impulse online shopping battle

By Contributor, Suman Saran

Let’s face it – I love to shop.

Whether alone for retail therapy or as a social activity,  it’s a habit that has only become more enabled by the rise of e-commerce and the ease of online shopping, especially amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The drivers of impulse shopping have intensified due to the closure of brick-and-mortar stores, deep online discounts, and deliveries being one of the ways to break up the monotony of being stuck at home.

I have spent so much time between Zoom meetings and Netflix binges filling online shopping carts and generally hunting for promo codes. So while online impulse shopping is already a challenge, it’s become even more important to manage impulse shopping in today’s environment.  

Last week, I found myself adding and then removing a $200+ prestige moisturizer from an online shopping cart. I signed up for retail subscription lists just to receive a welcome discount, tried to stack them with existing gift cards, and did the math on buying in bulk since it was on sale. I realized I was putting time and energy into a decision that was not worth it, especially since there are so many other serious considerations right now…adhering to my financial goals, economic uncertainty, and gratitude for what I have during a global crisis.

But to buy or not to buy?

It took a while to talk myself down from this purchase and it got me thinking – how does one win this online impulse shopping battle?

One thing is for sure,  I’ve been down this anxiety-ridden road before. So instead of focusing on how to get the best deal, I paused and tried to identify the strategies that most often help me avoid impulse purchases (including the guilt that follows). 

#1 Keep a shopping list 

Right off the bat – this is not your standard wishlist. This is a dynamic, off-the-top-of-your-head tracker of all those random, impulse purchases that can add up and make a real dent in your monthly spending. The Dyson hairdryer can go on your long-term wishlist – but that new eyeshadow palette that you just dropped into an online cart while watching TV should go on this one.

Making a quick list of items that are on my radar, along with how much they cost, plus any other anticipated spending, gives a real-time perspective of my spending.

Tip – I usually keep such a list in the Notes app of my phone, so that I can easily access it if I find myself online shopping). I’m always surprised by how long, random, and expensive this list gets – and list accumulates quickly.

#2 Assess your financial “big picture” 

This might sound like a boring tip, but knowledge is power and can really rein in a shopping habit, especially the emotional kind. Although I’m not the most savvy at financial planning/tracking, I did spend the last year learning to effectively use tools such as my own Excel spreadsheet (which I frequently use because it is simpler and forces me to input some high-level information) and the Mint personal finance application (which I use less overall but is still a helpful tool). 

When my head was spinning over the implications of a $200+ moisturizer, I realized that I hadn’t updated my spreadsheet since April. Instead of staring at my online shopping cart and feeling like a lost cause, I closed out the screen and opened my spreadsheet instead. This was the most real reality check I could have given myself. 

With a refreshed picture of my financial health, I was better able to consider how recent and additional spending would impact my goals, and balance my emotional and practical needs both in the short-term and long-term. A discounted moisturizer in-hand by the end of the week, or reaching my savings goal in two months? I decided that the prize of achieving even my short-term financial goals is worth the long-term ability to “treat myself” with more flexibility and less anxiety. 

#3 Check your accounts

Sometimes, when I have the impulse to shop, I divert my attention to viewing my checking account balance in my banking app and assess what feels right based on that (especially since I’m avoiding using credit cards). This is a simple tip but knowledge is still power. All you need is your banking app or a personal finance tool like Mint. If you don’t have either already, I encourage you to download and use at least one frequently. When I’m not in the mood for getting into the nitty-gritty of my spreadsheet or simply can’t access it, taking a quick glance at my checking account does the trick. 

First, knowing your current balance is important because it is pretty easy to ignore, overestimate, and make assumptions about how much cash you’re actually working with week to week (especially if you’re on a credit card ban like I am).

Second, you can usually view your most recent transactions in the last 30 to 60 days, which also serves as a reminder of bills that have just been paid, as well as purchases during the last two weeks + those anticipated in the next two. The psychological impact of seeing a string of transactions that indicate money leaving my account is very powerful.

If you’re like me, you want that list to be short, not long! And that is often enough to keep me from clicking the “Place Order” button. 

#4 Talk it out  

My friends are all too familiar with this one. It’s the least analytical tip here, but potentially resonates more with the emotional side of impulse spending.

Just as we might talk about our personal issues and challenges, it helps to be open about our shopping. I’m constantly texting my sisters and friends pictures of myself in various articles of new clothing or links to products with questions like “What do you think?”, “Do I need this?,” and “I know I shouldn’t consider this but I am, haha, not the worst thing in the world…right?!” 

Most of the time, I’m clearly seeking validation. Other times, I’m genuinely doing a little market research to inform my decision. But very often, I’m trying to lift the internal dialogue out of my head and have a real conversation about the purchase in question.

These are real texts from my closest buds, and their advice, kindness, wisdom, and questions give me pause in the best of ways.

“Don’t do it!”

“A little treat seems reasonable” 

“Sleep on it…if buying one/few products, is this a ‘treat yourself’ break or would this open the floodgates…. buy what you want (but also don’t negate all the work you’ve done).” 

These responses often remind me that online browsing can’t replace the social, personal, and yes, fun aspects of shopping with your buds that aren’t possible right now, and that what I might be seeking is the connection from performing an activity together instead of the acquisition itself.

Chatting with my friends about shopping helps me disengage from the impulse to buy and connect with them instead. Identify the emotional need that the impulse purchase is satisfying. Talk it out with your loved ones. These strategies have been incredibly helpful and a huge part of my financial journey. It all takes time, it’s never perfect, and you have to remember to be kind to yourself (because we are already our own worst enemies). But the practice of more conscious spending, like mindful meditation, is one that can slowly bring about bigger changes. 

What strategies do you use to control impulse spending?

Budget Shopping



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Created by nationally recognized millennial money expert Tonya Rapley, My Fab Finance is a leading financial education and lifestyle blog for millennials who want to become financially free and do more of what they love.