The Difference Between Impulsive and Compulsive Shopping

Woman holding up dress in mirror in store

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Who doesn't love a great sale? Hitting the shops, looking for a bargain, and buying aesthetically pleasing items may be considered benign "retail therapy" by some. For others, however, shopping can turn into a problem.

Impulsive buying and compulsive shopping are both shopping behaviors that can lead to feelings of regret and financial difficulties. While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they are not the same, and there are important distinctions between them.

This article discusses how impulsive and compulsive shopping are defined and the signs of each behavior. It also covers what causes these problems and the steps people can take to manage their shopping.

What Is Impulsive Shopping?

Impulsive shopping involves buying items that a person was not planning to purchase. It often happens unexpectedly and in the heat of the moment, inspired by a "can't miss" sale or suddenly coming across covetable items that are too tempting to pass up.

Sometimes these impulsive purchases can be pretty harmless, if they are within a person's budget. But unfortunately, impulsive buying can also result in costly spending sprees that can wreak havoc on their finances.

Signs of Impulsive Shopping

Impulsive shopping is something that happens to most people on occasion. Some signs of impulse shopping:

  • Spending more money than intended
  • Going into stores that often trigger impulsive buys
  • Feelings of instant gratification after unplanned purchases
  • Frequently returning impulse purchases due to regret

Research suggests that impulsive shopping increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Feelings of stress and anxiety combined with more time at home may have contributed. This demonstrates how people often use shopping to cope with emotions, relieve distress, and improve mood.

What Is Compulsive Shopping?

Unlike impulsive buying, compulsive shopping is more than just spending more than intended. It involves a compulsive need to buy items, many of which are not necessary. People who engage in compulsive shopping do so to improve their mood, improve their self-image, get social support, and cope with stress.

Compulsive shopping often leads to powerful feelings of shame, guilt, and remorse. People who shop compulsively are also prone to having financial, legal, and relationship problems because of their overspending.

While not recognized as a distinct condition in the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition" (DSM-5), the tool healthcare providers utilize to diagnose mental health conditions, many experts believe that compulsive shopping is a form of behavioral addiction.

While estimates vary, some research indicates that anywhere between 1% and 30% of the U.S. population may engage in compulsive buying behavior.

Signs of Compulsive Shopping

Because shopping is an activity that everyone must do to some extent, it can be difficult to tell when shopping has crossed the line into compulsive buying. Many people love to shop and even spend more than they should, but this does not necessarily mean that they engage in compulsive behavior.

Some of the critical signs of compulsive shopping include: 

  • Declining financial health or high amounts of credit card debt
  • Distressed relationships due to spending or shopping too much
  • Hiding shopping or the amount spent
  • Losing control during shopping sprees
  • Shopping to avoid feeling guilty about a previous shopping spree
  • Shopping to relieve feelings of emotional distress
  • Spending more than a person can afford

Causes of Impulsive and Compulsive Shopping

Impulsive buying and compulsive shopping often stem from the pleasurable feelings that people get when they make purchases—planned or unplanned. The act of shopping releases endorphins and dopamine in the brain, creating pleasurable sensations. This can cause people to feel compelled to engage in the same behaviors in order to re-experience those feelings.

Some reasons people make impulsive or compulsive purchases:

  • They feel a need to purchase items that are on sale and the deal is just "too good to pass up."
  • They make purchases, regret them, and return the items that they bought.
  • They collect certain items and feel that they must complete each collection in order to feel satisfied.
  • They shop to help relieve feelings of emotional distress.
  • They shop in order to maintain a self-image as a sophisticated person with impeccable taste.
  • They are always on the hunt for certain "trophy" items that they feel they must own in order to feel happy.

Recap

Impulsive shopping often stems from a momentary temptation, while compulsive shopping is caused by a need to seek pleasure and relieve feelings of distress.

Impulsive vs. Compulsive Shopping

The important distinction between compulsive shopping and impulse buying lies with the internal motivation, or reason, for making purchases. While impulse buying is largely unplanned and happens in reaction to an external trigger—such as seeing a desired item in a shop—compulsive shopping is more inwardly motivated.

A person who engages in compulsive shopping will plan the shopping experience as a way to avoid or relieve uncomfortable internal feelings, such as anxiety.

Compulsive shopping is also more likely to lead to negative consequences than impulse shopping. Such effects may include running into financial difficulties, having arguments with family members, and experiencing problems with work.

People who engage in compulsive buying behavior are also more likely to fall into a pattern of addictive behavior. They shop more and more in an attempt to stave off stress and anxiety. This is how a shopping addiction develops.

How to Reduce Impulsive and Compulsive Shopping

Impulsive buying is something that happens to everyone from time to time. Compulsive shopping can be more serious and may require the help of a therapist to manage the underlying emotions that contribute to the behavior.

If you feel like your shopping behavior is causing problems in your life, you can use some self-help strategies to help get your shopping behavior under control.

  • Pay attention to your spending habits: Track your budget so you can see where your money goes each month. If you notice that you are overspending on specific items or engaging in too much impulsive shopping, you can take steps to change your spending habits.
  • Set a budget: Create a budget and plan how much you want to spend on different expenses. Sometimes, it is easier to control impulsive buying if you give yourself leeway to spend a small amount of "fun money" on more frivolous or impulsive purchases.
  • Pay with cash: Using credit cards makes it easier to overspend. Instead, use cash or a debit card so that you can see precisely how your purchases are affecting your bank account.
  • Minimize temptation: Avoid going to certain stores if you know that you are more likely to overspend in those shops. If you need to shop there, have a plan, set a strict budget, and bring a friend who can help keep you accountable.
  • Make yourself wait: If you have an urge to make an unplanned purchase, tell yourself that you have to wait a certain amount of time before you can go through with buying the item. Find ways to distract yourself in the meantime. You may find that the urge to buy the item starts to fade when you give yourself time to think about whether you need the item or not.

Dealing with compulsive shopping often requires a multidisciplinary approach, involving professional therapy, medication when indicated, and peer support. Talking to a financial advisor may also be beneficial.

While there is no cure for compulsive shopping, many people who engage in this behavior can regain a sense of control and improve their finances and relationships. Maintaining progress is essential since shopping is part of everyday life and cannot be avoided. Because the temptation is always present, people need to develop coping skills that help them manage their urge to shop excessively. 

Recap

Actions such as setting a budget, paying with cash, and instituting a waiting period are tactics that can help reduce impulsive spending. People experiencing compulsive spending would also benefit from talking to a healthcare provider and financial advisor.

A Word From Verywell

Being able to recognize the differences between impulsive and compulsive shopping is essential. While most people make impulsive buys sometimes, regular compulsive shopping is a sign of a more serious issue. 

While dealing with shopping issues can be challenging, there are steps that you can take. If you need help, talking to a healthcare provider and consulting with a financial expert can help get your life and finances back on track.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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