Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Mental Health Center

Font Size

How to Say "No" to Impulse Buying

WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Rebecca Davis.

Redbook Magazine LogoBehold! We reveal the secrets to shopping willpower.

Welcome to spending season - that heady period from October through December when catchy holiday displays and special offers abound. There you are, innocently window-shopping, when you spot a pair of fabulous pumps - 20 percent off! - that you just have to have. Impulse purchases like this are big business: More than 40 percent of the clothes women purchased in the first quarter of 2006 fell into that category, according to research by the trade association Cotton, Inc. And a whopping 60 percent of all purchases are spur-of-the-moment, reports the Marketing Science Institute (MSI). You're not safe from temptation online, either: In 2002, nearly 40 percent of e-purchases were impulsive. It's not that you have zero self-control - it's just that buying yourself a little (or big) something has an almost hypnotic effect. "Shopping can provide a pick-me-up and make you feel more in charge of your life," says April Lane Benson, Ph.D., a psychologist who specializes in compulsive-buying disorder. A better idea: Take charge of your wallet by resisting the urge to splurge. Here's how.

Window-shop without money.

Shopper's high - that lift people get from hitting the mall - comes from dopamine, a brain chemical that's emitted when you do something pleasurable (such as eating a giant slice of pizza or having sex). And that euphoric feeling is especially potent when the enjoyable activity exposes you to something new - like all that gleaming merchandise you haven't seen before - according to research by Gregory Berns, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Emory School of Medicine.

Think about it: The first time you have sex with a new partner is generally more exciting than the 100th time. That's because more dopamine is being released into your brain.

To take the "newness" out of the buying experience, window-shop first without your wallet. Then, you can return to the store with a clearer head and some self-control. This extra step takes a little more time, but the savings are worth it.

Don't make shopping a social thing.

Shoppers who hit the stores in groups of three or more made 7 percent more impulse purchases than those browsing alone or in pairs, according to research from the MSI. If you really want company (say, a pal who can tell you if that dress makes your butt look big), pick one friend who isn't a big shopper so she can keep your spending in check, advises Benson, who has created a compulsive-buying treatment program (

Pay in cash.

Credit cards have a way of fooling people into thinking they're not spending money, says Sheryl Garrett, a certified financial planner and author of the personal finance series On the Road. You can charge something and forget it because the bill won't darken your doorstep for weeks. Cash, by contrast, is much more intimate and immediate - those are your hard-earned greenbacks you're peeling apart! Letting go of that money can actually be painful, says Garrett - so much so that people paying cash spent 12 percent to 18 percent less per shopping trip than those paying with credit, a recent Dun & Bradstreet survey found. Rule of thumb: If you can't pay cash today, then you probably can't afford whatever you wanted to buy, says Garrett.

Today on WebMD

Hands breaking pencil in frustration
Woman looking out window
woman standing behind curtains
Pet scan depression
Woman standing in grass field barefoot, wind blowi
Plate of half eaten cakes
mother kissing newborn
Woman multitasking
colored pencils
Woman relaxing with a dog

WebMD Special Sections