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Personal Finance

Nip emotional spending in the bud with these strategies

Impulse shopping can lead consumers down an avoidable, debt-filled path

A woman looks at her bills at the kitchen tableTo curb impulse purchases, it’s important to identify which feelings are triggering them (Getty/Francesco Carta fotografo)

Impulse spending, or emotional spending, isn’t an uncommon phenomenon. A U.S. study by Mint Intuit showed 49 per cent of people surveyed bought something to boost happiness and 30 per cent of them later came to regret it. 

Emotional spending, says Dr. Katy Kamkar, clinical psychologist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, releases endorphins in the short-term, which make you feel good but, long-term, can lead to feelings of remorse, especially as debt grows. With the holiday season approaching, those who are prone to retail therapy can take proactive steps to deter the pattern.

“It’s an important time to start thinking about this,” says Kamkar. “It’s not only spending during the holidays, but also post-holiday stress and having to deal with holiday debt.”

Instead of masking the problem by adding more things to your cart, here are a few steps to help cope with impulse spending this holiday season. 


Pause to question the purchase, suggests CPA Michael Massoud, principal, operations and corporate citizenship with CPA Canada. 

“Take a moment and ask ‘Will this purchase make me happier?’ If the answer is yes, then go ahead and make the purchase (if it’s reasonable). But, nine times out of 10, I find that the answer is ‘no’ and, when that’s the case, I walk away and avoid the expense.”

Taking the impulsiveness out of shopping can also help stave off the urge to spend. 

“Shoppers can try and delay spending,” says CPA David Trahair, personal finance expert and author of CPA Canada’s free practical guide, Survive and thrive: Move ahead financially after losing your job. Because emotional spending is provoked by feelings, distracting yourself from those feelings may change—or remove—the need to act on them.

“The pandemic has made it even easier for some people to shop because you don’t have to leave the house to browse,” says Trahair, adding that targeted online ads only increase the temptation to spend. 

He suggests postponing a purchase by one day—especially if it’s a big-ticket item, to see if it’s a want or a need. “And then hopefully,” he says, if it’s not a necessary purchase, “the feeling goes away.” 


Kamkar says shoppers must also try to identify their spending triggers—whether it is sadness, stress, loneliness or even happiness. Creating awareness around key problems and stressors is important to understanding spending habits. Next, she says, “you want to engage in proactive coping.” 

Distracting yourself from the impulsive feeling, she says, leads to better behaviour and outcomes. “Change it for an alternate healthy behaviour,” she says, such as writing an email you’ve been putting off or going for a walk. Just make sure to avoid a route with your favourite store or other commerce options. Kamkar also recommends not bringing money with you or keeping it to a small amount to ensure there is no overspending. 

“We are limiting some of the things that make us more vulnerable,” she says.


Creating a budget will help identify and control spending habits. It will also highlight short- and long-term goals that can be used as motivators when faced with a provoking emotion. 

It’s then important that you analyze your budget and spending habits along the way, says Trahair. Even looking at just one month of activity can usually reveal a clear image of your patterns. 

“Tracking your spending is by far the best thing that anybody can do,” he says, “because that’s your personal fingerprint [of] where your money has gone in the past, which is a good predictor of where it’s likely to go in the future.”

If emotional spending has led to debt, setting up the right repayment plan will be unique to each person, but the key is to start somewhere. Trahair says this can be with a free online resource such as or even keeping a spending diary and writing everything out manually. It doesn’t matter how you do it, but that you do it, he says.


Another way to control spending, Trahair says, is to switch from a high-interest, high-limit credit card to a low-interest, low-limit card. This way, potential debt is at least minimized. “When you reach a credit limit, you can’t put anything more on it,” he says. 

Trahair also recommends setting up automatic transfers into protected investments to avoid accessing—or spending—your hard-earned money. 

“Have an amount automatically transferred from your bank account or maybe even [from] your paycheck to an RRSP or some kind of savings account,” he suggests. 


Acknowledging bad habits is never easy and working to make positive changes needs a holistic approach, Kamkar says. “We want to praise ourselves and identify what is positive about ourselves,” she says. 

Being mindful of those encouraging traits or ideas, especially as one moves to a challenging atmosphere—such as browsing on your phone or sitting at the computer—can help maintain a positive focus, instead of slipping into a reactive space that leads to unwanted behaviour.

“Eventually it will lead to positive emotions and the stresses might go down,” she says, leading to, “I feel more confident, I feel more empowered.” 


CPA Canada has a wealth of financial literacy resources to help you get on track financially. Also, make sure your investments aren’t based on emotions and find out how to cut back on unnecessary holiday spending.