Today I stopped by the local electronics store to look at microphones and headphones. I didn’t intend to buy anything, but after a half hour browsing I found myself in line holding $170 of gadgets. I had fallen into an old trap: I was about to buy on impulse.

Back in my salad days, I was the Master of Impulse Shopping. If I stopped at a store, I left with more than I had intended. If I decided I wanted (needed) to have something, I went out and bought it. I put it all on credit, of course. I had the stuff now, and didn’t worry about the future. I figured the J.D. of 2007 would find some way to pay for it. (The J.D. of 2007 now looks at all the crap in his workshop and office and curses the J.D. of 1998.)

On one notable occasion, Kris tried to talk some sense into me. It was 1995. My brother-in-law had just introduced me to his Sega Genesis. I had to have one, too. I drove to the store, bought a Genesis and six games, and then returned home. I was ecstatic. I felt the warm fuzzy glow of a new purchase.

Kris did not share this warm fuzzy glow. “How much did that cost?” she asked. I hemmed and hawed. “How much debt do you have?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “$15,000?”

“Did you pay cash for that?”

“No. But I still have room on my credit card,” I said. “It’s not maxed out.”

I believed that I could spend as much as my credit would allow. I wasn’t limited by how much I had in the bank (because I had nothing there) — my only constraint was my credit limit. One time I actually called to ask to have a credit limit increased! The bank happily complied, and I had the card maxed out again in just a week or two.

I knew my spending was out of control, but I didn’t know how to stop it. If only I had been aware of the following strategies:

  • Avoid advertising. Beware the insidious power of marketing. Steer clear of situations that expose you to advertising. You are not immune. We are all being subtly manipulated in ways we cannot possibly imagine.
  • Avoid temptation. The best way to avoid impulse buy is to simply avoid situations that might tempt you to spend. If I had simply driven past the electronics store today, I never would have considered buying a microphone and a pair of headphones.
  • Exercise mindfulness. Ask yourself, “Why do I want this? Why do I need to purchase this now instead of a week from now?” Try to discover what is motivating you to make the purchase, and try to find some other way to fulfill this urge.
  • Remind yourself of larger goals. I’ve struggled with my weight all my life. Whenever I’m tempted to eat something bad, I ask myself, “Will this help me or hurt me?” The same question can be asked when you’re about to make an impulse purchase. Will your new toy bring you closer to your goals or move you further away?
  • Use the 30-day rule. When you feel the urge to splurge, stop. Put the item down. Go home. Write down the name of the thing you want, its price, and the store where you found it, and then post it someplace obvious. If you still want the item after a month, purchase it.
  • Tax yourself whenever you make an impulse purchase. Take 10% of the of what you paid and put it into savings. This action alone can make you more aware of your spending habits. (J Wynia combines the self-tax with a time delay — clever.)
  • Use cash! It’s deceptively easy to splurge when you use a debit card or, worse, a credit card. When I carried a personal credit card, I splurged all the time. It didn’t feel like spending money.

I only owned that Sega Genesis for about an hour. Kris demanded that I return it to the store. But nothing had changed. I still had five years and $10,000 more debt ahead of me, much of it acquired through impulse spending.

Fortunately, I’ve learned to monitor myself.

Today I reached the front of the line, looked at the stuff in my hand, and realized what I was doing. I set the packages down and walked away. I’d like to start a podcast at some point, and for that I’ll need to purchase a microphone and a set of headphones, but I don’t need to buy these on impulse. I can take my time to research products.

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