Avoiding impulse buys: mandatory waiting times and a Possible Purchases file

You’ve gone to a store to buy something specific and then something you had no intention of buying catches your eye. Or, you’re online, and read about something that sounds useful. Maybe you’re talking to some friends, and they recommend books they’ve just read. What do you do?

Here’s what I do. Sometimes, the item under consideration is something I can tell immediately I need or love, and it fits within my budget. That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I just make the purchase right then.

But more often, I make a note of the item — by writing a reminder or taking a photo — and add it to my Possible Purchases file when I get home.

I actually have three Possible Purchases files. Right now, I have a physical file for things I’ve clipped out of the few catalogs I get, a collection of online bookmarks (also called favorites, depending on what browser you use), and a list of books at Amazon.com. I may buy the books elsewhere, if I ever wind up buying them, but it’s easy to quickly note them in an Amazon.com wish list.

There are many other ways to collect such information, too. For example, some people would choose to use Evernote and some might use Pinterest. Various sites, not just Amazon.com, provide wish list capabilities.

What kinds of things make it into my Possible Purchases file? Lots of cat-related stuff, for starters. I also have gift ideas, t-shirts, towels, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and whimsical stuff like a Lava Lite night light.

My Possible Purchases file fits well with the approach, recommended by many people, of creating some sort of mandatory waiting period before buying anything except your standard purchases of groceries and necessities.

On The Christian Science Monitor website, Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar said:

Whenever I’m considering making a purchase of any kind, I simply stop for ten seconds and ask myself whether this is really a worthwhile purchase. … I don’t watch the clock on this or anything – I just do it for roughly ten seconds or so.

At the end of those ten seconds, if I’m still convinced that making this purchase is the best idea, then I’ll go ahead and buy it without guilt or remorse. However, I’ve come to find that the ten-second rule frees me from making a lot of unnecessary purchases.

On the Psychology Today website, Kelly McGonigal mentioned the benefits of a somewhat longer pause:

Neuroscientists have found that having to wait even ten minutes for a reward dramatically reduces the brain’s response to it. If you can walk out of a store, or switch to a different website, for just 10 minutes, you’ll see the “value” of that purchase more clearly.

And over on Mint.com, Mary Hiers recommended an even longer waiting period:

If you see an item that captures your interest, sleep on it. Make it a rule that if you see something you want that you didn’t specifically go shopping for, you’ll wait 48 hours before buying it.

For a slightly different approach, Dustin Senos quoted Larry Wall: “Don’t buy something until you’ve wanted it 3 times.”

Different strategies will work for different people — but finding one that works for you will save you money and help minimize clutter.

14 Comments for “Avoiding impulse buys: mandatory waiting times and a Possible Purchases file”

  1. posted by adora on

    I swear by Amazon wish list. You can actually add things that are sold on other websites. I suggest adding the Wish List button on your browser so that you can add things easily as you surf the net.

    It started out as a way to remind me of things I need until they go on sale. I quickly find that I don’t need half of the stuff on the list. It’s a great tool.

  2. posted by Katie on

    I also keep a running list throughout the year, which, if not yet purchased, becomes my Christmas wishlist should anyone ask what I’d like!

  3. posted by Ryan on

    I like the “until you’ve wanted it three times rule. If you really need something, it’s absence will definitely be noticeable to you later. And if it turns out that later on you don’t even remember it, then it should be pretty clear that it wouldn’t really add much value to your life.

  4. posted by Leslie on

    One of my sibling’s uses shopping as her ‘therapy’. I say that with tics as it usually ends up stuff that gets tossed (food was bad, items broke easily, clothes didn’t fit, items purchased for others were unwanted, etc) and she often spends 2-3 times what she originally intended.

    For me, I always shop with a list. (I started using a free app, Wunderlist, which syncs to my phone and I can keep multiple lists running for whatever need.) If the item isn’t on the list and I genuinely forgot to put it on there, I will pick it up. But if it’s a ‘ooo pretty’ or ‘I want that’ kind of thing, I stop to consider it. It is something I need/want? How many uses would I have for it? Do I have space for it? Is it a one-off (garage/estate sale/antique store) or is it available elsewhere? If the former, I might consider it. If the latter, I will take note of it and put it down to consider later. And usually, later never comes.

  5. posted by Alicia on

    I also use the Amazon wish list. When I hear about an interesting book, I put it on my wish list. Then, when I need something to read, I refer to that and see if I can get it at the library. While out shopping, if I see something I like, I leave it at the store (or sometimes even put it on hold if there’s only one of my size left), then go to other stores. If I’m still thinking about whatever it was before I leave the mall, I go back and buy it. A lot of times, I’ve forgotten about items I thought I had to have!

  6. posted by Sandi on

    I love Amazon’s Wish List. Like Adora said above, you can put things from other websites on it as well as from Amazon. I use it kind of a “pretend shopping cart”. I put things in it and revisit periodically to see if I still want/need them. Usually the answer is “no”. :)

  7. posted by Martha on

    I just had to return a pair of slippers that were NOT on my list because I did not use any of these rules.
    Next time…

  8. posted by James on

    I do this with most purchases and sometimes the product will go on sale during my consideration period which is really nice.

  9. posted by Sarah HP on

    This works well for children. I have 3 young kids and their requests for stuff are endless especially if they have had a look in a toy store, seen a gift catalogue or seen a TV show with commercials. I say oh you like that I’ll put it on your list (used to be an actual written list in my purse now its more of a mental list). My kids are so used to it instead of nagging me for something they now just ask if it can go on the list. 90% of the stuff they ask for they completely forget and they get to pick something for birthday, Christmas or a special reward.

  10. posted by Benjamin on

    If you already follow, or aspire to follow, a one in-one out rule, then asking yourself what you’ll give up to accommodate the purchase often takes away the urge to buy it.

  11. posted by Molly on

    My mother taught me this when I was a kid. Not that I have always followed it but I know it is the best way. When I was young my parents didn’t have a lot of money, not poor but frugal. As a child of the depression my mother was very conscientious about spending money. When she finally made a purchase she bought good quality things and took care of them. My example is when I thought I needed (i.e., wanted) a new toaster. I found one I really liked. It was $79. I really liked it but not $79 liked it. By the third time I went to the store it was marked down to $17. Now that was more in line with my finances.

  12. posted by Ellen Delap on

    Love this post! How many times has impulse buying ruined credit and created over the top clutter? By just inserting a pause to think, it improves finances and lifstyles. Thanks for sharing!

  13. posted by Sandy Stelter on

    I used to be a “I want it now, so I got it now.” And then it sat somewhere still in its box. Rarely did it come out of the box or bag or container and get used immediately.

    I finally figured that out. Seeing all those purchased but unused items finally made an impression on me. So I implemented the “Do I NEED it or just WANT it?” question. Stops me from purchasing ….it has been a process, didn’t happen overnight.

    Thanks Jeri!

  14. posted by Le Guide de la Femme Parfaite on

    I have a 30 days waiting period. I have a spreadsheet with categories and I write the day. Most of the time, after 30 days, I find that I do not need or want what I put on the list. I save a lot this way

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