The American habit of impulse buying

Nowhere may America's consumer culture be more evident than in the peculiar act of impulse buying.

Americans love to make snap decisions when they're shopping, and, to a lesser extent, browsing in online retailers. Often, these unplanned purchases aren't even for small items, given that a new study from CreditCards.com has found that one out of five Americans report having spent more than $1,000 on an impulse buy.

Smaller impulse buys are fairly universal, with the study finding that 84 percent of Americans say they've indulged. Still, given that grabbing a candy bar at the checkout counter when it's not on the shopping list can count as an impulse buy, it may seem surprising that the number isn't even higher. While a small purchase won't break the bank, larger unplanned expenses can signal trouble for personal budgets, said CreditCards.com senior industry analyst Matt Schulz.

"It definitely surprised us how much people were spending on some of these impulse purchases," Schulz said. "If you are spending $1,000 or more on an impulse purchase, that's significant."

Americans may simply love the thrill of impulse buying. Given that most purchases took place in stores -- and not through online shops -- it seems to indicate that the immediate gratification of buying something as an unplanned splurge is a habit that shoppers can't kick.

But impulse buying is like being on a diet, Schulz said. It's OK every once in a while to have a piece of cake, but it's important to get back on track, he noted.

Interestingly, Americans are also reporting feeling financially strapped, with two-thirds of Americans saying they can't handle an unexpected $500 car repair or a $1,000 emergency room bill. That study, from Bankrate.com, indicated that many households aren't prepared for a financial shock. But too many splurges may be putting some families on a path for financial disaster, especially if an unexpected expense hits at the same time.

In terms of holiday spending, the study found that Americans were relatively frugal when it came to shelling out for unplanned purchases. During the past three months, more than half of Americans said they spent at least $100 on an impulse purchase, while the most common amount for such purchases over the holidays was less than $25, Schulz said.

"There is still a little bit of nervousness out there that's affecting people's spending," he said. "Even though the jobless numbers are lower and the economy is better than a few years ago, you still get the feeling that people are a little nervous about things."

Millennials were the most likely to buy on impulse for themselves, while 30-to-49-year-olds were the most likely to make an unplanned purchase for a child. Senior citizens were most likely to make an impulse purchase for their spouse or partner, the study found.