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How I Indulge My Love Of Impulse Shopping Without Wrecking My Bank Account

Last week, while on vacation, I stumbled into a super-cute gift shop — one of the ones where everything felt handpicked for me. (This was in wine country, so I should clarify that yes, it was an actually-cute store, not one of the ones where the “Wine brings out the BITCH in me”-bedazzled aprons are sold next to the hand-carved crucifixes.) It was filled with bedroom and kitchen decor, candles, and coffee table books, and everything was a bold pattern and/or a bright color and featured a cute, hand-drawn animal or flower pattern. Needless to say, I got that urge I’ve been getting since my mom used to take me to the Limited Too in Perimeter Mall: I MUST get something. 

I know impulse buying is *generally* a bad thing. It’s how I’ve ended up with more journals than I’ll probably ever get through in the next decade, dozens of books I still haven’t read, a cross-stitching kit I’ll never follow through with, and a couple of blouses I’ve barely ever worn because they fit kind of weird (I just liked the patterns so much!). But on the other hand, I’m a 26-year-old woman with an income. I put money into emergency savings and a Roth IRA every month. I’m lucky enough that my portion of rent is much less than what I’m “allowed” to pay (i.e. the recommended 30% of one’s income). I cook at home most nights of the week, host potlucks, and am an avid library book-borrower. And dammit, sometimes I just want to buy something.

I’ve gone through periods of my life when my spending was a bit out of control (e.g. when I moved to New York and discovered Seamless), but when I was fresh out of college and not earning much at all, I didn’t really let myself buy things. I spent on experiences like nobody’s business, seeing any movie in the theaters and taking up anyone’s offer to go to the bar or try a new restaurant. But things were different — they felt more frivolous, despite the fact that I loved clothes and wanted nothing more than to create a beautiful home. So when I did eventually start earning more, I definitely started spending more.

Here’s the thing: I don’t believe in purposeful deprivation. I’ve never wanted to attempt a total shopping ban, and honestly, I’m happy to keep subscribing to store emails. But I also don’t go too extreme in the opposite direction — I never have full-on shopping sprees. I don’t save up a lump sum to take myself on big clothes-shopping adventures twice a year. I’d much rather update my wardrobe with one to three well-considered items a month, because I do love to shop, and I don’t want it to simply be a semi-annual activity.

And yes, I do make room for the occasional impulse purchase. I can’t always plan for the times I stumble into a perfect little shop on my way to the subway station, and discovering cute, new-to-me stores is one of my favorite pastimes. So, in an effort to allow myself the momentary little pleasure of buying something on impulse, I follow three rules: 1) it can’t be over $40, 2) it has to be on my list of things I either need or have been wanting for some time, and 3) if it’s functional, it has to also be cute, or else I’ll start to hate having it around. (I’m not sure where the $40 threshold came from, but it seems to be the limit of what I’m comfortable spending on unplanned things.) Currently, my list looks like this:

  • Lunch bag
  • Wall art
  • Decorative pillows for the bedroom
  • Kitchen trays
  • Coasters
  • Tablecloth
  • Frames

Most of these things are little “extras” for my home — not necessities, technically, but things that make day-to-day living a little brighter, and things I know I’d still be happy having purchased months down the line. I’m allowing for them to be my impulse list because I’d rather stumble upon pretty versions of them than go out searching for them on purpose. And in some cases, they’ll be replacements of things I already own; for instance, I do have coasters already, but they are these godawful slate ones that Peter bought for his first apartment, and I loathe them quite a bit. In that store in California, I ended up finding a $15 tray that was a cute floral pattern, a sturdy material, and a decent size — and since I’m always on the lookout for more trays (every time I have people over, I wish I had more), I let myself buy it. I’ve already used it a few times, so I’m very okay with my decision!

I’ve thought about different ways I could make room for impulse buys in my budget over the past few years, but this seems to work best for me. I’m not a strict budgeter — I put a certain amount of every paycheck into my different savings/investment accounts, and then I spend what’s leftover — so I like this bare-minimum approach. But if you’d like to incorporate more impulse buys into your own life, but would rather follow a stricter method than I do, here are a few ideas:

  • Have a line item in your budget specifically for unplanned purchases, and then use the cash envelope system just for that (so you don’t overdo it)
  • Use your credit card rewards points for when you want to impulse buy something online — and if you don’t have enough points, it’s a no-go
  • Budget in a VISA gift card you buy at the beginning of every year/six months/quarter to be used however you please
  • Collect your pocket change in a jar, take it to a Coinstar when it gets full, and use that as your impulse buy money

I know why most Personal Finance People tell you to avoid impulse purchases — and I get it. It can get out of hand, and little amounts can add up to big debts if you’re not careful. But I think some of us will find a way to do a little fun spending here and there, and personally, I’m not interested in shaming anyone for buying anything on impulse. So if there’s a way to incorporate that purely-for-fun spending into your budget and lifestyle, I’m completely for it.

Holly is the Managing Editor of The Financial Diet. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at holly@thefinancialdiet.com!

Image via Unsplash

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