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How many of your purchases were actually necessary? (Jupiterimages/(C) 2008 Jupiterimages)
How many of your purchases were actually necessary? (Jupiterimages/(C) 2008 Jupiterimages)

smart cookies

How to put the kibosh on impulse spending Add to ...

Most of us have a trigger that leads us to an impulse buy. One of my close girlfriends is a sucker for a sale. If it’s discounted, then she’s tempted. She once came home with five bottles of 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner because they were drastically reduced. She’s not even a fan of 2-in-1. For another girlfriend, a bad day tends to equal a new buy. She has a closet full of clothes reminding her of her weakness.

For me, it’s “zombie” spending. I get in a zone and adopt the spend-now, plan-later mentality when I’m shopping. I’ve had to put some simple strategies in place to avoid unnecessary spending. If you’re trying to get your mindless spending under control then consider taking 30 seconds before handing over your card or cash, to run through the five simple questions below.

Do I already have it?

Trent Hamm, founder of TheSimpleDollar.com, says he has had to build up some defences against his temptations, which include books, games, and computer games. He says one of his most effective strategies is to keep three Post-it notes on his computer listing all the books he has to read and all the games he has to play. When tempted to make an online purchase in one of these areas he simply scans the appropriate list and reaffirms that he really has more than enough to keep him busy. I’ve started using this strategy for books myself, both in-store and online. The first day I got my Kindle, I got carried away and ordered nine books. It was far too easy to place an order once I had my credit card info plugged in, so I’ve also created a list of books I’m hoping to read and will commit to scanning before making another purchase.

Do I need it?

I recently went to New York to visit friends and before our scheduled shopping trip we all ran through what we were hoping to find. When it was my turn I pulled out my iPhone and started reading my list: socks, brown belt, case for my iPhone, computer bag … they looked at me like I was reading the list in Swahili. Sure, these were boring buys but they were necessary, so I committed to checking them off my list of needs before I got to my wants. It’s a basic tactic but lists work, especially for top impulse buys like food, clothing, and electronics. If it’s not on your list then you know you likely don’t need it.

Would I rather have something else?

Determining your “rather factor” is a powerful motivator to stay true to your savings goals. When we have an idea of what our top three to five savings goals are it’s easier to put our soon-to-be impulse buy into perspective. Should I buy these $150 boots or would I rather put $150 towards my dream vacation? You can simply jot down your goals on a small piece of paper and stick them in your wallet or on your office bulletin board, or take advantage of savings apps to help you resist the small purchases. With an app like Urge you enter what you’re saving for and the amount it costs. Then, every time you have an urge to buy something but decide you'd rather save the money, you transfer the amount you would have spent ($15 on a taxi) into your designated savings account. You can link the app to your bank account or simply keep a running tally and transfer the amount you’ve avoided spending on impulse into your designated savings account.

Can I return it?

Eighty percent of the things we buy on impulse we later regret, according to Jeff Yeager, authour of The Cheapskate Next Door. Most stores give you at least a small window for returns, but if we aren’t certain of a purchase we are making, then we shouldn’t be buying it from a store that doesn’t accept returns. Purchasing items on a charge or credit card is a smart tactic for impulse buys so you have a record of the purchase, in case you misplace your receipt.

Who should I call?

If you’re in a money group or have a support system for your financial goals, then you likely have an accountability partner. You need an accountability partner if you’re too often tempted to spend and are struggling to save. My go-to is Sandra, one of my best girlfriends. She’s realistic, but not a miser, so she’s a good person to weigh the pros and cons. Bringing a friend into the loop of your savings goals and triggers is a smart strategy for staying the course.

We all have our triggers for impulse buys and half the battle is coming up with a quick-and-easy strategy to check ourselves before we do any financial damage. Small purchases add up and can sabotage our savings goals in the long run. By taking a few seconds to think about what we’re about to buy, we reduce mindless spending and inch closer to our ultimate savings goals.

Angela Self is one of the founders of the Smart Cookies money group. Read her weekly column on managing debt and saving money at the Globe's personal finance site.

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