Survey: 3 in 4 Americans make impulse purchases

Do you have a hard time resisting shiny new things? You're not alone: Three out of four Americans have made impulse purchases, according to a new survey by, and mental state has a lot to do with it. We buy impulsively when we're excited, bored, angry, sad -- even intoxicated.

In the scientific telephone survey of 1,000 adult Americans, 75 percent said they had made an impulse purchase -- some of them costly. Of the impulse buyers, 16 percent said they spent $500 or more on the purchase and 10 percent spent $1,000 or more.

Those purchases came because we were excited (49 percent), bored (30 percent), sad (22 percent), angry (9 percent) or intoxicated (9 percent).

There was something of a gender divide in impulse buying. While overall, equal numbers of men and women reported impulse buying, men tended to buy bigger and be less sober. Women spent less -- and were sadder.

Among the survey's most provocative findings:

  • Men were much more likely to say they had bought while intoxicated, with 13 percent of men reporting a BWI, compared to 5 percent of women.
  • Women were twice as likely to report that sadness caused an impulse buy: 28 percent of women cited it as an underlying cause, compared to 14 percent of men.
  • The gender gap was also apparent in the cost of the impulse. Men were far more likely than women to spend more than $1,000 impulsively. Women were more likely than men to keep their most expensive unplanned purchases to under $25.
  • Generational differences were sharp: Four out of 10 senior citizens age 65 and older said they'd never made an impulse purchase. Only about 1 in 10 millennials age 18-29 could say the same.
  • Regrets? We don't have that many. Exactly half of those who made impulse purchases couldn't think of a single splurge they regretted.

What was most striking about the data was the universality of impulse buying. Though there were differences in the details of how much was spent and why, no group was immune to impulse buying -- not rich or poor, young or old, well-educated or not. City slickers often splurge, but rural residents go hog wild, too. Even Democrats and Republicans agree to impulse buy.

"When it comes to shopping, many Americans don't think about the consequences," said Dr. Dorothy Sasmor, a Central Florida psychologist. "People can be impulsive -- 'I want what I want now' -- and don't really think through their decisions."

Retailers are quite aware of this and take advantage of it, said Gail Cunningham, vice president and spokeswoman for the National Foundation for Consumer Credit, the nation's largest nonprofit financial counseling organization.

"That's why the end-cap displays and checkout lanes are so enticing," she said. "We don't realize that we need that magazine or candy bar until we are only minutes away from paying, yet they often make it into our shopping carts."

Survey details

The survey, conducted by landline and cellphone during early November, asked American consumers about their "impulse purchases." These were defined as unplanned or unnecessary decisions to buy a product just before the purchase was made.

Though impulsive buying is a common trait, regardless of demographic distinctions, there were differences.

Big spenders: men, college grads

For instance, women tended to spend smaller, with 24 percent of impulse-spending women saying they kept their most expensive unplanned purchase to under $25. For male impulse buyers, 15 percent kept it at under that level.

Men were more likely to peel off the big bills: 21 percent said they spent $500 or more, including 7 percent who said they spent more than $1,000. Among women, 9 percent said they hit the $500 mark with an impulse buy and 5 percent went over $1,000.

Higher educational levels spur impulse spending: College graduates were far more likely to shop impulsively (86 percent) than those who never attended college (64 percent).

Sasmor noted that highly educated people likely earn more than others and could be more likely to frequently upgrade their cellphones, computers and other gadgets. But Cunningham cautioned that well-educated consumers are not immune to plunging into financial difficulty by doing so.

"Even the very educated can get in over their heads," she said. "Thus, they should make sure that they don't develop a lifestyle beyond what their income can support."

Small spenders: seniors

Those age 65-plus were least likely to say they have spent impulsively, at just 56 percent. That's fewer than those ages 50-64 (77 percent), 30-49 (78 percent) or 18-29 (88 percent).

"As we age, we realize that life is not about things but about people and experience," said Sasmor. "So it makes sense to me that older people are the least likely to shop impulsively. I wish we all learned that sooner."

How do we pay for these things? In every way imaginable. Thirty-three percent of those who shopped impulsively used cash, 32 percent used a debit card, 30 percent used a credit card and 3 percent wrote a check.

About half these shoppers said that online shopping did not substantially affect their behavior -- they were perfectly happy shopping impulsively in both physical stores and online. The rest were evenly split when asked if they were more likely or less likely to shop impulsively online.

Sad, bored, intoxicated: Why we impulse shop

Impulsive states of mind

The survey also found that state of mind is an important factor in these decisions. This did not surprise the experts. "Instead of looking for the underpinnings of their emotions, some people self-medicate with alcohol, substances and shopping," Sasmor said.

For instance, those who had shopped impulsively reported it was because they were:

  • Intoxicated. Buying while intoxicated is a more male behavior, but regardless of gender, it increased as the age of the buyer decreased. Nearly one in five of impulsive shoppers between the ages of 18 and 29 said they had been mentally compromised at least once when they had indulged in this behavior. Cunningham said the lesson here is clear: "Macy's and martinis don't mix."

  • Sad. Twenty-eight percent of female respondents said they had made unplanned purchases while sad, compared to 14 percent of male respondents.

  • Angry. The youngest consumers, those between 18 and 29 years old, were about twice as likely (13 percent) to buy impulsively when angry as those 65 or older (6 percent). Thirteen percent of parents said they had made sudden purchases while in this state of mind, compared to 7 percent of nonparents.

  • Bored. Thirty percent of impulsive shoppers reported making such purchases when bored. Once again, the oldest Americans were more able to resist the temptation under these circumstances.

  • Excited. Excitement is a major factor when it comes to sudden purchases. About half of all impulsive shoppers said they had made those purchases while in an excited state of mind. The youngest consumers were far more likely (69 percent) than others to report this behavior.

Buyer's remorse

Nearly half of all of those who made impulse purchases regretted them at one time or another. Women (52 percent) were somewhat more likely to experience buyer's remorse than men (46 percent).

Said Cunningham, the credit counselor: "The cold reality of the bills arriving has canceled out many happy holiday memories."

With the survey in mind, Sasmor said that impulsive shopping should be viewed as another form of addiction and consumers who find themselves frequently tempted to make unplanned purchases should pause a moment and examine their motives.

"Buyer's remorse occurs because the object bought never satisfies the real need," she said. "Rather than shop, drink, eat or gamble, take time to explore the underlying feelings."

See related:4 tips to minimize impulse buying , Tricks retailers use to get you to spend more ,, , Charge a lot? Pay early and often to avoid score damage , Using money to self-medicate?

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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