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How to avoid impulse shopping on Black Friday

November 26, 2014, 5:04 PM UTC
Holiday Shoppers Seek Out Deals On Black Friday
Photo by Andrew Kelly—Getty Images

You’re shopping in a store – or online – and something catches your eye. It isn’t something you knew you needed. It isn’t even something you knew you wanted until this very moment. But right now that tablet or bracelet or cast-iron dutch oven or [fill-in-the-blank here] is calling your name. A swipe of your card or a few quick keystrokes later, it’s yours…and you’ve joined the 75% of Americans who cop to purchasing on impulse, according to a new report from

While you’re happy in the moment, that rush likely won’t last. According to the same survey, nearly half of those impulse purchasers regretted the action. So as we head into the season of one-for-you-one-for-me consumerism, it felt like a good time to ask two things: Why? And how do we avoid the impulse?

Let’s tackle the why first.

A lot of our decisions boil down to short-term gain versus long-term gain, says David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University. “Do I want to feel good in the moment versus do I want to sacrifice in the moment for long-term gain in the future? Most people would prefer to take $20 now versus $100 in a year. When you quintuple the money, you would logically think [people would go for it but instead they] tend to want immediate gratification. In some ways that makes sense, but we do it to such an excessive level that it becomes illogical.”

Viewed through that window, the fact that millennials are significantly more likely to buy on impulse than seniors starts to make sense. “The younger you are, the more time you have in front of you,” says DeSteno, who believes it makes sense. “So it tends to make us think: I can have this money now or I can save it or invest it in my IRA, but I’m not going to see that for a long time.”

So, how do you avoid the trap?

Know what’s driving you. It’s one thing to be in a store and get carried away by the moment. But there are often other factors at play. “We asked specifically if people had made purchases when excited, bored, sad, intoxicated or angry,” says Matt Schulz, senior industry analyst. Women were twice as likely as men to purchase on impulse when sadness was a factor. And at the time of purchase, both men and women were likely to feel excited. Understanding the emotions behind your impulses can help you in trying to do something else instead.

Separate the festivities from the shopping. The time to get some last- minute holiday shopping done is not after the office toast, the celebratory (i.e. wine-laden) lunch with friends, or in front of your computer after a holiday party. Drinking inhibits your ability to think rationally and weigh the consequences of the purchases you’re about to make, DeSteno explains. “It tends to make people want to be more impulsive. If you’re prevented from thinking about long-term ramifications then you’re just going to go with your gut.” Your gut, naturally, wants that sweater. Steer clear.

Opt for the do-over. If you do find yourself suffering from buyer’s remorse, you typically have the option of taking whatever it is back to the store. Schulz notes that some credit card issuers offer guaranteed returns on purchases, even after it’s too late to return them to the store. “Different issuers have different limits and rules, however, so call your card’s customer service number for more information.”

Focus on what you already have. DeSteno suggests that the best way to solve the problem of buying on impulse may in fact be “from the bottom up.” He suggests trying to stop obsessing on the thing you want and instead focus on being grateful for what you already have. “Our work shows that evoking a feeling of gratitude makes you value the long-term benefits of stuff more. That makes it easier to resist short-term temptations.” An added benefit: Gratitude also increases the odds you’re going to behave pro-socially. “You’re going to be more willing to help other people out or treat them with respect.”

Just a little something to keep in mind as you dive for the door-busters this weekend.