Home » Blog » When Internet Shopping Is an Impulse Control Disorder

When Internet Shopping Is an Impulse Control Disorder

For me, the danger zone is online book sellers. There have been evenings when I’ve gone looking for a particular book. With one click, it’s on its way to me. Fine. But then there are always pictures of book jackets strung across the bottom of the page: “People who bought this book also bought. . .”

“Oh”, think I. “That one looks interesting.” Click. “Oh, that one looks like it would be very helpful.” Click. “Hmm. I wonder how that writer approached the subject.” Click.  “Ah. This one is used but in “like new” condition for half price. That’s a great deal!” Click.

One click plus one click plus one click. You get the idea. In no time, I can have a hundred dollars’ worth of books on their way to my door. My bookcases are already bursting with books I haven’t thoroughly read but the excitement of discoveries can outrun my impulse control when it comes to books — even in the age of Kindle and Nook.

Fortunately, I do have at least a modicum of sense. I have put myself on a books diet. But having flirted with a one click addiction, I do understand the seductive quality of online purchasing.

It seems that I have not been at all alone in having to struggle for control. Nearly 70% of Americans shop online regularly. Studies show that a third to half of those purchases are impulse buys. A 2017 study shows that more than half of Millennial and Gen Xers (55%) have overspent when shopping online. (38% of baby boomers and seniors have done the same.) And the average expenditure when someone is in the grip of impulsivity is $200!

It’s no wonder that people get caught up in buying more than they intended to. Shopping online is so easy, so instantly gratifying, so, so, so fun! Retailers know it. Using data, they fill our Facebook page with ads targeted to our interests and purchasing history. They’ve discovered that we can be lured by sales, by exhortations to “Buy Now”, by threats that the great deal we’re looking at will disappear in X number of minutes. They offer us “free” shipping if we’ll just spend $5 more and promise us we’ll, really, get our package by tomorrow noon. They do everything they can to make first time purchases quick and easy and to ensure that future purchases will be even quicker and easier.  

Not all online buying is impulsive or inappropriate, of course. Most online shoppers troll the internet for product information and for scoring the best price for something they need. For some, browsing products they’d like to have someday is a kind of harmless hobby. It’s like old fashioned window-shopping. They look but don’t buy unless and until they need something. For others, looking at various items is a kind of entertainment. For still others, it’s a way to keep in touch with trends and styles their friends are talking about.

But if you find, as I did, that you are buying items you really don’t need or that you are spending money that should be spent elsewhere, it’s time to take yourself in hand and get control of the impulse to buy whatever snags your interest.

7 ways to curb impulse buying online

  1. Don’t drink and buy: Drinking lowers our inhibitions. A recent study shows that people who relax by drinking and then get on the net can be so, yes, relaxed they are more likely to impulse buy. People who are intoxicated often buy things they don’t even want and may not even remember that they did so. Imagine their surprise when a package of some absurd item shows up at their door.
  2. Eliminate temptations: Block ads that appear on social media feeds. Unsubscribe to mailing lists and daily deals. Take shopping apps off your phone. What you don’t see won’t tempt you.
  3. Make buying more difficult: Impulse buyers are a retailer’s dream. Companies do everything they can to make purchasing their products quick and easy. You can foil their tactics by disabling the one click option. Disable the autofill function of your contact information as well. Don’t store your credit card number on a retail website either. Force yourself to read the other customer reviews. Every time you have to do something (enter a promotion, enter a card number or rewrite your address, etc.) you give yourself a moment to think about clicking out of the site instead of clicking on a purchase
  4. Develop the mission shop habit. Browsing online stores can lead you to buy things you don’t need. Instead, keep a list of things you want or need. When you know you have the money for a purchase, go on a mission to find the best deal you can for that one item.  Mission shopping takes time but it’s very gratifying to score a sweet deal.
  5. Focus on needs, not wants: Post a large sign on your computer screen saying, “DO I REALLY NEED THIS???” You probably don’t. Appeal to your inner responsible self and get away from the purchasing site. Shut down the computer and find something else to do.
  6. Develop another (debt-free) hobby: Shopping may be fun but the fun stops when the bills come in. Shopping may relieve stress but the stress only increases with an increase in debt. Develop other forms of entertainment and other stress relievers. Call a friend. Go for a walk. Meditate. If you must be online, investigate video or brain gym games. Load a good book onto the computer. Watch a movie. Do something that won’t result in financial distress.
  7. Deal with your anxiety or depression directly.  Is online shopping a way you are kind of self-medicating? Face it. Clicking on a great pair of shoes may feel good momentarily but that feel good feeling won’t last. Shopping as an antidote to your symptoms only creates another problem to solve. Make an appointment with a mental health counselor who can help you “withdraw” from online purchasing and who can give you the support you need to manage or even cure your mental health issues.



When Internet Shopping Is an Impulse Control Disorder

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart. Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

No comments yet... View Comments / Leave a Comment
APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). When Internet Shopping Is an Impulse Control Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 3, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Jul 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.