You’re in the mall or at the Electronics Emporium. There’s nothing you need to buy, but you’re killing time while your spouse finishes an errand. As you wait, you browse. You admire the Thneeds. Look! There’s a new one! It’s bright and shiny and you think it will make you happy, so you pick it up, walk to the register, and purchase it. You’re the proud owner of the latest Thneed. But when you get home, pride isn’t what you feel. You feel guilty.

This used to happen to me all of the time. I used to be a compulsive spender. It was difficult for me to enter a bookstore or a mall or even a supermarket without buying something. (Or, more often, some things.) Though I still make an occasional impulse purchase, my urge to buy stuff has largely diminished. I’ve learned to check my spending by asking myself a series of questions:

  • When will I use this? When you buy compulsively, when you spend on impulse, you tend to acquire a lot of stuff you never use. Look around your home. Do you have unopened CDs or DVDs? Unread books? Do you have clothes that still sport their price tags? Do you have a collection of “money-saving” gadgets gathering dust in the closet? Before you buy that voice recorder, ask yourself when you’ll actually use it — and be honest with yourself.
  • Do I have another one like this already? If so, what’s wrong with the old one? I use this question in a variety of situations, especially when I’m tempted to buy clothes. My wife gets frustrated with my tendency to buy new t-shirts, for example. “You already have five blue t-shirts,” she told me recently. “Why do you need another?” This is also a great question to ask when faced with the urge to upgrade. Do you really need to replace your iPod?
  • If I buy this, where will I put it? It’s surprising how often this question prevents me from buying something new. For the past two years, I’ve been fighting a battle with Stuff, that ever-present household clutter. If I force myself to think about where I’ll store whatever it is that tempts me, that’s usually enough to make me decide not to buy it.
  • If I buy this, can I pay cash? When I was in debt, I bought almost everything on credit. I figured I could pay for it later. All of my cash went to pay my credit card bills. I was dumb. I’ve since realized that if something isn’t worth saving for, if it’s not worth buying with cash, then it’s almost certainly not worth buying on credit.
  • Can I buy a good-quality used version for less? I used to be a “new snob”. I believed that things were only worth buying if I could have them in new, pristine condition. Now I know that great deals can be had on gently used items. This is true of automobiles, of course, but it’s also true of games, electronics, clothing, and more. You can find great deals on eBay and on Craiglist. And don’t forget the neighborhood thrift store.
  • Do I know anyone who already owns one I can borrow? I overheard a story the other day. Evan was preparing for spring yardwork and making an inventory of his tools. He decided he wanted a chainsaw. He called his friend Lee to ask for advice on which one to buy. “Why do you want to buy a chainsaw?” Lee asked. “Do you have a lot of trees to clear?” Evan admitted that he did not. “Then why don’t you just borrow mine?” Lee asked. When done respectfully, borrowing is a great alternative to buying new.
  • Can I wait to buy this? One of the best things I’ve done to reduce my spending is to teach myself to wait. I use the 30-day rule: When I find myself in the Electronics Emporium holding the latest game for the Nintendo Wii, I put it back and tell myself that I can buy it in 30 days if I still want it. Sometimes I do, but most of the time I don’t. I’ve saved a lot of money with this trick. (I’ve also learned to add things to my Amazon wishlist instead of buying them. Then, later, I go through and trim the wishlist.)
  • Why do I want to buy this? And why do I want to buy it today? It’s true that many times I’m inclined to buy something because it would fill a need in my life. But just as often I find myself wanting to buy things because I’ve recently seen an ad. Or, worse, a friend has shown me some cool new gadget. In these cases, I’m not filling an ongoing need; I’m simply trying to fill a sense of lack created by comparing myself with others. If I can figure out why I have the urge to buy something, I can sometimes make the urge go away.
  • Are there better options available? This is a great question to trick myself into taking more time. If I find myself in a store tempted by a digital camera, for example, I can usually talk myself out of it by realizing that I have no idea whether this digital camera is the best model. Instead, I go home and I research digital cameras (or whatever) via Consumer Reports and online review sites. I try to find the best option. Most of the time, I lose interest and I save myself some money.
  • What would my wife say if I bought this? Kris isn’t opposed to everything I buy, but she’s often able to detect compulsive spending when I cannot. Sometimes if I’m tempted buy a new toy, I try to put myself in her shoes, to view the purchase through her eyes. If, from her perspective, the purchase seems reasonable, then I consider it. But it looks foolish, I usually change my mind.

I don’t ask myself all of these questions every time. Each is useful in certain situations. And these questions don’t stop all of my purchases. But I’ve found that if I give myself honest answers, they can prevent a lot of spending.

What tricks and techniques do you use to fend off temptation? What sort of self-talk do you use to prevent impulse purchases? Or do you still struggle with compulsive shopping? What have you tried that does not work?

For more on this subject, read about the six steps to curb compulsive spending.

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