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Years ago, before I had met my wife and following a budget became something important to me, I was standing at a check out after my purchases had been tallied up and felt my stomach jump into my throat.  The cashier told me the purchases came to $447.97 and asked how I would like to pay.  I remember thinking to myself, “$450?!  What on Earth did I buy that came up to $450?!!?”  I had a mini heart attack and a brief moment where I struggled with making this huge purchase.  There was no way I was going to return some of my purchases.  That would be way too embarrassing.  I had gone too far with the shopping and now I would have to pay the price.

After having that mental battle with myself for about 2.2 seconds, I decided that it would be fine and that I really deserved everything I was about to take home.  I mean, the books were buy three get one for free and the movie DVDs were something I really needed.  The new tools and toolkit were on sale too, so I was basically saving money right?  Out came the credit card and I resigned myself to making payments on it for weeks, if not months, to come.

Has this ever happened to you?  It’s happened to me too many times over the years, and luckily my wife has reined in my impulse shopping to a minimum.  My old behavior patterns of rationalizing impulse purchases set me up for failure time and time again.  I would have a plan in my head when payday rolled around, but one quick trip to the store brought everything crashing down around me.  There were many nights where I would watch the movies I had purchased wishing I had something to eat while enjoying the action.

After some painful reflection, and gentle observations from my wife, I realized that I was an impulse shopper.  I was trying to find joy, albeit temporary, in the purchases I made.  I would buy books with the hope of one day reading them all.  I would buy movies with the thoughts of building a collection to rival all others.  I would buy tools with the desire to build something great.  The reality was these items I was purchasing would, in all likelihood, sit on a shelf waiting for the day to be used.  It was the ‘high’ I felt when making the purchase that I really wanted.  Eventually, however, I would crash and burn and feel buyer’s remorse.  There was no way I was going to return any of these items; that would be way too embarrassing.  I would just have to pay off the debts I built up and try not to fall victim to my impulses again.

I knew that the impulse purchases had to stop if I was ever going to learn to stick to a budget and save any money.  These impulse purchases kept sabotaging all my plans for the future, and now that I had a wife, I also had dreams of one day owning a home and starting a family.  None of that was going to work out if I couldn’t stick to a budget.

So what was my big solution?

You have to just stop and ask yourself five simple questions.  Don’t wait until you are at the checkout and feel too embarrassed to put stuff back on the shelf.  Don’t wait until you are bagging the items and getting ready to leave the store.  Ask these questions while you are picking up that shiny new thing for the first time or clicking on the ‘add to shopping cart’ button.

Question 1 – Do I need this or do I want this?

You have to answer these questions honestly or they are simply not going to work.  This is especially true for the first question.  The difference between need and want is as clear as day if you can be honest with yourself.  If you try and lie to yourself and say, “Yes!  I need this $45 book because it goes with my collection”, you are not being truthful and you will continue to impulse shop.

Is what you are looking to buy essential for survival?  If the answer is no, put it back.  Things essential for survival (in case you didn’t already know) are shelter, clothing, and food; period.  This also doesn’t mean you need designer clothing, exotic food, or mansion sized shelter.  Identifying needs and wants is the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do when it comes to your budget and money management.  If you’re trying to stay within budget, pay down debts, or save for something expensive and necessary; you should not waste your money on impulse purchases.

If it is, in fact, a true NEED then move on to the next question.

Question 2 – Do I already own something like this?

I’m a creature of habit.  I like routine and the comfort of knowing what is going to happen next.  I have my own sense of style and I am drawn to things that are similar.  When I look through my tool boxes (yes, I have many) I can count no less than 8 hammers, dozens of screwdrivers, more pliers than I know what to do with, and a multitude of other similar tools.  Yet, for some strange reason, I am drawn to flyers boasting the latest deal on black chrome socket sets or magnetic tipped screwdrivers.  It makes no logical sense.  I already have dozens of tools that will do the same job these new shiny ones will, why am I even looking at these new models and plotting when to buy them?

Before you say ‘yes’ to making any purchase, think about what you already have at home and if you already own something similar.  Nine times out of ten, I already have something similar and don’t need to waste money on another tool that will do the same thing.

If you don’t already own something similar, then move on to the next question.

Question 3 – Will I still be using this in a year from now?

This question is the dream killer for me.  I’ll be so excited about buying something new that I have budgeted for.  It’ll be something I don’t already have at home, so that takes care of question 2.  Then I think how much use will I get out of this thing?  Will I still be using it regularly or will it be collecting dust on a shelf somewhere?  Most of the time, I realize that I won’t be getting enough use out of the item to warrant spending the money.  I can typically come up with five or six other uses for the money that would go a lot further to meeting our financial goals rather than give me the 10 minutes of happiness when I buy it.

This can apply to many things like books and maybe even clothes.  Sure, they get good use once or twice, but soon they end up in a closet or on a shelf unused and forgotten.  I’m not saying you can never buy things that aren’t used regularly.  The point of the question is weed out the things you absolutely will not use more than a couple times.  If you aren’t going to use it, you shouldn’t really be buying it.

Now on to the question that is most relevant to your budget.

Question 4 – Can I afford this?

As a Financial Empowerment Coordinator, this is my favourite question.  If you are having doubts about your purchase, or if you are hovering between concrete answers because you are trying to rationalize an impulse purchase, there is no way around this question.

Either this item was budgeted for, or it wasn’t; plain and simple.

There have been so many times I have been walking through a store or leafing through the flyers and I see something on sale that I just have to have.  Is it on the list?  No.  Is it in the budget?  Absolutely not.  This is the tough part where you have to learn to be an adult and say ‘no’ you yourself.  It’s called self discipline and it’s about time you found some.

I give my wife credit for setting me straight with this question.  One time, we were walking through the store and I saw this air compressor on sale that I really wanted.  I could think of so many projects I could do with this impressive piece of equipment and it would make other jobs around the house so much easier.  It was on sale for a great price and they only had a limited quantity left.  Then my wife said something that really stuck with me.  It was something so simple, yet so true.  It stopped me in my tracks and has since become my financial motto whenever I go shopping.

She said, “It’s not a good deal if you can’t afford it.”

I walked away from the compressor that day, and have since walked away from many other “good deals” and limited quantities with a new attitude and way of thinking.  It was the absolute turning point in my impulse shopping habits.  I knew I could change and I knew how good it felt to not have that buyer’s remorse after the purchase high.  You have to start somewhere, why not here?

If you make it through this question and know you can afford the item, you just have to ask one more question.

Question 5 – Can I get by without this?

If you have made it this far with the questions, you really shouldn’t be feeling too bad about your purchase.  This question may motivate you to tap into your creativity and think outside the box for a moment.  There have been so many items over the years that I have got all the way to the checkout with and decided to put back at the last minute.  After really thinking about whether I can get by without it, it just made sense to keep on doing without.  Maybe I could find it cheaper?  Maybe I could get by with what I already have?  Either way, it wasn’t important enough to have to buy this very minute.

If you decide you can get by without the item you get to keep the money you would have spent otherwise.  Money in the bank is way better than money spent at the store.  When I first started using these questions, I would keep track in my head of how much money I was saving each time.  Eventually I lost count, but the total had climbed to well over $2000 at my last calculation.  That was a pretty good feeling.

To remove the impulse out of your shopping, use these 5 simple questions before you get to the checkout.  You will become accountable for your financial decisions and the act of repeating this exercise will soon become habit.  Every time you say no to purchasing that unnecessary ‘thing’ you will be gaining confidence and saving money.  Soon you’ll be a self-assured person who is making smart decisions for their future.

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