6 Proven Tactics for Avoiding Emotional Impulse Spending

You had a bad day. You’re takin’ one down. You sing a sad song just to turn it around…

… and so you go buy something.

The sweet release of “retail therapy” can feel like an injection of dopamine straight into the pleasure centers of your brain. Some even count it as self-care. For what can be more self-caring than to treat yo’self?

I know people who stress-spend like others I stress-eat cheese. The problem is that the euphoria that comes from buying something new—even if it’s fancy cheese and you really fucking deserve it because work sucked today—is short-lived, but the money lost to impulse spending is gone forever.

That brief high of retail therapy or impulse spending can waylay your larger financial goals and damage the delicate equilibrium of your savings, generating far more stress than you relieved with the purchase.

Yet being upset about a bad day doesn’t mean you have to throw your financial goals to the wind. And losing that money while trying to make yourself feel momentarily better is going to feel worse in the long run.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of emotional impulse spending. Which is why I want to help you find another way of making yourself feel better. One that doesn’t involve your meager paycheck.

What causes impulse spending?

Understanding the root causes of impulse spending can help with combating it. Knowledge is power, after all!

According to Psychology Today, a lot of impulse purchases result from feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, or jealous comparison. It’s “the idea that by purchasing that product you’ll be happier, better respected, or more complete.” Either you swipe your credit card to make yourself feel better, or because you think other people will think better of you. (Spoiler alert: nobody cares. At all. Ever.)

It therefore follows that the best way to avoid emotional impulse spending is to attack the root cause: those anxious feelings of inadequacy or discontent.

Psychologist Ian Zimmerman (who I’m going to trust because he’s got that fancy PhD after his name) also writes about how being exposed to a product you think will help your unhappiness or raise your status can actually influence you to buy it.

So the last thing you should do when you’re feeling shitty is to go to a store (in person or online) “just to browse.” It’s a lot easier to pull the trigger on a purchase when you can see it, touch it, or visualize it in your possession.

Our enabling culture

And these days it’s easier than ever to spend money: online retailers like Amazon.com have their patented one-click buying technology, making impulse buys as easy as clicking a single button. Want to save your credit card information for future purchases? Holy ease and convenience, Batman! How about getting emails when we have sales? Yes puh-leeze!

And all of that “added convenience” is intentional! Retailers want your hard-earned money, and their advertising schemes play off of the insecurities that cause impulse spending. They’re constantly finding new ways to manipulate you into making a purchase, and removing barriers to spending your money is all part of their nefarious plot.

Here’s the thing though: it doesn’t work. The emotions you’re trying to quell won’t go away with retail therapy. At least not for long.

Ok, so you feel like shit, shopping looks like a quick emotional pick-me-up, it’s absurdly easy to buy a thing, but you know you need to save your money. What do?

Physical activity

Instead of giving in to temptation because of your current mood, or because you’re comparing yourself to others, find something that will truly achieve the mood-boost you need without costing a dime!

Physical activity makes you feel better. Science says so! The endorphins that come from working your muscles even a little bit can really lift your mood.

Wait! Get back here! It doesn’t need to be particularly strenuous physical activity!

Go for a walk

When you’re feeling shitty, rather than reaching for your wallet, go for a long walk. Bring a dog or a human you love and tell them all about what’s bothering you. I hear you can also walk some cats, but I’ve never met a perambulatory member of the species, despite my lengthy tenure as the secondary under-butler to Kitty’s old cat when we were roommates.

Introverted? Just listen to a podcast or an audiobook while you stroll along instead. It’ll keep you from dwelling on your own thoughts and keep you edutained at the same time. I hear the Bitches Get Riches podcast is pretty good if you like that sort of thing…

Sweat out your feelings with SPORTS

For the more physically ambitious, more strenuous exercise may be in order.

I used to use running to help manage my anxiety and stay in shape. Then a hip injury landed me in physical therapy (yes, I am a brittle-boned hag). For the record, running is still a great way to sweat out your feelings, and I still do it, just not as much. Due to my recovery process, I had to find an exercise to replace it in my daily workout.

That exercise has become rock climbing. As a stress-reliever, it’s remarkably effective. I want all of you to find the sport or exercise that allows you to physically work through your emotions like you’re exorcising demons. For some people that’s lifting weights. For others it’s competitive Quidditch. And for some people it might even be (shudders)… yoga.

Whether it’s swimming laps, climbing big rocks, lifting weights, riding horses, beating your fellow LARPers with a foam sword, or running long distances, find your thing and sweat out your feelings like the Amazon warrior you are.

More on exercise and self-care:

Dance party

Let me be crystal clear: I fucking suck at dancing. My husband texted a video of me learning to floss to our three-year-old nephew and apparently he laughed so hard he nearly choked. (Related: you’re written out of the will, kid.)

Yet I appreciate a good solo dance party as much as anyone. Crank up the music and have a fucking dance party in your bedroom. Dance like the judges of America’s Got Talent are watching! Or not!

You don’t have to be a good dancer to enjoy moving to the music (I should know). Just crank your tunes of choice and… get jiggy wit’ it? Get down with your bad self? Insert your generation-appropriate dance idiom here.

Comfort media

Rereading a favorite book, listening to the album that solidified your personal musical taste, watching your favorite movie yet again… it’s like mac and cheese for your brain.

Absorbing comfort media you already have free access to can be enormously more effective than retail therapy.

Rewatch your favorite show. Not Firefly, though. The knowledge of its premature demise will just make you feel worse. 

Go to the library and check out a bunch of books. Read ‘em.

Listen to Lemonade, or your favorite album.

Scream into the void

Write an angry, cathartic email to whatever or whoever is bothering you. Send it to yourself and archive it so you can read it next time this thing pisses you off again. (True fact: this is how I deal with my dad’s political opinions. Still have an unsent email written during the era of the Hobby Lobby court decision.)

Or journal it out. You don’t need to have a fancy tome and ostentatious plumed quill to journal—just open a word processor and start barfing your feelings out through the keyboard.

Or you can actually scream. I suggest going out into the woods before howling out your frustrations, or just shrieking into a pillow. Don’t want to disturb the neighbors, after all. But you’ll find it’s wonderfully cathartic!

Treat yourself like the queen you are

Treat yourself to a spa night in. Take a bath, exfoliate, use the ~*~*fancy*~*~ lotion, paint your nails, blow dry your hair, use that weird mask your aunt gave you. 

There’s something truly decadent and permissive about pampering yourself. Emerging from the bathroom after an hour or two, lotioned to within an inch of my life, my unibrow plucked and my toenails painted… well, it always makes me feel like I was just waited on by magical servants trained to compliment and accentuate my natural awesomeness.

Self-care now should not be synonymous with future self-destruction. Feeling better now doesn’t have to be at the expense of feeling broker and worse later.

Shop if you must—but do not buy

It’s probably not a great idea to perpetuate consumption as a coping tactic. But if shopping really does feel relaxing, then shop!

Just don’t buy anything.

There are so many ways to do this.

  • Curate all the Pinterest boards you want.
  • Feast your eyes upon the amazing things artisans make on Etsy.
  • Fill electronic shopping carts, then capriciously abandon them, knowing that no store employees will be stuck restocking them.
  • Volunteer to find needed items for your friend who hates shopping.
  • Stroll through a mall window-shopping—and leave your wallet behind if you don’t trust yourself.

Shit, son, you can probably scratch the itch by playing The Sims for a couple of hours. The Sims exists to give young people an escapist fantasy of perfect control over their lives. So stop deleting their pool ladders, turn that frown upside down, and bedeck those fake people in all the finery the internet can offer!

If going cold turkey just ain’t happening, you could give yourself a tiny shopping budget, and spend all month researching and agonizing over what your special purchase(s) will be. Waiting and considering will prolong your satisfaction and increase the odds you’ll choose an item you truly want.

Offset the purchase

If you accidentally cave to the dark forces of impulse spending, let it not be in vain. Offset the purchase in one of two ways:

  1. Sell or donate something old.
  2. Use a micro-investing app to round up your purchase to the nearest dollar and invest the change. Personally, we like the Acorns app because it’s easy to use and has that adorable oak tree metaphor going on. But whichever micro-investing method you use, it’ll at least help you put a little money aside for Future You while Present You is indulging in that destructive retail therapy. Use our link to download Acorns and you’ll help support our site for future generations to enjoy!

Enjoy what you already have

I don’t know about you, but… I have so much shit. And I feel like I live a pretty minimalist, frugal lifestyle!

I have a dog I can play with, books I can read, a garden I can tend, games I can play with my friends. I have a whole calendar of local, free events curated by my local library! And I have friends I can talk to about my stupid feelings, a husband who somehow always knows exactly what to do to make me laugh.

It’s worth reminding yourself that you have what you need to make yourself feel better. The tools are at your disposal, no need to buy them anew.


What’s your favorite method of avoiding emotional impulse spending? Share it in a comment below, Bitch Nation!

15 thoughts to “6 Proven Tactics for Avoiding Emotional Impulse Spending”

  1. Reality TV does it for me. Triggers the same feel-good endorphins as amazon without any spend. Also, love “Mac and cheese for the brain.”

  2. I don’t avoid it. I just set a monthly budget for how much money I’m willing to spend on it. I view impulse shopping (in my case for clothing/make up/wigs/jewelry) as a hobby. At the beginning of every month, I determine a certain $ amount that I’m willing/able to spend on shopping for frivolous/unnecessary but enjoyable items for that month. Then, through out the month, if I see something that I fall in love with and it’s within the budget, I buy it. (And this is pretty much the only way I buy clothes. I don’t have a single item in my closet that I don’t 100% love to wear.) Once I run out of the budget, I don’t buy anymore unnecessary but enjoyable stuff during that month by not shopping for clothing/make up/wigs/jewelry anymore.

    On another note: I disagree with your “nobody cares. At all. Ever” comment. It depends on where you live and your social circle, but a lot of people do judge others based on what they wear, what car they own, etc… It’s not politically correct. It’s not right. But it is the reality. This is not to say that if you buy a particular product, you will magically become super wealthy and good looking and everyone will love you. But it does influence other’s perception of you. And if you are trying to manipulate that perception (for whatever reason), it might make sense to care to a certain extent. A job interview is probably the most obvious example. If you show up wearing a suit, the interviewer will have a very different perception of you than if you show up wearing flip flops, short shorts, and a tank top. Also, some friend groups like going shopping together as a fun bonding activity. If a “member” of that friend group never wants to go shopping, the other people in that friend group will more likely than not judge that person. Likewise, there are some very pro environmentalism people who will judge you if you enjoy going shopping as a hobby and like to show off about how minimal shopping they do. Of course, it’s up to the individual wether or not he/she wants to associate with those types of people and to what extent. But if you plan on being best friends with them or part of certain social groups, “how often you shop”, “what you buy”, etc… does start to matter. (I wouldn’t categorize this type of shopping as “impulsive” though because once you start doing stuff to impress others, it turns more into you playing a role, which should be intentional and well calculated if done right.)

  3. I’m having the worse frigging time right now. Seems like the universe is against me. i’m swimming upstream and the stream is winning. Everything is turning to #$$%&*! but guess what – i know that something good is going to happen if I just stay the course and don’t give up cause I’M THAT BITCH. So if you’re having a run of bad luck, karma or whatever, remember NEVER GIVE UP.
    Your suggestions are spot on. Exercise at home, play upbeat music, cry, scream but don’t unload on your friends, they have their own shit to deal with.

  4. I definitely do some retail therapy now and again, but I find what works for me is to go to Daiso. Y’know, the cute Asian dollar store, so it’s cheap, but still feels fancy. Nearly everything’s a buck fifty! I go choose maybe 3 things from Daiso, I’ll spend about five bucks, and I’ll come out feeling pampered by a new cute pen or a ridiculous outfit for my cat or a pack of weird chips I haven’t tried. Maybe not the best idea if you’re living paycheck to paycheck or if you have no cute dollar stores, but maybe it can help someone!

  5. Lately I just hold off buying things I need until I have a bad day. Then it feels like Retail Therapy™️ but it’s actually Errands.

    I also learned recently that I can’t quit shopping (mostly thrifting unless an item would be gross to get secondhand) and quit drinking at the same time, because I’m under too much Stress™️. One Vice Is Nice 2020.

  6. My version of “retail therapy” is buying a fancy drink from a coffee shop! It’s not perfect, and it still requires spending money, but I can feel warm, cozy, and happy and sipping a delicious new drink that feels like a treat! Plus, it’s under 10$ so it feels much easier to justify….

  7. Related observation: Mercury in retrograde starting 18 February 2020. Do I believe it that stuff? No. Do I put it on my calendar? Yes. Gives me a kinder excuse for people acting like jerks and making bad decisions, and helps me check my impulses.

  8. I had never thought Pinterest could help with impulse buying. What a great idea! The thing with impulse buying is that we often get a visit by the good old cognitive dissonance! We usually end up regretting the purchase later on so this list is so useful in that context!

  9. Or… you could turn your shopping desires into a side hustle and be a personal shopper for people who can’t easily go shopping themselves. Then you’ll not only be saving money, you’ll be making money. 🙂

  10. I actually keep a list of things I either need, need to replace, or otherwise have been jonesing for FOREVER and pick something from that list when I desire retail therapy. Sometimes it’s socks and underwear, sometimes it’s bath bombs from Lush, sometimes it’s replacement makeup when my mascara is way, waaay past that 6-month use-by date. This way I don’t feel quite so bad about spending money because I need the stuff anyway.

  11. I either play Sims, or go pick back up a hobby I haven’t done for a bit but have all the supplies for to complete a project. I’ll “online window shop” sometimes when I don’t have energy or concentration for the other two, but years of impoverishment and the guilt of spending money on myself that could be going to something more important definitely keep me from actually buying anything… Except coloring books XD

  12. Great ideas! My impulse shopping tended to be for media rather than clothes so for myself, I’ve found it effective to get my novelty hit in free ways. Going to the library and getting a bunch of graphic novels, or hitting up friends for new music recommendations, or just getting drawn into a new black hole of Youtube videos. Which I guess is still giving into the emotional vulnerabilities that lead to impulse shopping but at least there’s no financial damage?

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