Impulse Buying: How to Splurge Without Sabotaging Your Budget

The YNAB Method isn’t about cutting back on impulse purchases. It’s about planning ahead to buy what makes you happy!

Have you ever found yourself standing in the checkout line, mindlessly tossing a chocolate bar onto the conveyor belt because, well, cravings? Join the club—you’re among the 94% of Americans who have succumbed to the allure of impulse buying.

There’s a reason why Buy Now buttons are so bright and fun to click, checkout areas are lined with options that satisfy a sweet tooth or calm a screaming child, and Sephora created a corn maze of trial-size makeup. Shops, both brick and mortar and online, are capitalizing on human nature. The result? Impulse buying: “little treats” we give ourselves that add up.

You know what? You might be hangry, and maybe you do deserve a Snickers for your patience in line. Sometimes it is essential to know the latest about Meghan and Harry. That taunting massage chair at Brookstone may actually relieve all stress. The splurge on VIP Eras Tour tickets instead of being stuck in the nosebleeds could very well be the best investment in your happiness. A bluetooth-enabled, gold-plated grill may actually up your cooking game. No judgment here.

We’re all in this together, navigating the fascinating, sometimes regret-filled waters of our “little treat” culture.

As a recovering serial impulse buyer myself, I’ve found it’s easier to tackle lasting change if you understand the ‘why’ behind your unplanned purchases. The more you know, the more you can resist the temptation.

These are the top reasons we do those little—or big—online shopping splurges and in-store oopsies:

  1. The Search for Emotional Fulfillment: Can I get a “been there, done that”? In a recent survey, 53% of impulse purchasers admitted that their impulse buys are driven by a quest for emotional fulfillment. Who knew retail therapy was so real?
  2. FOMO Strikes Again: Unsurprisingly, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) (20%) ranked as one of the top three causes of impulse buying. Whether it’s an exclusive sale, a limited-edition item, or just keeping up with the Joneses, FOMO can make us reach for our wallets faster than you can say, “Is this a want or a need?”
  3. Adding Spice to Dining: Dining out was identified as the leading cause of impulse spending for 55% of American impulse purchasers. Because who can resist the enticing aromas wafting from the burger place?
  4. Seasonal Influences: It turns out 68% of Americans feel more tempted to spend impulsively during the holiday season. Those festive displays, the holiday sales, the joyous atmosphere—they all conspire to make our credit cards swipe themselves.

Here’s the thing: No matter your motivation, your little treats are not the problem. The trouble starts when these impulse buys make themselves too at home in your budget, causing stress and regret. But hey, let’s not let that clothing rental subscription you just bought become a symbol of guilt. Whatever you buy should only deliver happiness, not 12 easy payments of anxiety with Afterpay.

"It’s important to spend money on things that bring joy and align with your goals and priorities," money and lifestyle expert Ashley Lapato of @theorganizedwallet said (85k on TikTok).

Sometimes, that means indulging in a little treat because, well–you earned it or had a bad day. People often feel like impulse shopping makes them ‘bad’ at money, and that’s simply not the case. Setting even a few dollars aside each month for a little treat gives us permission to spend without guilt, enjoy life, and stay on track with goals down the road.

Cutting back on impulse buys—and instead planning for intentional purchases—takes a little self-observation.

Five questions to ask yourself about your impulse buying behavior:

  1. Did my purchase lead to buyer’s remorse? If so, consider returning it before you regret it for good. If it’s been awhile and it’s still lingering in your mind, you’d be surprised how many stores will bend their return policy.
  2. Am I impulsively buying the same item regularly? If yes, maybe it’s time to make room for this priority, passion, or love of yours in your budget. If you are consistently purchasing the same item, and it’s consistently uplifting, it belongs on your list of financial priorities.
  3. Am I communicating with myself or my partner, or trying to keep my “tiny treats” a secret? If your impulse buying leads to feelings of shame or guilt, it’s time to plan ahead for it in your budget and make it something you look forward to without the need for secrecy or regret.
  4. Is social media leading me to the majority of my unplanned spending? Consider doing a social media cleanse. Think about the accounts you follow and the influence they have on your ecommerce habits. If it’s too easy or too tempting to buy things you don’t need because “TikTok made you do it,” maybe it’s time for an ‘unfollow’ here and there.
  5. Am I making a shopping list before I go to the grocery store? This one is simple, but underrated as a strategy for better shopping behavior. If you go to the store and wander without a list, the forecast turns to cloudy with a chance of impulse buying quickly. Challenge yourself to stick to your list, or create a meal plan with what you have on hand. (Psst: YNAB has Grocery Spending Tips to help you with that!)

As your friendly neighborhood online shopper and returner of regretful purchases, here is a suggestion that helped me: Carve out a category in your YNAB budget for occasional indulgences.

Create a category in your YNAB budget for life’s little indulgences. Fund it monthly to stop impulse buys from wreaking havoc on your bigger financial goals!

Get creative with the category name: Stuff I Forgot to Budget For; The Life Changing Magic of Little Treats; Serendipity Splurge; Oops-a-Daisy Expenses; I Deserve Chocolate Sometimes; Weekly Flowers; Things I Didn’t Know I Needed. With room for splurges in your budget, small-scale spending won’t sneak up on you and eat away at your bigger financial goals.

Take it from Jesse Mecham, founder of YNAB:

It’s unrealistic to think that you can eliminate all spur of the moment spending, and frankly, unreasonable to imagine a day-to-day without ever buying a latte, new book, or ordering takeout. I don’t want to live in a world where spending money isn’t fun. The key to getting a handle on the stress caused by impulse buys is to increase awareness of where every dollar is going, be honest about how frequently you spend impulsively, and create a realistic plan going forward. This might be a hot take: the biggest mistake most people are making is not overspending, it’s under-budgeting in certain categories.

What I love about the YNAB Method is it makes room for joyful spending. It’s not restrictive, but instead helps you prioritize your spending around what lights you up so you can live the way you want! Remember, it’s not about scrutinizing every penny you spend or shaming yourself for having the desire to buy. It’s about having a plan that keeps you moving forward, even if you splurge on those impulse buys or ecommerce temptations from time to time.

Impulse buying happens (for me, mostly on Amazon); that’s life. But armed with a well-planned budget and understanding of our spending habits, we can navigate through these waters without drifting off course. Remember, it’s not about the impulse buy, it’s about how you plan for it. So, go ahead and enjoy that chocolate bar, the video game, the iPhone—just make sure there’s a little buffer for it in your budget.

Learn how to create a spending plan that fits your life!

This survey was conducted online within the United States by The Harris Poll on behalf of YNAB from June 22 – 26, 2023 among 2,051 U.S. adults ages 18 and older, among whom 1,945 spend impulsively. The sampling precision of Harris online polls is measured by using a Bayesian credible interval. For this study, the sample data is accurate to within +/- 2.7 percentage points using a 95% confidence level. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables and subgroup sample sizes, please contact pr@ynab.com.

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Impulse Buying: How to Splurge Without Sabotaging Your Budget