"It seemed like a good idea at the time."
That's what my friend Clive Jenkins said as we stood watching his new hot tub being delivered to his house.
"Yep, we went in for some hot dogs, and we came out with a hot tub instead," Clive said, recounting the ill-fated shopping trip to a local membership warehouse store that cost nearly $7,000 more than he and his wife had planned.
"And you know what, Jeff? We even forgot to buy the hot dogs," Clive said. "I told my wife, we can't afford to go back there to get them."
Of course, Clive isn't the only person to buy something he hadn't planned on, only to regret it later. As Clive discovered, when shopping at so-called big-box stores, you run the added risk of supersizing your impulse purchases. But even at regular grocery stores, nearly 60 percent of all purchases are unplanned, impulse purchases, according to a joint study by faculty at the University of California and the University of Wisconsin.
Here are 12 ways to take control of your spending and limited impulse purchases:
Follow a Mandatory Waiting Period: In addition to the Golden Rule — always make a shopping list before you head out to the store and stick to it — try establishing a "mandatory waiting period." Wait at least a week after you see an item in the store. In an informal experiment I've been conducting with my cheapskate friends, most people who try this say that more than half of the time they never go back to buy the item after the weeklong cooling-off period, and even when they do return to the store with the intention of buying it, when they see the item again they often decide they no longer want it.
Edit Your Junk Mail: There's a good reason why we all get so much junk mail every day: namely, because so many people buy things as a result of receiving it. Almost by definition, items purchased as a result of receiving junk mail are impulse purchases, since the advertisements arrive unsolicited, not as a result of us asking for them. The nonprofit organization 41pounds.org can help you get your name off junk mailing lists. (By the way, 41 pounds is the average amount of junk mail every American adult receives every year!)
Clean Something: "Whenever one of my kids [young adults] wants to buy something new, I tell them to first go and clean something they already own." That's the advice of one of my Miser Advisers, who says that when you take the time to spruce up something you already own — a pair of shoes, an old fishing rod, that bicycle in the garage, even your car — you develop a new appreciation for all the stuff you already have.
Only Fools Rush In: Particularly when it comes to buying the latest high-tech gadgets, you're smart to remember the lyrics to that popular Elvis Presley tune and hold off on rushing out to the store. Most new technology generally decreases in price after it is initially released and demand increases. Plus, later versions are likely to have fewer bugs and better capabilities.
Make a "What the Heck Was I Thinking?" List: Check out this article on doing a once-a-year "What the heck was I thinking?" audit of your discretionary spending. Use the "audit" to pull together a list of items you bought on an impulse and later regretted. Learn from your mistakes and carry the list with you as a painful reminder whenever you go shopping.
Pay Cash: Numerous studies have shown that when people pay in cash rather than using a credit card, they tend to spend less, in part because psychologically it's harder for us to part with cold hard cash. A Bankrate.com study showed that people who use charge cards at fast-food restaurants spend on average 50 percent more than people who pay with cash. That's bad for not only your wallet but also your waistline, too.
Avoid the Web of Temptation: Shopping over the Internet has taken impulse buying to a whole new level. According to a study by the research and consulting firm User Interface Engineering, impulse purchases account for almost 40 percent of all the money spent on e-commerce sites. Here's a simple tip from the same study to help you avoid impulse buys when you shop online: When you're searching for an item you know you want to buy on an e-commerce site, don't search by category (e.g., "electronics"); instead, search for the specific item (e.g., "DVD player"). "The study showed that shoppers who searched by category were three times more likely to get sidetracked and buy something in addition to what they set out to buy.
Declutter Before You Buy: Force yourself to throw away — or better yet give away — one item you already own before you allow yourself to buy something new. Not only will this help you declutter your life, but you'll probably find that when you have to part with a possession first, it will remind you how much you already own.
Shop Less Often: Sounds simple enough. The more often you shop, and the more time you spend shopping, the more likely you are to impulse-buy. For example, the average American family shops for groceries three to four times every week. The cheapskates I surveyed for my latest book, The Cheapskate Next Door, shop for groceries no more than once a week — and sometimes as infrequently as once a month. On average, the cheapskates spent nearly 40 percent less on groceries than typical Americans. Go figure.
If You Slip, Save the Slip: If you buy something you didn't plan to buy, make sure you hang on to your sales receipts. Often, impulse purchases lead to buyer's remorse. More and more retailers have adopted a "no questions asked" policy when it comes to customers returning or exchanging purchases within a specified period. They want to keep you happy, and keep you as a future customer. But don't overdo the returns or use an item before you bring it back to the store. Many stores now use a computerized database to crack down on so-called serial returners, people who grossly abuse the system and sometimes even commit fraud by returning used or substituted items instead.
Rediscover Layaway: Good old-fashioned layaway plans are making a comeback at many retailers. For a small deposit (sometimes refundable, sometimes not), the store sets aside an item until you return with the balance of the payment. It gives you a cooling-off period to make sure you really want an item, and — hopefully — forces you save up the cash for the remainder due, rather than putting it on a charge card. As my great aunt always said, "I'd rather put it on layaway than lay awake at night worrying about how I'm going to pay it off on a credit card." A good point, even if not grammatically correct!
Appoint a Designated Cheapskate: "If you're going to shop with friends, please shop responsibly and always appoint a designated cheapskate." That's the motto for my new Cheapskates Against Impulse Buying campaign. Seriously, impulse buying is fueled by a mob mentality when you go shopping as a group, so ask a member of your shopping party to refrain from spending and to challenge those foolish purchases. You know, the Designated Cheapskate can drop subtle hints such as asking, "Did you pay off your credit cards last month?" or "So, how's your 401(k) looking these days?"
Jeff Yeager is the author of The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches and The Cheapskate Next Door. His website is www.UltimateCheapskate.com and you can friend him on Facebook at JeffYeagerUltimateCheapskate or follow him on Twitter.
Updated October 2012