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my money coachAre you an impulse shopper?

by Tim St. Vincent

Okay, let’s be honest. We all are, at least to some extent. Maybe I should take a quick step back and define who is an impulse shopper.

Briefly put, an impulse shopper is someone who buys something they didn’t plan on purchasing. Here is a typical example; you go into 7-11 for some milk, admittedly an expensive place to get milk, but you’re in a hurry. As you walk in, the smell of the freshly made chicken hits you. You just have to have some of that wonderfully smelling chicken. While you wait in line you notice that they have a special on potato wedges. And the wedges do look very, very good. Ok, so you get some wedges too. Oh, and all of that food will make you very thirsty so you just have to have a Slurpee! Congratulations, everything you just bought that wasn’t milk (if you even remembered to get milk!) was an impulse shop.

Many of us laugh off impulse shopping as ‘guilty pleasure’ or something that is cute and mischievous in a person. The reality is that impulse shopping can be very destructive with strong negative consequences in our lives as we spend money that we don’t have; money that is intended for other things like rent, car payments or food. Impulse shopping is very dangerous, especially using credit as the impact isn’t seen and appreciated until the bill arrives and we immediately think ‘that can’t be right, can it? How could I have spent that much?” As the bills pile up, and your ability to pay them goes down, so does your credit score and that can have more complicated, unintentional impacts.

Impulse shopping doesn’t have to be something large, often it can be something small, but all of those small purchases add up and can have a significant impact. Merchants know human psychology very well and rely on impulse shoppers and the thought process of ‘well, it is only a few dollars.’ Let’s look at the example of a $2 here and $3 there impulse shopper. $5 day doesn’t sound like much, but let’s run the numbers. If you impulse shop on an average of $5 a day, that totals to $1,825 a year. Yes, just $5 of impulse shopping all of a sudden became almost $2000 dollars!

Let’s take this a step further. Let’s say that you are saving for your, or your child’s, education. Under the current RESP rules, for every $2500 you contribute to an RESP the government adds $500 for a combined total of $3000. Well, with your $5 a day impulse shop ($1825 per year) you are just $675 away from losing $3000. ‘Poof’ you have just impulse-spent a year’s tuition!* Do you still think the ‘small’ impulse shops don’t matter?

Some people think ‘but I control my impulse shopping by shopping sales!’ Sorry, but spending money isn’t the best way to save money. Retailers understand how we think and play to that. A BOGO (Buy One Get One) sale at 50% really means that both items are effectively 25% off. Most people wouldn’t buy two of the item if the sign just said ‘25%’ off, but change it to BOGO at 50% off most people focus on the 50% off, forgetting that it really is only 25% off each item. By falling into this marketing ploy you have just bought one more item than you would have otherwise! For example, if you needed a new pair of pants and budgeted $50 for them and went into a store and found a pair for $50, but they were running an offer of BOGO at 50% so you buy two, well, you didn’t just save $25, you just spent $25 more than you budgeted for!

Just because something is on sale, you don’t necessarily save money by buying it. If you don’t really need it, if it isn’t in your budget, if it will go on sale again before you need it, don’t get it. You won’t save money by spending money that you don’t have.

So why do we do this to ourselves? Well, entire books have been written on that topic and it is well beyond anything I can cover here. What I can discuss in my next article are the five main triggers for impulse shops and ways that you can combat them. If you can identify your impulse triggers, then you can find a way to manage the trigger!

*($5 a day costs $1825 a year which is $675 away from $2500 and $2500 of RESP contributions gives you $3000 with the government portion)!

Tim St Vincent is a retired CFP and is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance with the Credit Counselling Society, a non-profit organization. If you wish to contact the Society for further information, assistance or to attend a webinar, please call 1-888-527-8999 or visit or

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