Impulse buys a poor choice for students

By By Spencer Merrick and By Spencer Merrick

By Spencer Merrick

Each year, corporations spend millions of dollars researching new ways to get consumers to think they want something they don’t, and then buy it with money they don’t have. A lot is invested in “impulse buying.” As patronizing as it might be to assume that consumers are capable of spending so much on a whim, it works. It especially works with college students.

Young, unmarried shoppers between the ages of 18 and 25 are nearly twice as likely to buy something on impulse as older, married couples, according to a study done by Paco Underhill, a psychologist and CEO and owner of Envirosell, a market research company. This tendency doesn’t create a very good outcome for college students, who rarely have extra cash to spend. In the case of entry-level college students, habit plays a role.

According to a 2006 national survey of undergraduates by UCLA, our nation’s freshmen come from families with a median income 60 percent higher than the national average. This could account for the difficulties in adjusting to an income that’s 60 percent below. When you come from a family that impulse orders from stores such as The Sharper Image and Brookstone (“It’s a rotating tie rack and a digital camera!”), it can be a rough transition learning to live on a tight budget.

According to a 2001-2002 demographics survey at the U, 30 percent of U students make between $12,000 and $24,000, and only 28 percent make more than $24,000 per year. When you take tuition, fees and living costs into account, the average student is left with $343 in discretionary income per month.

A large portion of this money is spent on fast food, something that can be avoided through careful planning and good grocery shopping. Another chunk of this money is spent on electronics and entertainment.

Students living on a tight budget might choose cheaper alternatives to entertainment, such as renting a movie instead of seeing one in the theaters, but are often thwarted in those efforts. The checkout line at Blockbuster, for instance, snakes you through rows of intensely overpriced candy and movie knickknacks, strategically leaving only one employee to run the store so you have to crawl through the line at a snail’s pace. By the time you get to the checkout, not only are you renting a movie, but you’re also buying three pounds of chocolate raisins and a gummy “Lord of the Rings” character.

Stores at or near the U tend to stretch this marketing technique to its fullest potential. The University Campus Store is a perfect example. After successfully making my way to the cash register without picking up any of the doodads promising to make note-taking easier, I had an excruciating mental argument with the flexible cord-wrapping accessory sitting on the counter at checkout. I thought, “No, I will not buy you!”

But it charmingly replied, “Come on, man. I’m only five bucks, I wrap stuff, and I’m neon green.” I lost the argument, as is evidenced by the neon green who-knows-what taking up space in my glove box.

Barnes & Noble has this down to an art. Its checkout line is exploding with useless nonsense, from mini bonsai trees to tarot cards to Newton’s cradles. Worse, it’s all at just that price where you don’t feel guilty buying it. That is, until you look at your bank statement and see that you’ve already bought three of those damn mini bonsai within a month.

Textbooks, overdue parking tickets and tuition are enough to burn a hole through anyone’s wallet. So for a group that complains so much about being poor, college students can’t afford to be the spenders that statistics prove they are. As corporations capitalize on our spending habits, we should exercise a little more self-control, cut up a credit card or two, plan meals better and create a weekly budget to limit buying on impulse.

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Spencer Merrick