This guest post from Jill Chivers is part of the “reader stories” feature at Get Rich Slowly. Some stories contain general advice; others are examples of how a GRS reader achieved financial success — or failure. These stories feature folks from all levels of financial maturity and with all sorts of incomes.

Hi. My name is Jill, and I’m a recovering shopaholic. On 15 December 2009, I started a challenge to spend a year without clothes shopping. It hasn’t been easy; I have a converted double bedroom as my walk-in wardrobe, and I love clothes. So, why did I decide to take a year off from clothes shopping?

Financial reasons
In 2009, my financial circumstances changed but my spending habits didn’t. I was earning less but not spending less. Tired of earning good money in a lucrative market (I used to be a corporate facilitator and coach), I started an online business in early 2009. Whilst the experience “grew me” in many ways, it didn’t grow my bank account.

In November 2009, in the midst of my financial “bleak house”, I did what many women would do: I went shopping! When I returned from a 10-day trip to San Francisco, I found myself with $900 worth of clothes and accessories that I didn’t need and couldn’t afford. What was I thinking? None of these items were “necessary” — unless one counts a pair of cheetah-print All-Star sneakers as “necessary”. These were all justification purchases: “I have to have it because it’s [insert justification adjective here].”

When I got home to Queensland, Australia, I told myself, “Self, you have a serious shopping problem.” That was tough to admit. Frankly, it seemed a ridiculous problem to have. I felt embarrassed about it. But it was a real problem, and my financial situation forced me to quit ignoring it.

One reason shopping compulsions (or addictions, if we must use that word) aren’t taken seriously is because it seems kinda cute. Shopaholics come home with beautiful cardboard bags, filled with colored tissue paper and objects of desire. There’s oohing and aahing and cooing over the contents of those beautiful cardboard bags with their soft-rope handles.

When a problem like alcohol addiction manifests itself, it doesn’t look (or smell, or sound) so good. You see people throwing up in the ornamental fountain or a motorcycle helmet. Not so with shopping compulsions. And movies like Sex and the City and Confessions of a Shopaholic don’t really help to shed light on how damaging a shopping compulsion can be.

Practical reasons
Most women wear only 20-30% of their wardrobe. A year without clothes shopping gave me a chance to boost those numbers. I wasn’t adding any new pieces to my (already extensive) wardrobe, so to fulfill my yearning for variety, I was forced to reach for things I hadn’t worn for ages. Over the past year, I found myself wearing items that had hung or sat unworn months. You know how sometimes children get so many toys that they can’t play with them all? After a few weeks they “discover” the old toys and it’s almost like having new toys. I found all sorts of new toys in my wardrobe.

Emotional reasons
Women shop for a variety of reasons, many of them emotional. I was talking to two women recently, both of whom hate clothing shopping because they don’t like their bodies and hate seeing themselves in changing-room mirrors. Other women say there’s a lot of guilt associated with spending money on themselves.

For many women, clothes shopping is about more than just the need to cover their nakedness. It’s an attempt to feel acceptable and accepted. We shop to help us feel connected, to help us feel in synch, to fill an emotional hole we may not even understand. We shop to ward off boredom, to create a quick hit of adrenalin that lifts our spirits — temporarily at least.

I now know that I shopped to make myself feel better — to be more visible, to feel attractive, as a way of rewarding myself.

Ethical reasons
With poison dyes, pesticides, and child and slave labour, clothes cost us all more than the money that comes out of our wallets.

The International Labor Organisation estimates that over 200 million children are working in sweatshops earning as little as 25 cents an hour. Sweatshop owners claim their workers have living expenses less than 25 cents a day so hey, they’re doing those children a favor! It’s a tricky point, but no matter where you stand, this issue is receiving more well-deserved attention each day.

There is a growing movement to “buy green” when clothes shopping — and I’m not talking about the color of the clothes. Dyes and pesticides used in clothing production are harmful to the environment, to the workers, and to those who wear the clothes.

This wasn’t a huge motivation for me when I started my challenge, but as I researched more on this topic, it started to feel horribly wasteful to continue to load up an already full wardrobe with “more”.

Creative reasons
Shopping is nearly a sport for many women, me included. I’m great at it. (Well, I used to be. My shopping muscles have atrophied somewhat in my year’s abstinence.) I could have represented Australia in the shopping Olympics, if such a thing existed.

But when you look at the bigger picture, it’s a rather sad state of affairs to consider all that creative energy going into shopping and becoming a better shopper. I learned to use that creative energy for more productive purposes.

What Have I Learned?
As I near the end of my challenge, I have mixed feelings. Am I finishing something life-changing or a self-imposed prison sentence? To help me get a handle on things, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned over the past year. Here’s what I discovered:

  • It’s okay to enjoy shopping and clothes. I learned that the problem wasn’t with the stores — it was with me. Acknowledging that I needed to change my relationship to spending hasn’t changed my love of clothes.
    One of my goals was to “shop my wardrobe”, which meant wearing what I already had instead of turning to shopping. Clothes are fun and can be a form of personal expression. It’s okay to enjoy them — as long as you buy for the right reasons.
  • It’s important to know why you buy. Almost any purchase involves more than just the thing and the money. There’s usually some psychology at play. This project forced me to explore what shopping meant for me, what need it was filling. I can now make better choices. Shopping is no longer a reflex for me; I’m more conscious about what I buy. Sure, I’ll still have to be “on guard” for some time to come, but shopping doesn’t own me anymore.
  • I can use my time, money, and energy in better ways. Shopping takes time: A year off from clothes shopping allowed me to see what else I could be doing if I spent less time spending and more time living. Shopping also takes money: It doesn’t take a financial planner to see that money gave me more options if I didn’t spend it on clothes. And shopping take energy: I was surprised to find that this challenge released allowed me to release my creative energies in areas other than shopping.
  • Do what works for you. When I started this challenge, I didn’t have a conscious relationship with money. It took a few months before I got a handle on what my unconscious shopping was about. During those first few months, I solved the problem by not going anywhere near shops — and certainly not going into them. I avoided temptation. Sure, it’s not a very advanced strategy — it’s more sledgehammer than fine scalpel — but it was effective.
  • The fashion industry’s job is to make you buy clothes. The fashion industry is one of the most profitable in the world because it’s worked out how to sell us Stuff — more Stuff than we need. It uses terms like “Must Haves” to create in consumers a bottomless pit of desire for new things to add to our wardrobes. They tell us what’s in style and use gorgeous models that we want to be like (or sleep with). These messages are all very compelling, and they’re difficult to resist.

Let me conclude with five reasons you might consider a year without clothes shopping:

  • When you take a year without clothes shopping, you learn to make other (better) choices with your money. You save the money you would have spent on clothing, shoes, accessories, and the rest of it. I estimate I saved between $4000 and $6000 this year.
  • A year without clothes shopping may inspire you to clear out the Stuff that’s not paying the rent in your precious wardrobe space. And it may get you wearing what’s already in there. (Most women only wear 20-30% of their wardrobe; you may find yourself wearing closer to 90%.)
  • A year without clothes shopping gives you the opportunity to discover why you buy. I learned about the gap that shopping filled for me, and I learned that I shopped almost unconsciously. I didn’t enjoy owning up to this (and in fact this was the most challenging part of the year for me), but when you’re in search of truth, you gotta take the bad with the good. It sure unhooked me from unconscious shopping.
  • A year without clothes shopping means you stop adding to the triple bottom line cost of clothing production.
  • A year without clothes shopping challenges you to put your brain and body to a better use than being a champion shopper. I’m living more of my life now, rather than spending my life.

You may be wondering if I stuck to the challenge completely. Well…I had one “falling off the wagon” moment at the three-month mark of the challenge (and yes, I did own up to it). You may also be wondering, now what? I don’t plan to have a huge spending spree now that I’ve finished the challenge. If I did that, it’d mean the year was wasted and the challenge had failed. My goal was to change my shopping habits, so going back to the same level of consumption would feel like failure.

My year without clothes shopping has changed me. This challenge forced me to see myself, my wardrobe, and my spending through new eyes. I feel lighter, more empowered, and (strangely) more alive.

Jill is developing a documentary based around what she learned during her year without clothes shopping. She also offers a 12-month online course called Shop Your Wardrobe that helps women create a working and wonderful wardrobe while redefining their approach to consumption. You can learn more about the project by visiting her blog.

Reminder: This is a story from one of your fellow readers. Please be nice. After more than a decade of blogging, I have a thick skin, but it can be scary to put your story out in public for the first time. Remember that this guest author isn’t a professional writer, and is just learning about money like you are. Henceforth, unduly nasty comments on readers stories will be removed or edited.

This article is about Clothing, Reader Stories, Shopping