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States and Traits Decide if You Impulse Buy, Study Says

drawing of women shopping

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Key Takeaways

  • A new study looked at how personality traits impact a person's impulse shopping.
  • Along with personality traits, mental health and environmental conditions can determine if a person shops or not.
  • Techniques such as carrying only cash and enforcing wait times can taper impulse shopping.

Everyone’s been there. You might have been at the store and saw a sale for your favorite mascara, and sure you just bought some, but why not stock up on a few more? Or maybe a pair of sneakers popped up in an advertisement while you’re scrolling, and why not treat yourself? These spontaneous purchases add up little by little, and suddenly your home is filled with extra things, and your bank account is lower than you want.

While the occasional impulse purchase shouldn’t impact you much, ongoing, unnecessary shopping can. So, why do people impulse shop, and how can you limit it? A recent study from PLoS One evaluated how a person’s mental state and personality trait impacts their likelihood of impulse buying.

Researchers looked specifically at the difference in habits between people who were more oriented to secure traits (“prevention focus”) or pleasure traits (“promotion focus”). While people with both characteristics were more likely to impulse shop while in a positive mindset, security-oriented people tended to take more time before pulling the trigger.

“A pleasure orientation means that you’ll be more likely to make a purchase to help make yourself happy in the moment, whereas having more of a security orientation means you’ll tend to make purchase decisions more slowly and to use a tool like a checklist,” says Stephanie Harrison, founder and CEO of The New Happy.

Harrison continues, “The decision to make an impulse buy is impacted by multiple factors—not just the individual’s traits, but also by their current emotional state, the context surrounding the decision, the events preceding it, the resources they have available to them, and how the product is presented to them."

Understanding Impulse Buying

Simply put: “Impulse buying occurs when someone buys items that are not planned,” says Bob Castaneda, PhD, MBA, program director in Walden University’s College of Management and Technology. These purchases can include buying a piece of candy by the register, picking up an extra book when you went in for one, or picking up big items such as a TV and gaming system because there’s a good deal.

According to an April 2021 survey of 2,000 people from Slickdeals and OnePoll, Americans average 12 impulse purchases a month. The amount spent on these purchases increased to $276 this year from $183 in 2020. Almost two-thirds of participants (62%) said they feel happy after making an impulse purchase. Food and groceries, household items, and clothing made up the top three categories people reported impulse buying.

“Impulse buying triggers can occur when a consumer believes there is a restriction of time or limited product availability, when they have a short-term need to feel good about oneself, or in terms of self-identity in how others perceive you,” says Castaneda. “Factors like pricing and immediate human needs such as hunger or emotional gratification can also result in impulse buying.”

Stephanie Harrison, founder and CEO of The New Happy

The decision to make an impulse buy is impacted by multiple factors—not just the individual’s traits, but also by their current emotional state, the context surrounding the decision, the events preceding it, the resources they have available to them, and how the product is presented to them.

— Stephanie Harrison, founder and CEO of The New Happy

Mental health conditions can also make someone more susceptible to impulse buying. Rhonda Mattox, MD, a board-certified physician, integrative psychiatrist, and mental health consultant, has seen patients with bipolar disorder rack up thousands of dollars in debt during a manic episode, and patients with depression seek endorphins through shopping. 

According to Joyce Marter, LCPC, a licensed psychotherapist and author of “The Financial Mindset Fix: A Mental Fitness Program for an Abundant Life,” other mental health conditions that may lend themselves to impulse buying include: 

  • Substance use disorders, shopping under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • ADD or ADHD, quickly have their attention grabbed by different objects
  • Anxiety, seeking products that alleviate their sense of uneasiness
  • Narcissistic personality disorder, have a sense of grandiose that encourages spending beyond their means 

Companies acutely understand people’s urge to impulse buy and will use this desire to their advantage. “As consumers, we need to continue to be on guard in separating our wants from our needs and set household financial goals,” says Castaneda. “Pricing continues to be the traditional way of influencing impulse buying habits with expiring or limited-time price discounts, product bundling, buy-one-get-one free deals, or free shipping.”

 In addition to pricing, Castaneda reports companies will entice consumers to impulse buy through:

  • Distributing online advertisements for products you’ve previously looked at
  • Creating a relaxing and inviting store environment
  • Talking about how good you’ll feel once you have the product instead of its tangible benefits
  • Updating packaging to be more appealing and fresh
  • Offering financing options for big items, so customers don’t have to pay right away 

How to Avoid Impulse Buying

If impulse buying has become a consistent part of your life, it may be time to reconsider how you shop. “Consider trying different tools to help avoid impulse buying and see what works,” says Harrison. “We can also remember to keep in mind the bigger picture and the general context we’re going into the shopping environment with, including our emotions, our evaluation of our lives, and what we’ve done earlier that day.” Keep in mind your tendency to be pleasure or security-oriented and any mental health conditions you have while determining the best methods for you.

Here are some expert-approved methods for curbing how much you impulse buy. 

Enforce a Waiting Period

Yes, this is almost like just saying, “Don’t do it,” but enforcing a regular waiting period can become a reflex habit over time. Mattox recommends waiting at least three to seven days after seeing an item and only returning to buy it if you still think about it and have the budget to do so. 

Avoid Shopping When Tired

When you’re tired, your defenses and rational thinking may both be limited, leaving you susceptible to buying more. “Avoid distracted or fatigued shopping when you are more likely to impulse buy. Shop earlier in the day when you are more alert instead of after work when you are more tired,” says Mattox. 

Rhonda Mattox, MD

If someone is actively in the midst of a low and they are prone to spending for retail therapy to fill emotional voids, my first recommendation is to work with someone with expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy for mild to moderate depression or anxiety.

— Rhonda Mattox, MD

Block Popup Ads

As mentioned above, companies will keep track of your views and interests then provide relevant advertisements everywhere from social media to articles. Blocking popup ads keeps this targeted temptation away. 

Practice Gratitude

Creating a gratitude practice can help taper the idea of needing to fill a void in your life. “When we are thankful for what we have, we are less tempted by the option to fulfill short-term desires, as we do through impulse buying,” says Harrison.

Pay Cash

Mattox and Castaneda agree: Leave the credit card at home and only bring cash out with you. Not only does this limit how much you can spend, but it can feel more real than adding to the balance on a card you still need to pay off.

Keep Track of Your Spending

For at least one week, keep a log of everything you buy, says Marter. Staying conscious of your spending may make you spend less money as you watch it add up.

Don’t Store Credit Card Information

It is so convenient when you want to buy something, and your credit card information is preloaded. However, it also makes it incredibly easy to purchase something without much thought. Castaneda recommends deleting any credit card data online to force yourself to think longer about purchases.

Do a Financial Cleanse 

If you feel up for a challenge, Marter suggests undergoing a financial fast. “Do not use any credit cards, if possible, and do not go to any malls or retail stores. Delete retail apps on your devices and do not purchase any restaurant food or coffee—make everything at home and pay for your groceries in cash,” says Marter. “This exercise will help you become more mindful of excess.” 

Seek Mental Health Care

If a condition such as depression or bipolar disorder is fueling your spending, it’s critical to work on this route cause—for your wallet and your mental health! “If someone is actively in the midst of a low and they are prone to spending for retail therapy to fill emotional voids, my first recommendation is to work with someone with expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy for mild to moderate depression or anxiety,” says Mattox.

If therapy is not available to you—or in addition to it—work on identifying your triggers. Can you feel a change in your mood coming, or do certain situations regularly bother you? Be aware of these points and, as much as you can, work on preventative measures. 

What This Means For You

Impulse buying is nothing to be ashamed of and can be fine in moderation. However, if you are spending out of your budget or buying things you quickly discard, it may be time to implement techniques to limit your spontaneous shopping.

 

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  1. Krishna A, Ried S, Meixner M. State-trait interactions in regulatory focus determine impulse buying behavior. PLoS One. 2021;16(7). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0253634