I’ve never been an impulse buyer—until now

Wth inflation near a four-decade high and prices skyrocketing on everything from gas to groceries, many Americans can’t help but save less and spend more.
Wth inflation near a four-decade high and prices skyrocketing on everything from gas to groceries, many Americans can’t help but save less and spend more.


My friends and I are all spending money like we never have before. Why is that?

First, there was the oh-so-smudgeable lilac eyeliner, another $16 added to my cart on a whim. Then, there was the $30 Etsy T-shirt, customized to print Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes," purchased on my phone in the dead of night.

But the third impulse buy prompted some reflection. Did I really need a 2-foot-tall minimalist neon sculpture of Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring?" No, of course not.

But I wanted it. And $126 later—“I even got free shipping and a flash sale discount," I naively marveled at the time—I had it.

I didn’t think I was this kind of person. My idea of a fun shopping trip is taking a spin through the $10 thrift-store rack. I resist the one-click Instagram buys and the marked-up trinkets pushed on us at the checkout counter. When it comes down to it, I’ll always take a beer-shot-combo happy-hour special over a high-price cocktail.

But I’m apparently not the only one whose impulse control has been plummeting. Credit-card balances increased by $46 billion between the first and second quarter of 2022, according to new data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The second-quarter figure was up 13% from a year earlier, the largest rise in more than two decades.

Why is my (and so many of my friends’) impulse buying suddenly on the rise? Experts tell me I can blame a confluence of factors: rising prices, pandemic revenge spending and worries about an economic downturn that have us throwing up our hands and saying “What are we saving for? Why not spend it all?"

Buy while you can

For instance, with inflation near a four-decade high and prices skyrocketing on everything from gas to groceries, many Americans can’t help but save less and spend more. They’re putting more on credit cards because they have to.

Sometimes, says Jay Ritter, professor of finance at the University of Florida, rather than cutting back on big purchases during periods of high inflation, we actually end up spending more. In a way, he says, we’re trying to “lock in" prices now on these long-desired items. We worry that if we wait another year to hit the button, then we’ll only end up handing over more cash. This explains why so many of my friends are deciding they might as well go ahead and upgrade the apartment furniture or purchase the pricey plane ticket. If they wait another few months, they’ll just end up paying more.

“In that sense, it does make sense to buy now, when it’s cheaper than it is likely to be a year from now for people," he says. “For people with money in the bank, more responsible people, that makes sense."

After talking with Mr. Ritter, I tried to feel better about my recent impulse buys. Sure, I told myself, I was spending more on pastel eyeliner, art-girl crop tops and neon wall art because, you know, I’m smart. I’m being reasonable. In reality, I’m saving myself money.

But my situation—pouncing on purchases to which I once would have shrugged and said, “Well, not today but maybe some day"—felt different. I noticed a viral TikTok making the rounds in my myriad group chats. The video put into words what I and so many others were experiencing.

“If you’re currently trying to decide on [sic] whether or not you should buy something, you should just buy it," the creator, who goes by flossybaby on TikTok, says into the camera. “Like, you didn’t ask to be born. You literally didn’t ask to be here, but you’re already here. So you might as well buy it."

Out of fear

The comments beneath the video read like conversations I had been having with my own friends. People described adding $200 of treats to their online carts and gifting themselves extravagant makeup and hair tools. We’re pretending every day is “Treat Yourself Day," and we’re doing so more from a place of fear than a place of confidence.

“Increasing income inequality, along with the fear of economic recession, can make people feel that it is very hard for them to succeed," says Sunyee Yoon, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Buffalo, in an email response. “If being rich is perceived as realistically difficult, people have no reason to control their spending and save more because their financial prudence won’t bring real financial success to them."

We’re still chasing that feeling that 2020 cheated us of happiness (it did) and feeling fearful of the hard times a future recession may bring.

“People who have been denying themselves pleasures over the last couple of years, they are thinking, ‘Why not just splurge on some new clothes?’ " says Caroline Fohlin, professor of economics at Emory University. “In economics, we call it your personal discount rate. Psychologists call it instant gratification."

Watching the TikTok, I couldn’t help but think of another economic term: the “lipstick index," coined in the depths of the 2001 recession by Estée Lauder’s chairman, Leonard Lauder. In the Great Depression and other periods of economic turmoil, lipstick sales remain strong, sometimes even climbing as the economy tanks, Prof. Yoon says.

The rationale is simple: Many of us may be cutting back on other luxuries, like travel and entertainment, to deal with high prices elsewhere and the fear of a looming recession. But we can still treat ourselves. We can still buy the lipstick (or, in my case, the eyeliner). We can feel the high, for a little while. After all, as the past 2½ years has taught us, that feeling won’t last forever.


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