Three Questions I Use to Avoid Impulse-Buying Traps

How I Avoided Impulse Shopping

With my upcoming adventure vacation, going on a shopping spree would have been so easy. The destination, New Zealand, is known for its varied climates and unpredictable weather. Since I’d be spending most of my time outdoors, I obviously needed a rain jacket, a fleece, and hiking boots, right? And since I’ve thrown away my only out-of-the-house sweatpants, I needed a new pair for the 18+ hour flights. Besides buying for necessities, isn’t the funnest part of vacation the pre-shopping for cute outfits beforehand? (That’s a rhetorical question by the way, because hell yeah, of course it is.)

Those two things right there are impulse shopping traps just waiting to happen:

  1. Shopping for a one-time or infrequent event
  2. Shopping for a vacation

I don’t know about you, but if I knew I was going to Italy in the summer, I’d be immediately thinking, Hmmm, now is exactly the time to buy all the adorable vintage day dresses so I can gallivant around like Audrey Hepburn in “Roman Holiday.” Nevermind the tiny reality that I dress nothing like Audrey Hepburn in my everyday life. There’s some kind of fantasy element when we think about vacations. Maybe, for two weeks, while I’m gone from my regular life, I can be somebody else. That can be the only explanation for why I once bought those $8 face-sized sunglasses that looked suspiciously close to a pair of Celine glasses. I wore them on summer vacations, but they never fit into my everyday life.

Well, I’ve finished my shopping, and I can say that I’ve emerged relatively unscathed. Here was what was on my shopping list before:

  • Fleece jacket
  • Rain jacket
  • Sweatpants
  • Hiking boots or trainers

And here’s what I actually bought:

  • Rain jacket
  • Sweatpants

I’m not going to lie: I DID do a ton of shopping. I went to Uniqlo, browsed eBay for weeks, and checked out every single outdoor clothing website known to man. I realized that there are reasons why I bought what I bought and why I rejected everything else. I did it by sticking to my core shopping philosophies.

If you have a shopping strategy, then it’s immensely helpful to refer to when you’re in a moment of weakness or indecision. It doesn’t have to be some kind of Benjamin Franklin manifesto on a scroll of paper, but a few reference points in your head can be super handy. Trust me, I waffled hard at whether or not I should buy a fleece. But then I thought, I’ve never ever worn a fleece in all the dozens of times I’ve went hiking. Why would I need it now?

So without further ado, time to navel-gaze at how I avoided mega-impulse shopping when I really, really wanted to.

Specifically, these were the three things I asked myself:

1. I never needed it before. Why now?

Like most people, I consulted various packing lists across the Internet. Some of them were miles long, and after reading a few, some items kept showing up again and again: the fleece jacket, the rain jacket, the boots. And that’s how I started going down the shopping rabbit hole. But here’s what many of the lists don’t address:

That they aren’t you.

We are all unique. Some people are super cold all the time and need heavy outerwear. Some people are hardcore hikers and for them, hiking boots make a lot of sense. And some people are hyper organized and without packing cubes, they’d go crazy.

Following a list is easy. The hard part is figuring out exactly what’s right for you. I had to think about my own specific situation:

  • We planned on casual hikes, not multi-day treks, so wouldn’t a pair of trainers do?
  • I’d never ever worn a fleece to go hiking in my entire life. Wouldn’t a sweatshirt and merino wool layers do?

And sure, all of those new things would make my trip more comfortable, but I have a history of being someone who can do without. For example, I live in New York City and yet do not own a raincoat, rain boots or snow boots. Despite all the lists that say you “need” to have those things. And all my years living in the city not once have I ever wished I had those items.

By looking at my past behavior and questioning the lists, I was able to negotiate existing alternatives where I could have easily spent money.

The rain jacket I did end up buying because the weather forecast is pointing towards rain for at least two of the days. I didn’t see a way around the jacket, since hiking with an umbrella seems silly. I also bought sweatpants because I plan on sleeping on the plane (lying flat) and I can’t imagine being comfortable in any jeans or pants. Plus, I live in sweatpants at home in the winter time.

2. Will it go with other things in my wardrobe? Is it versatile?

I must have looked at a million rain jackets, but ultimately I pulled the trigger on this Helly Hansen one. A rain jacket isn’t a staple in my wardrobe. As I mentioned, I don’t own any. So I figured if I was going to get one, it had to be in a color that I’d normally wear and would match my everyday outfits in the city. The one I bought also had a more oversized fit, which again, is a lot more my style. I could wear it in the city and not look out of place. So, I’m making the rain jacket fit into my existing wardrobe, instead of letting it be a standalone purchase.

And while the hiking boots idea was nixed, I still got transfixed on a new pair of trainers. I bought a pair of Adidas NMD 2, which ended up being too big and too wide in the toe area. Then I realized they were already a bad buy because they weren’t that versatile. I could only walk in them and do casual hikes, but I couldn’t run in them. So I returned them. As someone who doesn’t like owning a lot of stuff, If I’m going to buy a pair of new trainers, they better be useful for walking around AND running.

3. Is it exactly what I want? Or am I just settling because I’m desperate?

When I went to Uniqlo, I tried on a $20 fleece jacket. Nevermind that the fit was off–it was so cheap, it would have been so easy to pull the trigger and call it a day. But the purpose of the fleece was to keep me warm. Could it make the cut? I always thought fleece was some kind of special high-tech fabric that was the equivalent of the little lambs’ wool that the texture mimics. So I decided to look up the fabrication. POLYESTER. Oh, hell no. I’ve always worn natural materials for warmth (wool and silks), so synthetic materials felt less effective. For me, buying the cheap fleece would have been settling.

Because the fleece jacket I really want is this Steven Alan one that I tried on a few weeks ago. It has a more stylish fit and is made mostly of wool, which in my experience is much warmer than synthetic materials. I’d rather wait for it to go on sale than settle for a $20 jacket that’s just alright. So, no, instead of buying the fleece, I’d layer up on existing merino wool tops that I already own, and hold out for the jacket I really want.

Final Thoughts

Ideally, we’d all plan out our purchases, but when you’re in the heat of the moment, all the planning in the world won’t help you. Having a quick framework, like the questions above, will put you closer to sticking to buying what you truly need and value. And while I haven’t gone on the trip yet, and could regret not buying all the things, I have a feeling I’m going to be alright doing without. Just like all the times I’ve done without before.

Do you get sucked into buying things for vacation, too? How do you avoid impulse buys when you really, really want stuff? If you see yourself as a minimalist, how do you decide what’s necessary and what’s not?

Image: Unsplash

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  • Pam

    Yes to all of this! I just got back from a 7 day cruise, and before I left I thought I needed all the bathing suits and cover ups and big straw hats I could find. I live in Florida, so I have a pretty decent bathing suit wardrobe already, and realized maybe a regular cotton dress or shorts and tank could make do as a cover up (never mind the 3 that I already own).
    Like you, I don’t like having a lot of stuff, and especially don’t like buying things I would only wear or use once (I would never normally wear a wide hat to the pool or the beach), so I talked myself off the ledge. I think for a moment here I got caught up in the excitement of “being on vacation” and having new things would make it feel even more special.

    • What is it about vacations that makes us want all this stuff??? Like, I swear every time I’m watching TV and a character is going on vacation, they always go on a pre-shopping spree. I get what you mean about how the new stuff would somehow make the vacation feel more special, although rationally we all know that’s not true. I wish our brains were more evolved!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂

  • Vacations are always a trap for me. I’d like to think that I’m much better at them now, but as soon as you mentioned going to Italy, I realized I had already been secretly planning to buy completely new outfits for my trip haha. Guess I know where my weakness lies after all!

    This was so helpful! I keep going back to when I am frustrated with my wardrobe…like when I need to look decent and can’t leave the house with my sweats and a sweatshirt. The more that the situation comes up for me, the more I’m like helloooo it’s time to do something about that. And ironically, the things I wear the most like pajamas and sweats are also the ones I neglect to buy-even though I’m in them all the time. I guess it’s just less exciting than buying a whole new wardrobe for a vacation, to imagine that your life could be this “fantasy” like you said.

    Anyway, I’m going to have to give this a reread when May approaches and I’m feeling the pull to shop.

    Sounds like you’re all set for your trip, so exciting!!

    • Oooh, where are you going in Italy? And ha, at least you realize the trap now and can make decisions accordingly. I always feel a lot better if I use what I already have instead of buying something new just for the one-time event. I used to buy dresses for specific weddings, and I realized it made me feel bad to buy something I didn’t love just to be worn once.

      Girl, you look cute in your sweats! At least, the ones I’ve seen on Instagram, ha. Hoping the sweats I bought (the ones I saw on you) did not get stolen from our stoop today. Wish me luck!

      • We’re flying into Milan bc of a flight deal, but we are taking the train to Bologna, Florence, possibly Modena, maybe Rome. I’ve been to Florence twice and love it so much…Vadim’s never been to Italy so that’s really exciting. Having any city recommendations??

        I hate wearing things just once and staring at it in the closet but it’s so hard to find the perfect go-to for weddings. My mom threw a little shade my way last weekend about me wearing the same sweater every time I see her (not true) so it’s always like show up comfortable or have people think you can’t afford new clothes. First world problems, though.

        Haha thanks! I always feel like it’s hard to not look too casual but comfort always wins.

        • Cool, so you’ll be the expert and Vadim’s just tagging along 🙂 Modena sounds really cool, especially for the food! I went to Rome and Florence right after college, and I remember liking Florence a lot, much more than Rome.

          I know how you feel about the perfect go-to for weddings. My dress isn’t perfect but I’m OK with good enough for now. I mean, no one’s going to be looking at me–I just remember that the wedding isn’t about me, and everyone’s looking at the bride! And ha, critical moms. Mine doesn’t believe that I eat unless she sees me eating with her own eyes.

  • NZ Muse

    I’m no hiker myself (have done 1 full day hike and a lot of small ones 1-4 hours) but AFAIK you can generally get away without boots on our trails!

    • Ooh, nice to hear from a local that non-boots are OK! All day treks aren’t our thing, so I’m hoping the NZ terrain isn’t super slick. I keep checking the weather, but of course, it’s changing every single day!

      • SLJ

        I AM a hiker – it’s what we do when we travel. For instance, we did a three day, two night back country trip in Spain last summer. Pretty hard core stuff too – up chains, down ropes, across scree, etc. And I wore running shoes. I HATE, HATE, HATE hiking boots. I brought them for my honeymoon trip and wore them for numerous trips until they started looking dated. When I thought about buying new ones, I realized how much I hated the old ones. So I didn’t buy new ones and have been just fine, even in wet, rainy Ireland one summer. You will be totally fine too – great decision.

        • Excellent! “Up chains, down ropes”–that’s above my pay grade, so I trust this is legit hiking! I’ve never liked how heavy hikers seem, and I only plan on bringing a carry-on, so I need stuff that can pull double duty. Nice to hear that doing without won’t automatically result in broken ankles. Thank you for chiming in!

  • You WILL be fine! Though I second the rain jacket – the wind that usually comes with the rain makes umbrellas die before their time lol. And aahhh, welcome to my life! As a frequent traveller, I’m always tempted to buy things for each trip or souvenirs I might never see again. It’s a trap that’s so easy to fall into!

    I did end up splurging on merino possum socks, gloves, and a hat though on this trip. They’re so warm and fill the need for subzero winterwear for my trips. ❤️

    • Merino possum socks??? I guess I’ll come across those when I get there, too!

      Thanks for the vote of confidence. I think seeing your pared down packing really helped me realize that some stuff really is overplayed. And yes, no matter how much I’ve spent on umbrellas, they always flip inside out. Thankfully, I’ve stopped buying souvenirs so long ago, so that’s not a problem for me.

      • Don’t worry, you’ll come across those socks everywhere (at least I did, lol). The tricky part is checking you get them pure though (as in a possum-merino blend without nylon, etc) – a Kiwi in the North Island taught me that tip. But even with a little nylon, they’re super soft. I wore mine on the plane ride back and they were lovely. They cost NZD30-35 a pair though – really luxe socks! I’m including mine in my weekly hand wash load of designer stuff.

        I’ve gradually cut down on souvenir shopping but pretty things are always tempting. Maybe I shouldn’t go in markets anymore lol.

  • All of your questions are so good! I especially like the first one because I think it taps into who we actually are vs. who we hope a purchase will magically turn us into.

    I can’t believe you live in NYC and you don’t own a raincoat. That is so impressive. Living in Canada and Ontario specifically, I have jackets and coats for every half season lol It would probably seem like overkill to most people, but I hate being cold and I hate getting wet, so each one of those jackets is essential.

    Can’t wait to see how your trip goes!

    • I think the first question could stop sooo many purchases! Haha, I feel like raincoats are so unnecessary! I just carry an umbrella. Most of my coats are at least somewhat water repellent, so it seems to work out OK. For me, it’s a warmth thing. Most rain coats don’t have much insulation, so I’d rather be warm than non-wet.

      Thanks! Warning you now I’ll be pretty obnoxious on social media 🙂

  • Lana

    What sweatpants did you end up buying? I have a long plane journey coming up and could use a pair for exactly this reason.

  • Yeah, there was that pair of sandals I bought for our two weeks in Thailand that I both cannot find and never wore again. I feel bad about that one, obviously, because that was something like 7 years ago. I’m always working on how to pack more minimally without forgetting a critical thing like pants.

    There’s a bit of fashion blogger influence going on for me, too. My favorite petite bloggers always look so cute when they’re traveling and it sets a totally unrealistic expectation of looking like I’m on vacation and not like I’m just being a schlub in a different setting. But in all honesty, I’m relatively schlubby and comfortable in daily life so why not be me while on vacation too?

    • If anything, I tend to bring my WORST clothes on vacation, so what does that say about me? I remember when I went to Southeast Asia, I brought conservative clothes (because ppl there don’t dress skimpy), stuff I could get dirty in. And everyone else was like, oh, this vacation is a fashion show, haha. But yeah, sometimes I look back of vacation pictures and cringe at some of the bad fits I have going on, so I feel you on getting influenced by those perfect bloggers. I’m never going to be someone who shows up at the airport with makeup, blown-out hair, etc., but I still want to be presentable.

      Hopefully, those pair of sandals weren’t too expensive! And out of sight, out of mind, right? 😉

  • Stephanie

    The vacation impulse shopping trap is so real! I definitely struggle with that first question…

    Another question that helps guide me is: “Is this worth the space and weight in my bag?” I travel a lot (16 roundtrip flights down, 2 more left in 2017, plus a few road trips) and always travel with carry on luggage. This means that everything I put in my bag absolutely has to earn its keep. If I can’t use it multiple times on this or future trips, I have to take it off my shopping list.

    • The first question is so handy, though!

      I hear you on the space and weight issue. My luggage got lost on my first plane ticket, so I’ve been carry-on every since. Sometimes if I get desperate for space, I’ll just wear as many clothes as I can on the airplane 🙂

  • prosperlyway

    I’ve always been a careful shopper, and tend to err on the side of buying nothing. I usually deliberate about big purchases way too much and look across the depths of the internet to make absolutely sure I’m getting the best deal. All of that extra effort tends to put into perspective what really matters to me. If I’m not willing to put in the effort to find a great deal, I usually realize that I don’t really need or want it anyway. Over the years I’ve noticed that I’m a bit of an oddball when it comes to buying things.

    That said, I love the framework. I know so many people that fall prey to impulse buying and having a simple set of questions is a huge step in the right direction!

    For people that struggle with spending too much–I wonder if it would help them to have these questions written down on a post-it note in their wallet? Or as a permanent notification on their phones?

    • You’re talking to the original oddball who has a 12 point system for buying one thing. I definitely go overboard when it comes to research as well. Meanwhile, my husband went to REI and grabbed a jacket in a span of an hour…But I think the research and deliberation increases the care and appreciation for said item once it’s bought.

      Yeah, I was actually thinking a neat little business card with these questions would be a great idea!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting 🙂

  • GYM

    So I almost bought a Hawaiian printed dress, shirt for my husband, and shirt and shorts for baby. Haha!! My husband said “When I am ever going to wear this in Vancouver?” then we decided not to get it (it was a close one). This is a great post and I am very impressed that you only bought two things for your New Zealand trip- way to go! +1 for Minimalism and conscious spending/purchasing.

    I don’t know if there’s Roots in NYC but I love Roots sweatpants. Super soft and comfy and they look ok being worn out of the house (because sweatpants are like a new-mom uniform).

    • LOL, someone almost went crazy with the souvenir shopping! Glad you didn’t go for it. My mom wanted to buy a hawaiian outfit for my niece and nephew while we were in Maui, and I had to put the breaks on that.

      Ooh, I’ve never heard of Roots, but I see they have short sizes, which is my main problem. I might find something that fits in the waist, but will be super bunched up at the bottom because I’m vertically-challenged :/ Thanks for the intel!

  • haikuanthology

    Strangely, I have never had a problem with wanting to buy things before vacations. My parents never did (and I don’t think that anyone I knew did either) and so I just grew up not realising that it was possible to purchase things specifically for a holiday… Granted, I lived in Ontario and so I had clothing in my closet for all temperatures from -25 to +35 celsius so there was never an occasion where I needed anything to open the possibility of wanting something 🙂

    Now I struggle with the guilt of purchasing things that I need that might not be used after a trip, but like you I try to select versatile things that I can use in the future and never settle! If I can’t find something before a trip then I figure I’ll buy it when I get there, and if I can’t find it there then the locals don’t need it and neither do I 🙂

    • Hmm, sounds like you’re pretty lucky! I usually don’t buy anything, either, but I generally don’t do outdoor things here in NYC, so things like rain jackets and hiking boots just aren’t things I see value in having around. I guess that’s what happens when you’re naturally minimalist in your everyday life!

      And you’re right about sometimes just buying things when you’re at your destination. I actually discovered that there are some kind of opposum gloves that are the thing to buy in NZ, so I’ll have a hard time resisting those 🙂

  • Kate @ making it rain

    The first question all the way! I always find myself wanting to pick up all kinds of gear for my different trips. Then I remind myself that I seem to have survived in Canada with its highly varied climate just fine so far, and I probably don’t actually need that extra special item just to go walking around in another country 🙂

    One item that I have been pretty resistant to pick up is hiking boots. I have trekked in Nepal and different parts of Southeast Asia in trainers, and was a-okay. Glad I don’t have a pair just sitting in my closet now because I “needed” them for a couple days.

    But seriously, how do you do NY without winter boots, rain boots, or a raincoat?!

    • Haha, it actually snowed here for the first time this year! And I was slightly regretting not having snow boots. But I put on my running shoes and powered through. When it rains I use an umbrella and wear leather mid-top sneakers that are naturally water repellent.

      Yay, another person who’s resistant to picking up hiking boots! And very cool to hear you hiked in some epic spots with just trainers. And yes, they do take up so much space! I have a small apartment (less than 800 square feet), so we can’t really have extra gear just laying around. We had to sell our bikes because we didn’t have the space 🙁

  • I always find myself having lofty fantasies of vacation-me and that causes all sorts of impulse purchases. I find going on vacation seems to trigger either the doomsday prepper or the classy fantasy in me. On one hand, my fantasy vacation me is way more classy and proper, and the doomsday vacation prepper has to carry with me all forms of protection, even ones I’ve never heard of before (I was obsessed with those paracord firestarter bracelets last year).

    I do have a couple good reasons to buy hiking boots. Whether they’re true hiking boots or not, what matters to me is having a pair of shoes I can hike in that I don’t care at all about. I’ve ruined so many shoes I loved because I decided to hike somewhere super sandy or super muddy that ruined my shoes. Now I always have a pair of hiking boots I wear everywhere so I have peace of mind!

  • That’s quite motivating! Everytime we plan a vacation, the first thing which comes into my mind is shopping. My only trick which has helped me to control this urge to a large extent is following a mandatory waiting period. I wait for at least 6-7 days before taking an ultimate shopping decision and give myself time to think whether that product is truly necessary. Most of the time I have found that with time this impulsiveness fades away.

    By the way, sweatpants are truly savior for the long-haul flights! aren’t they? 😉

  • I actually really enjoy the process of shopping and I think I actually kind of have a shopping addiction because I want to buy a lot more things when I’m stressed. I end up with a lot of things I don’t actually want so in general when I’m shopping I try to draw out the process for as long as possible, timewise

    • I enjoy shopping online because I can easily compare and contrast things, but shopping in person where I live is usually a headache! I find I shop more when I’m bored. It’s good you at least recognize when you tend to shop more–that way you can try to find a healthier habit if you feel like you’re shopping too much. And agree with drawing out the process for as long as possible. If you’re still thinking about it weeks later, it’s def not an impulse purchase.