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How I Tell The Difference Between Impulse Buys & Things I Genuinely Want

I know comfort shopping is a risk for me. I’ll be having a shitty day, so I’ll start browsing stores online and — oh my goodness, look at this thing I just found. I have to have it. It’s the most fantastic thing I’ve ever seen and it will make me feel better and I want it immediately. Where’s my credit card?

Whoa now, pump the breaks.

I used to combat this by just denying myself anything non-essential. If I could go without it, I would. But those weeks of absolutely no spending would build and build and build and inevitably result in an out-of-control splurge later on. One particularly bad day would open the floodgates to weeks of purchases I’d foregone, and suddenly I’d have spent hundreds in one day.

I realized I needed a more measured approach to my discretionary spending. I have room in my budget to treat myself sometimes, but I have trouble deciphering between stupid impulse buys and things I genuinely want. So I established a handful of habits to use to tell whether I really want this thing, or just want something. Here’s how I used them to decide on four recent things I wanted.

Delaying Gratification

Best employed: When I have the sudden urge to buy something fun

Someone I greatly admire Instagrammed this card game, and I wanted it instantly. That’s a pretty good recipe for buyer’s remorse.

The surest way for me to tell if I really want the thing or just want something is to force myself to delay gratification. That means no free two-day shipping on this set of Sneaky Cards, even though I have Amazon Prime. Lunacy, I know. But I find that knowing my purchase won’t arrive until a week or two later forces me to think about whether I’ll still be excited to receive it then — a pretty good indicator of how worthwhile the purchase would be. Plus, when you choose the slowest shipping option on Amazon, there’s usually a bonus in the form of a credit or discount, so it feels like I’m being rewarded for my patience.

Result: I could easily picture myself still having fun with the cards two weeks from when I wanted them, so I bought them on the slowest shipping option and earned myself a dollar credit to spend on a digital download.

Buying it IRL

Best employed: When I might just be online shopping because I’m bored

With the end of the year approaching, I find myself daydreaming about my upcoming vacation a lot. I’ll be spending a lot of time at the beach, so a new beach towel might be in order…

I hate taking my physical body to a brick-and-mortar store to buy things, so I try to use that to my advantage. I find I’m happy to fritter away my money online while I’m stuck at work, but as soon as we’re talking about using my precious free time, I can think of much better things to be doing. I know a lot of people love shopping in all forms, so if that’s you, then this strategy will fail. But personally, I dread the maze of stores and crushing crowds at the mall, especially at this time of year. Making a date to go buy it in person forces me to decide if I value that new beach towel enough to take time out of my weekend to get it — time that I could otherwise spend on things I enjoy.

Result: When the weekend came around, I found I had better things to do with my time than suffering the dreaded mall. I have a perfectly good (if not pretty and new) towel I can take on my trip.

Borrowing it First

Best employed: When I can’t tell if I want the thing to use, or just as a shiny token to add to my nest, bowerbird style

For me, books are a constant temptation. I love the look and smell of a new book, and if left alone would happily fill my house with every book in existence just for the pleasure of their company. And I know I’m not the only one with a shelf full of unread books.

My rule now is that if I can borrow it first, I do. Friends have been happy to lend me board games and hair dryers so I can try before I buy. For books, I enjoy regular trips to my local library. There I can indulge that book-hoarding tendency without spending a penny by browsing the aisles and borrowing stacks at a time — and when I don’t get around to reading them all, no harm done! I’ll only buy a book if it’s a favorite I know I’ll read again and again (and will want to lend to friends), when I can’t get it from the library, or when it’s by an up-and-coming author I really want to support.

Result: Necessary Trouble was available at my local library, and a chapter in I found I wasn’t as interested in it as I’d expected. But some of the other books I grabbed off the shelves on a whim turned out to be real page-turners!

Adding it to a List

Best employed: When I find something awesome that I definitely don’t have a use for

When I found this punny washi tape, it made me laugh a lot. My gut said yes, let’s own it! But my brain couldn’t think of a single use for it.

When it’s a gag item like this that I don’t really need, but simply think it’s cool that it exists, instead of buying it, I try to add it to my gift ideas list. It’s not quite the same rush as a purchase, but I still get a little kick out of adding it to my virtual collection of interesting stuff, and later on, when I need to buy someone a gift, I have a source of inspiration handy. This is an artform that Pinterest users have perfected.

Result: This spinal tape has been sitting on my gift ideas list since the start of the year. I don’t need it for myself, and I might never buy it for someone else, but I still get a kick out of it every time I’m browsing for gift ideas. And you never know — maybe one day I’ll be shopping for a friend who loves Spinal Tap and puns, and I’ll have the perfect gift ready and waiting!


Tried these methods? Got your own technique that works? Let me know in the comments!

Helen Burak is a writer and aspiring badass of Australian extraction, fumbling her way through life in Los Angeles since 2014. She can currently be found working her administrative magic at a small tv agency, writing avidly, and dabbling in amateur electronics in her garage. Follow her on Twitter here.

Image via Unsplash

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