Sarah Wood just couldn’t help herself.
Working in real estate and getting large commission checks, she couldn’t help but celebrate -- rewarding herself with some retail therapy.
“Clothes were my weakness,” said Wood, now 66 and living in Toronto. “It was all impulse buying. I hated myself after buying sprees and felt shame.”
Before she took control of her impulses, she had amassed $75,000 in debt on four credit cards.
But Wood is not an outlier. According to a new survey, five in six Americans say they have made impulse buys — and normally for themselves. And while most of the purchases are inexpensive, 54% who responded said they have spent $100 or more on an impulse buy, with another 20% saying they’ve spent at least $1,000 on an impulse buy, according to the CreditCards.com poll.
“We often become impulse shoppers without really knowing it,” said Pam Wilson, head of financial coaching at Guidewell Financial Solutions. “This is a behavior we may have learned from a parent or spending time with a shopaholic friend.”
Wilson said impulse purchases are frequently tied to our emotions. For example, people feel guilty about not being home enough with our kids, so they buy them things to compensate. Or people charge that sweater they’ll never wear because they feel distracted, angry or sad.
“If you have a problem with impulse spending and want to change your behavior, think about what causes you to spend,” Wilson said. “Do your emotions lead to random purchases? Once you recognize these triggers, take steps to avoid them.”
While an impulse buys may seem like a harmless thing when we are doing it, many may not realize exactly how they are harming, said Ash Exantus, financial empowerment coach at BankMobile.
Exantus said foremost if you are using your credit cards to make impulse buys, you risk damaging your credit by going over your recommended usage ratio which accounts for 30% of your credit score. He said for example if you have $1,000 credit limit, you should only be using $300.
“Unfortunately, impulse buys usually take us over the top in usage and with this being the second most important factor in your score, impulse buys can have a significant effect on your overall score,” he said
Another real problem is if people are constantly making many — or large — impulse buys, they are likely not living within their means, said Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations with Freedom Financial Network.
“That has repercussions that go beyond credit scores,” Gallegos said. “Living within your means involves taking responsibility and choosing where your money goes, instead of being influenced by whims, advertising, habits or peer pressure.”
Gallegos said there are a handful of ways for consumer to avoid — or lessen the impact of — impulse buys. He recommends to buy with cash — which usually lessens the amount spent — as well as saying away from retail store credit cards, which normally have higher interest rates. Planning for an “impulse buy” can also help, he said.
However, it is also important to remember splurge purchases have a place.
“If consumers don’t indulge on occasion, they could conclude that pursuing a savings goal will never pay off,” Gallegos said. “As a result, they could fall into what economists call a ‘scarcity cycle,’ in that people end up making splurge expenses without planning or timing them. Sometimes, those unplanned-for expenditures can devastate finances.”
Despite her high credit card bills and overspending, Wood was finally able to get her buying under control.
“Now I keep a ledger of what comes in and goes out and have a budget,” Wood said. “I can still buy things but … it is sensible buying for what I need not what I want.”