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Confessions of a Shopaholic: 4 Brain Chemicals That Cause Impulse Buys

By Lauren Szeto

In our mission to expand financial education and make the world smarter at spending, we present to you the first blog in our Money on your mind series. This will help you understand why money matters and how the brain influences your spending habits.

Don’t lie – we’ve all been standing in the store debating whether or not to buy that cool, new sneaker on sale. Even if you weren’t the one making the purchase, I’m certain you can picture the shop-a-holic in your life, whether that’s your sister, father, or friend. Yet, lots of people share the dilemma of saving or spending money, which is one that affects your life more than you would expect. Your choice is dictated by more than meets the eye: the chemicals in your brain. The chemicals listed below (dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and adrenaline) are chemical messengers, or neurotransmitters, that carry signals through the brain and make up your key decision-making factors.

Dopamine and rewards

Even though dopamine’s nickname is the “happy hormone,” its effects on your spending can make you and your bank account sad. Dopamine is released in your brain when you are expecting or anticipating a reward, causing heightened feelings of curiosity and desire.

While this sounds enjoyable, dopamine can actually perpetuate negative habits. From eating ice cream or shopping, the release of dopamine creates a “reward-seeking loop.” This loop is fed from the repeated craving of a dopamine rush, which can lead to serious problems like gambling and drug addiction.

Surprisingly, in instances like buying raffle and lottery tickets where a reward is not guaranteed, the exhilarating sensation of dopamine increases. This is dangerous for your spending, as these exciting purchases will likely be the equivalent of throwing your money away. These risky spending behaviours will cause a rush of dopamine and delight, despite being harmful to your savings. It is important to be aware that your feelings of excitement may cause you to spend more than you should.

Man with credit card and computer

The effect of online shopping: You have a higher chance of spending more than you expect when you shop online versus in-store. Even though online shopping can be convenient, dopamine levels from purchasing online are even higher than purchases made in-store, as waiting for your package to arrive in the mail builds anticipation and spikes dopamine levels in your brain. The rush of receiving your package can cause you to impulse buy more items online than you would have in store.

Thanks to COVID-19, we are all stuck at home with nothing to do but browse enticing sales through online shopping. However, you should watch out, as purchasing items on sale increases dopamine levels, as the unexpected discount makes the reward seem even sweeter. Especially during these times, it is important to evaluate your purchases and determine how much your dopamine might be urging one to make a non-essential purchase.


As many runners know, endorphins are frequently known to relieve pain and create a feeling of well-being and pleasure. As part of the brain’s reward system, the release of endorphins tells the body to begin releasing dopamine. Essentially, you wouldn’t feel dopamine’s feeling of fulfillment or repeated craving of gratification without endorphins.


Shopping and spending money as coping mechanisms.

If you’re having an off day, it might be because you’re lacking serotonin. Serotonin is mostly known for regulating mood and happiness, which actually plays a part in your emotional decision making. Decision-making skills are improved with increased serotonin levels by helping you weigh the possible effects of negative consequences. With slightly less serotonin, you might find risky decisions more appealing.

Let’s look at a real-life example. Sarah Tonen is deciding to buy a luxury car. With normal levels of serotonin, Sarah is able to make a rational decision and is able to control her response by not immediately jumping at the deal she is offered, as she carefully considers the consequences of buying a luxury car. If Sarah did not have healthy serotonin levels, purchasing a flashy new car could be even more appealing, despite the financial implications of the purchase.

Serotonin treatments have been suggested for those who frequently engage in risky behaviours like severe gambling and drug abuse. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to increase serotonin when making casual decisions on purchasing. However, maintaining your health by exercising and eating high protein foods can sustain one’s serotonin levels consistently.


Man skydiving

When one thinks about adrenaline, high thrill activities like skydiving, bungee jumping, and even meeting new people (for the introverts of the world) are activities that commonly come to mind. With a surge of energy and increased heart rate, the rush of adrenaline will always hit you quickly in times of stress and excitement. Adrenaline junkies seek out this brief “high” or a rush of heightened sensations.

Unsurprisingly, many people also experience this rush from buying new items. Especially when finding an incredible sale or valued item, adrenaline from excitement can kick in and cause unnecessary impulse spending. The elation one feels when finding a good deal often pushes them to purchase the item, regardless of whether they were initially looking for it or not. Not only does increased adrenaline come from sales, but also expensive items. The appeal of owning an expensive item can cause one to buy on impulse, similar to what we saw with decisions made on low serotonin. Taking a day before acting on your decision is good practice in determining the necessity of purchasing these items and can prevent careless spending.

How to deal with it and stop spending money:

Overall, dopamine, endorphins, serotonin, and adrenaline work in tandem, causing both consistent and impulse spending behaviours that waste your money. Being aware and taking the time to think carefully about your purchases and spending decisions can help save your money. A great first step is to look at your past purchases and see if there are any consistent patterns you can address.

Good luck on your journey to saving money!

If you are interested in gaining better control of your spending habits Nova is here to help! Nova is a gamified financial app which allows you to connect all your bank accounts, track your bills and control your spending habits. The more money you save, the higher you level up! Are you ready to start your financial journey?

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