Money & Career

Six psychological reasons why you shop on impulse

Find out what triggers impulse buying, so you can learn to control your spending.
woman with shopping bags walking on stairs Masterfile

It’s been a pretty rough year at the Cakebread homestead. We’ve been providing care to a couple of relatives with serious illnesses and dealing with a host of unexpected and financially draining household repairs. So what did I do last month? The day after shelling out thousands to get our leaky roof replaced, I popped into a store for 15 minutes and bought a dress I didn’t need. What gives?

It’s called impulse shopping – and it happens to the best of us (even those who write about this stuff for a living). Whether it’s grabbing that bag of jelly beans on the way out of the grocery store, or buying a dress (but it's on sale!) on a whim, it’s all too easy to fall into the trap, especially in our consumer driven society.

I should have known I was at risk for impulse buying – after all, one of the key triggers is stress, according to Ian Zimmerman, an experimental psychologist who also writes for Psychology Today. In this article, Zimmerman lays out everything you need to know about what drives us to impulse shop and who is most at risk. According to Zimmerman there are a few factors that lead a person to suddenly spend. He says you’re at risk if….

1. You’re a social butterfly

If you’re social, status-conscious or image-concerned you could be an impulse shopper. In other words, you’re more likely to snap something up if you think it will make you look good to other people.

2. You’re anxious


According to Zimmerman, impulse buyers tend to experience more anxiety and find it harder to control their emotions. Those factors make you less able to resist the urge to spend. Fortunately, there are some natural and easy ways to ease stress and anxiety: get the tips.

3. You’re unhappy

Research shows that people who buy on impulse tend to experience less happiness. Shopping improves mood – at least in the short-term. To curb retail therapy, here are tips on ways to boost happiness.

4. You’re not thinking ahead

When people impulse shop they’re focused on the now (I gotta have it!) not the day they get the credit card bill.


5. You shop for entertainment

If you think the act of shopping and spending money is fun, then of course you’re more likely to buy stuff without thinking about whether or not you really need it – and without planning ahead.

6. You’re susceptible to “vicarious” ownership

From cars to purses to shoes, advertisers want to create a connection between you and the product they’re selling. When you strongly feel that a product you see at the store belongs in your life, it can cloud your judgment and drive you to make a purchase that could simply make you poorer, not make your life better.

Understanding what motivates you to buy on impulse is important if you really want to stop the habit. As for me, I’m steering well clear of my favourite shops until I know I really need something – that way I won’t try and manage my anxiety through spending!


Money expert Caroline Cakebread has been writing for since 2006. She is a recovering academic and the mother of two small kids. She lives in Toronto where she writes and reads about all things financial. Follow Caroline at


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