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How to spot and stop impulse spending

It's all too easy to hit "buy now" on our phones. The dopamine hit of a purchase can be a much-needed "lift" for a carer who may be feeling low. Here we explore carers' vulnerability to impulse spending, plus tips to curb it!

Our relationship to money can have a big effect on our mental health as carers. Spending money on ourselves can give us a dopamine hit. However, losing track of our spending can make stress and anxiety worse. It’s a vicious cycle that can lead us on a path to debt.

illustration of a man sat down, with a big mobile phone behind him and an open shopping basket with shoes in it

When events like Black Friday, Boxing Day or January sales happen, it can be easy to get caught up in the rush of impulse or emotional spending. This can be problematic if we’re spending money we don't have, or if we’re experiencing feelings like “shame” afterwards.

In this blog, we'll take a look at the link between money, how we feel and our sense of wellbeing. We’ll also share some simple steps we can take to feel empowered and in control of our carer finances throughout the year.

Why do we overspend?

Trauma and stress can have a big effect on our behaviour. When we’re seeking relief from difficult emotions, we can often lean on unhealthy coping mechanisms as a way to deal with our feelings.

We’ve probably all heard about emotional eating - but what about emotional spending? This is when we purchase things we don’t really need in order to comfort ourselves from big, difficult feelings. We might know it as impulse spending.

So what’s going on in the brain to cause this? Shopping stimulates the prefrontal cortex; the region of the brain that’s responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure. When we feel low, treating ourselves to an impulse purchase can trigger the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine. This causes a short-term ‘high’ that can be very addictive.

As carers, shopping can be a way for us to bypass and bury uncomfortable emotions. When stress levels are high about the person we care for, the rush and instant reward of buying a new item can be a way to distract ourselves from the overwhelm.

In our caring roles, we may find it difficult to leave the house and spend time browsing in shops. With the rise of online shopping though, scrolling and buying on our smartphones has never been easier. Targeted advertising means that we’re constantly being sold things on social media. These are those ‘Achilles Heel’ items that advertisers know we’re likely to compulsively buy.

We may not be emotionally shopping for ourselves either. Some of us might get caught in overspending on products that promise to make our caring role easier. We might better justify expensive purchases if we think it will make the person we care for more comfortable.

“I can get caught up buying sensory toys for my daughter - my instagram feed is flooded with them”

Forking out our cash on the latest sensory product or mobility aid might feel like the right thing to do, but are we stopping to check if it’s necessary and within budget? If we think it’s something we need, we may be able to get it funded through an occupational therapist or social worker.

It’s important to remind ourselves that it’s OK to buy things when we feel we need them. We all deserve to have nice, practical things. Emotional spending is different though. It often happens in periods of unhappiness and low self-esteem.

We might have a category of items that we can’t resist. This could be cosmetics and clothes, or the latest gadgets or tools. If we’re not careful, emotional spending can make us feel worse. It can push us past our monthly budget, putting us into debt and adding to the stress and anxiety loop.

These are the signs we might be emotionally spending:

  • Repeatedly spending past our means

  • Feeling anxious about checking our bank account and what we’ve spent

  • Shopping to reward ourselves

  • Feeling guilt or regret about our spending

  • Spending more time than we’d like browsing shopping sites or even our social media (which is full of adverts)

  • Regularly buying and returning items

  • Spending when we feel low

  • Hiding items or the amount that we’ve spent from loved ones

  • Quickly feeling dissatisfied with the items we buy and craving the ‘next thing’

How is impulse spending and carer mental health linked?

As carers, many of us find money can be tight. Lots of us have reduced our working hours or had to quit our jobs. The current cost of living crisis is adding to this strain. Around 71% of us have low mood and poor mental health as a direct result of our caring role. Therefore, we may be more susceptible to emotional spending for relief.

One of the main mental health repercussions of spending over our budget is chronic stress. This can creep up on us if we start to feel out of control with our spending. It keeps us in a near-constant state of ‘flight or fight’ and puts us at risk of anxiety, insomnia and burnout.

It can be a self-fulfilling cycle too. When our mental health takes a knock from debt, it can be extra difficult to keep on top of our finances. For those carers who are able to work, it can affect our ability to perform in our jobs and earn the money we need.

Some conditions can make it harder to stay organised with money too. These include ADHD, depression, addiction and bipolar disorder. For carers who are diagnosed with one or more of these conditions, money management can be a challenge. Monzo recently commissioned research which found that if you have ADHD, you’re four times more likely to impulsively spend.

Spending gives us a sense of instant gratification. It’s a hangover from our evolution as humans; early man would survive by reaping the mood-boosting rewards of starting a fire or building shelter. The reward system in our brain still exists. Modern vices like shopping can trigger the same rewarding hormones in our brain. This can be addictive when other areas of our life are not particularly satisfying.

Money struggles can be difficult for us to talk about. There may be decades of historic shame attached to it from our childhood experiences. Like our mental health though, it’s important to have open and honest conversations about money with ourselves and others.

What is financial wellbeing?

Financial wellbeing is about being financially conscious. In the same way that sleep and exercise make us feel good, getting in control of our finances can take some pressure off when everything else feels overwhelming.

As we’ve explained, ignoring our unhealthy money habits can have consequences for our mental health. It therefore makes sense that working towards financial health is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves.

Financial wellbeing isn’t about having lots of money in the bank. We can be financially ‘well’ by exercising control over the money we do have as carers. Making conscious, planned decisions about how our money is spent.

Of course, with the current cost of living crisis, some of us are living month-to-month and are overspending to just cover basic expenses. If this is the case, there are some support services that can help.

Our Financial checklist for carers can also help us all to be sure we’re accessing all the financial help available to us.

Statistics show that 39% adults don't feel empowered about their money situation. For carers, we can have extra challenges too. However, organising and staying on top of our finances means we are less likely to get an unpleasant surprise down the line.

Tips to curb impulsive spending

We know that money is a big challenge right now. Here are some ways we can lessen the stress in the current economic climate:

1. Create a budgeting ritual

Having a budget can help us to stick to a set monthly outgoing and avoid overspending. Financial advice website Money Saving Expert has a really handy budget planner spreadsheet. Fill out your monthly expenses in the spreadsheet and it will calculate if we’re spending over our means. It’s free to download, and can either be printed out or opened with Microsoft Excel.

illustration of a lady holding a phone and looking at charts and graphs.png

For on-the-go-carers, apps like Mint and Emma can help us to build a budget and track money in real-time. These tools connect our accounts in one place and give us a personal budget goal based on analysis of our spending.

App-only banks like Starling and Monzo also allow us to set up digital saving pots. These can be helpful for saving a rainy day fund. Money can be automatically timed to move into these ‘pots’ so that we don’t have to spend time doing it manually.

“I use the Starling Bank app. It has ‘spaces’ which are basically ‘savings pots’. I have spaces for things like Christmas, School uniform, bills, unexpected bills/emergencies etc. It's really helped me manage my finances. I pop a bit in each pot each month and it helps me budget better.”

2. Give it a week

The rise of online shopping has made it easier than ever for us carers to get caught up in emotional spending. With next-day delivery and ‘Buy Now, Pay Later’ schemes, we can get instant gratification at the touch of the button.

The ‘one week’ rule can be helpful if we think we might be using emotional spending as a coping mechanism. This is where we give ourselves seven days to think on a non-essential spending decision. Once those seven days have passed, we can revisit the item and decide if it’s still a worthwhile purchase.

3. Tackle debt head on

When we’re in debt, it can be easy to bury our heads in the sand. Just taking a few small steps to get on top of it can help us to feel better.

Speak to your bank if you’re struggling to pay your bills. Ask how they can help you. Money Saving Expert also has a good step-by-step guide to dealing with debt, which can be useful for taking a first step.

Plus, there can be a lot of weird people online pretending to be someone else. If we ever get a text message or email that we're suspicious of, always ask a trusted person for a second opinion. We've also included six simple tips to stay scam-savvy online.

4. Know what you’re entitled to

There are various types of financial carer support available to us in our caring role. Make a cuppa and spend a tea break reading through our financial checklist. We’ve made it really simple to see what you’re entitled to.

5. Let go of the ‘fantasy self’

The ‘fantasy self’ is an idealised version of who we are. We might impulse purchase items in the hope of getting closer to this aspirational person. Fantasy purchases are rarely practical though.

For instance, we might live in jeans and sneakers but overbuy trend-led clothing we don’t wear. We might have bought these items simply so we could feel a certain way about ourselves. These can take up space in our lives and add to stress and clutter.

Next time we’re shopping for our fantasy self, we should take a breath and remind ourselves to let go. We’re complete as we are now.

6. Set financial goals

If we’re able to, setting goals can bring a very satisfying sense of reward when we achieve them. It could be saving throughout the year to treat ourselves to something important, such as a holiday to get some respite.

Digital banks like Revolut and Monzo started the trend for ‘rounded up’ money, where the app will round up purchases and save the difference into a savings pot. This way, we can save money without even realising it. Lots of traditional banks now offer this digital service so it’s worth checking if yours does.

7. Set yourself a ‘no buy’ challenge

A ‘no buy’ challenge involves committing to not spending money on non-essentials for a period of time. Some people choose to try a month while others embark on a whole year. This type of spending challenge can help you to save money while making use of clothes, cosmetics, games and toiletries that may be sitting unloved in our homes. We could arrange a free clothes swap with our carers circle if we feel the urge to have new things.

8. Try to identify patterns of behaviour

Some banking apps can give us a detailed breakdown where we’re spending our money. With this information, we can look at ways to reduce our outgoings and save an emergency fund.

We can look at whether we're overpaying for goods or subscriptions we don’t use. Looking at our spending data can also be a big eye-opener if we’re emotionally spending without realising it.

9. Plan for later in life

Lots of people don’t plan ahead for retirement. If you’re unsure what you’re entitled to, spend an afternoon tracing your old and lost pensions. The government website has a service that can help track them down. We also have a wills and trusts blog that can help you to get organised with your legal documents.

Speak to family and friends about building a financial plan for the future too. Look at who might be responsible for managing a trust for the person we care for in the future. Having a mutually-agreed plan can reduce the anxiety of the unknown for everyone involved.

10. Plan for an emergency

Whether it’s emergency dental surgery or an increase to our rent or mortgage payments, there are lots of unplanned situations in life that can crop up and cost money.

If we can, we could build an emergency fund in our savings. It’s a financial safety net to safeguard us against financial shocks. If we’re unable to save, having a small planned overdraft in our current account can also give us peace of mind.

11. Keep a money journal

Writing down our thoughts and worries has been scientifically proven to reduce stress. If we feel out of control with our spending, journaling can help us to get to the root cause of why we’re shopping. It can also help us to identify patterns of behaviour. For instance, are there specific moods that trigger our spending?

Journaling can also be a really great replacement habit for when we feel the urge to start scrolling on shopping sites.

Some helpful prompts to get us started could be:

  • What were our family's attitudes and beliefs towards money growing up?

  • What are our most vivid childhood memories about money?

  • What are our personal beliefs about money?

  • Think about our last impulse purchase. How did we want that item to make us feel about ourselves?

  • What kind of relationship do we want with our money?

  • What’s one thing we can do today to change our money mindset?

  • What things in our life make us feel richer than money does?

How to avoid impulse spending on Black Friday, Boxing Day and January Sales

It can be hard to resist items that are discounted during these big sales. Online and in-store marketing can make us feel like we’re minutes away from missing out on a good deal. The buzz of the day can also lure us into overspending on items we don’t really need.

Here are some ways we can go into the big sales without getting caught up in a spending frenzy:

  • Make a list of the items we need and make sure we stick to it. (E.g. Christmas presents for the kids, a replacement electrical item as an old one has broken).

  • Shop online to avoid getting caught up in the in-store buzz

  • Unsubscribe from emails that might distract us with deals

  • Price check everything we buy

  • Avoid making any panicked or impulsive buys

  • Take a digital detox if there’s nothing we need, as our feeds will be full of tempting adverts

Support if we’re in financial stress

If we feel like financial stress is harming our mental health, we should take steps to seek help. Support is available if we need it. Here are some things we can do:

  • Have a conversation with trusted family and friends about our money worries. Talking can help to find solutions and take the weight off.

  • Speak to your GP if you’re experiencing challenges with your mental health and wellbeing, as they can refer you to further support (link to therapy blog).

  • Contact your bank, as they may have advice and support you can access.

  • Visit AnxietyUK who have free resources on managing money stress.

  • For independent money advice, we can also contact: Citizens Advice, National Debtline, StepChange Debt Charity

  • For emergency mental health support contact Samaritans or Papyrus who have free, 24/7 phone lines.


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