Want to Curb Impulse Buys? Focus on Willpower

Want to Curb Impulse Buys? Focus on Willpower

You may have trimmed your expenses for the school year, set a budget and done your very best to stick to it, but what could really kill your budget are impulse buys. And it's easy to see why: temptations to spend lurk everywhere, from mega sales by your favorite retailers to snacks at the campus store. If you're struggling with impulse spending, then look beyond your budgeting spreadsheet and toward your ability to harness your willpower. Here's how homing in on willpower can help you stave off spending on a whim.

Don't Shop When You're Tired or Hungry

In a nutshell, willpower is the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to achieve long-term goals. For instance, not buying that cute top or sleek new gadget now so you can afford a laptop for next semester.

Willpower works like a muscle, which means it can tire out. And recent research finds that not only should you not shop at the grocery store on an empty stomach, you'll also want to avoid shopping altogether. A survey by the University of Minnesota reveals that hungrier shoppers spent 64 percent more while shopping at the mall than non-hungry ones.

Why's that? It could be because some of your ability to withstand temptation has to do with blood-glucose levels. So before shopping, have a snack, recommends Emily Guy Birken, a money expert and author of End Financial Stress Now: Immediate Steps You Can Take to Improve Your Financial Outlook. Your ability to avoid temptation could be boosted by eating a complex carbohydrate such as a piece of fruit or a handful of whole wheat crackers.

It's also best not to spend money when you're running low on sleep. Studies reveal that lack of sleep can affect your ability to resist temptation. If you don't get a good night's rest, you may lack self-control and cave in to buying things you don't need. Instead, head to the store or shop online when you're refreshed and in a calm mood. That will help you make the best spending decisions without going overboard.

Adopt a 72-Hour Rule

Certified Financial Planner Carl Richards suggests waiting at least 72 hours before making a purchase. To get to the bottom of your impulse spending, Richards refers to a quote by the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response." Give yourself a bit of space by waiting at least three days before making a purchase. That breathing room will help you avoid temptation and decide whether a buy is truly a worthwhile one.

If the 72-hour-rule doesn't work for you, try setting up a similar rule that serves the same purpose. For instance, for items not on your shopping list, visit the site or store several times before making a final decision on whether to buy it. You can also create this space between a stimulus and response by asking yourself practical questions such as how useful a particular item will be, when and where you would use it and how much value it would add to your life. Creating this space allows time for the initial excitement to cool off so you can approach buying the item with a more levelheaded mindset.

Plan with Your Future Self in Mind

Think through what you want your reality to be in the future, whether it be tomorrow, next month or next year, and make the decision you wish you had made, recommends Guy Birken. This is difficult to do because of hyperbolic discounting, which is a cognitive bias where we cave in to instant gratification. For instance, opting for the $10 gift card you can get today over the $100 one you get if you wait a month. "If we get in the habit of thinking through how we want tomorrow to look as opposed to what we want right this minute, we're more likely able to use our willpower to avoid a temptation," says Guy Birken.

For example, think about what it would feel like not to be bogged down in credit card debt, or to have the cash to splurge on that epic road trip with friends. That'll help you save the extra cash you earned this summer for the things you really want to spend it on. By focusing on willpower, you can get to the root cause of why you may be prone to impulse shopping. It'll also help you increase awareness of the circumstances and state of mind that make you more prone to caving in and spending on a whim. In turn, you can harness your willpower and exert more control over your spending habits, which will help you stay on track financially.