How Ending My Shopping Habit Made Me Recognize My Spending Problems

Image: Paramount Pictures

Image: Paramount Pictures

There comes a time in every woman’s life when you must sit back, look at your credit card statement, and reassess your everything about how you spend money. For me, the revelation that I spend entirely too much money on things that I really don’t need came just around the holidays. On gloomy winter days, it just seemed fitting to spend the day inside a department store, where the warm florescent lights buzzed above my head and the makeup counter called my name.

And why not, right? I had a little extra cash and the holiday sales were just so good. 50% off shoes here, an extra 20% there… surely all of this was worth it. Even worse was when I headed for my favorite discount retailers, like DSW — somehow I had deluded myself into thinking that I needed two new pairs of black heels, plus one of the pairs in blue velvet, and then the pair of booties I was coveting, too.

What I apparently forgot about was that when you drop a decent amount of cash on a few pairs of discounted shoes, you are still spending money on shoes.

While I’d like to blame my shopping binge on the excessive consumerism that comes around the holidays, the truth is that this is a recurring pattern for me. I’m notoriously bad at controlling my impulses — of the buying variety, at least. Online shopping is the worst — particularly when there’s a supposedly great sale going on. You have no idea how many times I have dropped $50 on a few dresses, thinking that I got a made out like a sale shopping bandit, only to realize that I completely hate the dresses once they arrive in the mail (if they fit at all, that is.) Oh, and surprise! The stuff you order on super clearance is rarely refundable.

I’m making my way into adulthood and I really, really want to take control of my finances. It’s not that I’m completely irresponsible and spending beyond my means, but that doesn’t mean that the money I spend can’t go to a better place. Sure, maybe I can afford the pair of shoes I have been lusting after, but at what cost? Ultimately I know it’s more important to throw more money into my savings account — an account that I really need to buff up if I want to have financial security in the future.

So, under the encouragement of nearly everyone that I know, I decided to go on a shopping freeze. That means no more new stuff — or, rather, new stuff that I don’t need. I know that I have enough shoes and clothes to last me a long time. In fact, I have way, way too many clothes. There’s no reason that a person with the ability to clean her clothes needs to have so much stuff. I know that, logically, I’ve become a bit of a cog in the consumerism machine by giving in to my shopping habit, and I think it might be nice to see what life is like when I take myself out of it.

All of this was going fairly smoothly until I hit the Victoria’s Secret Semi-Annual sale.

Like I said, I’m impulsive. I had convinced myself that I needed lounging sweats and two new bras and also a V-neck tee shirt because I didn’t have any V-neck tees. I cracked my own self-made pact for loungewear. The price? Just about $50. A steal.

Normally, I would be thrilled by the concept of getting such a great sale. This time was different. I am keeping the clothes (I’m 99% sure they aren’t refundable) but the experience did make me realize that this shopping freeze is going to take a lot more discipline than I had geared up for. And it’s time that I took it seriously.

If it’s really important for me to save money, then I need to stop slipping up whenever I see a sale or a really gorgeous top. I’m not made of money, and what I spend it on reflects my priorities. It makes me a little sick to think that I am okay with throwing around money to satisfy my immediate impulses. I don’t want to be that person. If I continue on the path I’m down right now, I know that I’ll buy another pair of cute shoes or a dress that I’ll like even better than the one I bought before it. As much as I hate to admit it, I feel guilty for being so wasteful.

When I think of my shopping freeze this way, it makes me realize that, hard as it is, this freeze is worth it. Yes, I still get a bit of a rush whenever I see a red tag sale, or when I see that the spies over at Google have strategically placed ads for sales at Sephora in my browser. Truthfully, I do think that I’m missing a “chip” that controls some of my impulses (it’s why I really, really don’t want to get involved in gambling, as silly as that sounds). but it’s no longer an excuse — it just means that I need to make a more conscious effort to be financially responsible.

The shopping freeze is basically a way to force myself to look at my priorities. I know that I want to be financially independent and secure. I know that I want to feel in control of myself. And, yes, I still want to be able to live life to the fullest. That’s why, rather than spending money on material things, I’m going to spend any “fun” money that I put away into experiences that matter to me — experiences that I can share with friends and family and feel good about after they are over. I’d much rather grab dinner with friends and be able to laugh and talk than spend the extra money I make deep in an eBay bidding war over a pair of Michael Kors sandals (I lost, thank God).

The world keeps telling us to buy, buy, buy. I think I’m excited to finally say “No, thanks.”

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    • JennyWren

      Hmmm. I have no idea how old you are Kaitlin (and of course it’s not really my business), but you sound an awful lot like I was when I was younger. I don’t mean to sound patronizing, I just think you should maybe ease up on yourself (emotionally) because this kind of stuff does take a while to work out, and it really did take me a long time to get the saving bug, or to truly accept the idea that it was better to invest in quality over quantity and all that stuff.
      Things I have found useful:
      1. Have a saving goal in mind. If you don’t have any particular reason to save because you’re making enough to cover rent and groceries, it’s hard to see why you should save at all. On the other hand, if you think of those $25 pumps as taking $25 away from your vacation fund, they lose their appeal a bit.
      2. When you do go shopping, allot yourself a reasonable spending amount, and take that in cash. Cards are more convenient but it’s too easy to lose track of what you’re paying.
      3. Allow yourself a small “treat” every now and then to take the edge off. I give myself $10 out my weekly food budget to spend on something I like but don’t need- like great cheese, or a nice bottle of wine. Also, the $5 panties from Target- they’re cheerful and give me a quick spending hit without too much damage.

      • Kaitlin Reilly

        Not patronizing at all — these are great tips!

    • Lindsey Conklin

      I can relate to this, although I’ve actually gotten a lot better. (drunkenly online shopping is dangerous). I just recently returned my third purchase from RueLaLa and I’ve banned myself from buying clothes for the next few months because I DONT NEED ANY. Shopping freeze…we can do it!

      • Kaitlin Reilly

        Haha if I start shopping late at night or after I’ve been drinking a bit it’s definitely a problem. Will power goes right out the window. There are definitely apps you can get to block this, maybe I’ll try them out.

    • Natalie

      My new years resolution was to get control of my finances and not be afraid of opening my student loan bills/be realistic about what I am buying. I totally feel you about the VS Semi-annual sale. I actually have avoided whole neighborhoods based on not wanting to pass the store and other stories. It’s tough, but I feel so much better knowing the 50 bucks I didn’t spend there can go towards loan principle. Plus, I have about 8 perfectly good bras which is too much as it is. What has been super tough for me is the stupid little purchases I make day-to-day. Like random snacks, expensive teas, and expensive shampoo I don’t need.

      • Kaitlin Reilly

        I think that will be harder than clothes, just cutting back on snacks and things that fall under necessities like shampoo.

      • Natalie

        My problem is I live right next to a CVS, so every day I go in, buy something stupid and then nailpolish, then mascara, then more chapstick, and next thing you know its 30 dollars on shit I don’t need. Need to avoid, avoid, avoid!

    • C

      Thanks for writing this, and interesting reading the comments below. I have this problem too, it started in college and the stakes have gone up since I started working. I buy a lot of stuff online and return them, usually there is free return shipping or I return in stores. Sometimes I get everything returned after a certain period of time and feel good that I didn’t “actually” spend that much, but then the buying/returning cycle starts again. I don’t even have enough occasions to wear everything I have! It is very difficult to stop, for me I think the rush I get from purchasing something is now something I’ve gotten used to. I feel more excited anticipating the new purchase than when it actually comes (also why I prefer to shop online).

      I think I need to first stop making it a habit, and second to find something else more lasting/meaningful to give me that rush. Also, if I buy I try to buy higher quality items so there is less regret later, and only frequent a few stores that I know have good stuff. I appreciate you writing a piece like this because usually blogs/magazines/ads/most media just want us to buy more things. Just my two cents.

    • Futuralon Futuralon

      A few tips: clean out your inbox and unsubscribe from mailers. If no one tells you about a sale, you can’t come up with an excuse to spend on it. Get ad block plus and be ruthless about blocking advertising. Skip sites that have too high of an ad to content ratio, for instance popsugar. Skip sites that emphasize consumerism altogether (celebrity, makeup/fashion blogs, pinterest, etc) and read the news instead.
      I suggest you stop watching TV or at minimum always fast forward the commercials. I had no idea the VS semi annual sale just happened because I never saw an ad. Maybe I would have known if I ever went to the mall. So consider not going to the mall or your big spend hangouts (amazon!). Not to eat, not to get shampoo, nothing that’s not seriously important, like passport photos.
      Finally here’s a tip for all the clothes clogging up your wardrobe. Go through everything you own and pull out everything that fits funny. Get it all tailored to fit or get rid of it. You can do tailoring smart too – if there’s a bunch of sleeve and hem shortening, do them all at once. If you have lots of dresses where the tops are hideous, ditch the top half and turn them all into skirts. If the skirts are too small, turn into a top. If there’s just one minor adjustment, like strap length or some bagginess, it’s salvageable. Don’t feel like you have to save everything, you can’t polish a turd. If you were to learn how to do hemming and adding an elastic waistband, you’d save a grip.

      • Kaitlin Reilly

        I definitely need to clear my inbox of e-mail subscriptions, I get a TON of e-mails for sales. The ad block is a good idea.
        I haven’t watched a commercial in years thanks to my DVR and Hulu (which the exception of several shows I must watch live) but I could never give up television. Or Pinterest. Though I totally see your point that they basically want you to buy everything.
        Good advice about tailoring — makes you look pulled together in clothes.

    • Anne Marie Hawkins

      Clear the cookies in your web browser. My job is to make the same kind of ads that follow you around, and if you delete all your cookies, you become invisible to us until you go to their websites again. But before you do, unsubscribe to consumer brand mailers and unlike them on Facebook, because those are also ways retailers slip cookies to you.

    • Lewis Bob

      This happened to me after I got my first job out of college. I was insatiable with my shopping for stuff I did not need or ended up in my closet with tags. The way I got through this was to think about how much I was spending and relate it to how many hours I had to work to get it. Since I hated my job it eventually broke my bad habits. that item that cost $50 would have meant I would have had to spend Over 2hours at a place I hated.