This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.
It seems contradictory, but I love being frugal and I also love spending money. Over the last few years, however, my love of frugality has outweighed my love of spending — and it’s been good for my savings.
Yes, it’s OK to spend money sometimes. If you have it, and you’re comfortable with your present and future finances, by all means, spend away. But a lot of us, including myself, spend when we shouldn’t spend. It’s to be expected, I think, in our consumer culture. I can’t walk down my block without being sold something every minute or so, from billboards to petitioners to window sales.
Anyway, a couple of readers requested an article on how to avoid spending sprees. It’s something I’ve been thinking about lately anyway, so this was a great reason to give the subject more thought and put something together.
Identify the root of your spending
We’ll start with the heavy stuff first because I think it helps put the practical tips into perspective. I recently read Lost and Found by Geenen Roth. Roth and her husband lost their savings in the Bernie Madoff scandal, but her book is mostly about her emotional issues with money. In one chapter, Roth describes an obsession with a pair of chic but expensive eyeglasses she desperately wanted to buy. The obsession is symbolic of her relationship with consumption. In an interview with Time, she explains:
“In the same way that we use food for emotional reasons, we use buying things to fill something that we can’t quite name.”
Roth adds that this can lead to “binge-shopping.” This hit home for me, because I used to spend emotionally, especially when I was younger. Learning to let go of my emotional attachments with spending helped me to avoid these binges.
For Roth, Stuff represented love. For me, Stuff represented acceptance. I recall one binge spree in college particularly well because I was making $10 an hour, and I skipped class to buy a bunch of clothes. This is so insensible, I remember thinking, and it was the first time I realized shopping was emotionally symbolic for me. I felt like, if I got a whole new wardrobe, I might be a different and better person. I’d be more self-assured, less neurotic. (It didn’t work.)
A friend recently told me about her own emotional spending. Like Roth, she equated it to love. “So I learned to love myself differently,” she said. Similarly, during one Christmas shopping spree that set me back quite a bit, I realized I also enjoy buying things for other people to let them know I care. I’ve learned to let them know in other ways.
Again, it’s OK to spend. I had a spendy weekend recently, and while it was a little out of control, I don’t think I was trying to fill a void. I was just having fun. It set my savings back a bit, but it wasn’t totally insensible — I didn’t skip any life duties to go shopping; I didn’t charge anything. And Holly recently discussed spending a lot during her vacation. I didn’t feel like she was trying to fill a void either — she was just enjoying her trip.
I think those instances are different from binge-shopping. To continue Holly’s booze metaphor, those instances are like having one too many beers when you’re out with an old friend. Binge-shopping is like drinking for the sole purpose of getting shit-faced to forget your problems.
Of course, for some people, it’s not that complicated — they just like to buy things. But if shopping has become an uncontrollable issue, it might be because it’s filling some emotional void. Identifying the root of your spending can help curb it.
It seems unlikely now, but my dad used to have a spending problem. He got over it, so I thought I’d ask him how. “I power-shopped,” he said, meaning he’d walk around Best Buy, fill his basket up with Stuff and then put it all back. It seems kind of crazy, but it helped him let go of his desire to consume everything.
Reader Erica does the same thing. In her comment, she wrote:
“I find if I walk around with something in my hand in the store, after a while, I’m over it and I can put it back.”
I guess the idea is that, after “owning” something, you realize the product isn’t going to significantly change your life. It loses any appeal and meaning you might have attached to it. You realize it’s just a thing.
Erica did say this doesn’t always work, though, and my dad warned that it takes a lot of discipline. I imagine it can backfire if you’re good at arguing with yourself.
Focus on your goals
This is another thing that worked for my dad, and it also worked for me. Instead of focusing on the things I didn’t have, I focused on my financial goals. I checked my budget daily, read personal finance and frugal living blogs, monitored my goals and watched my net worth rise. The more focused I’ve become with my financial independence, the less obsessed I am with shopping. Yes, I still want things. But I don’t give in as much because giving in gets in the way of my goals.
Because emotional shopping is usually impulsive, waiting helps you decide whether you really want something or you’re just spending to spend. “I’ve gotten to a point of waiting a week or a month or a year,” my dad told me. “And if I still want or think I need it, then so be it, I will get it. But, usually, it turns out that the impulsive thought has passed.”
Avoid shopping with spend-happy friends
I have a friend whom I used to love shopping with. Why? Because he always bought something. This made me feel better about my own spending. If I’m wavering, and I see my friend buying something, I don’t know why, but I’m more apt to give in.
Especially when I feel vulnerable, I just avoid certain stores. Lots of stores trigger my emotional spending and make me feel like I need to own half of their inventory. It makes sense; companies spend a lot of money and put a lot of effort into appealing to our vulnerabilities.
Take a field trip without your wallet
This seems contradictory to the previous tip, but it helped me learn to appreciate things without the need to own them. Visit your favorite store without any money. For me, this squelched instant gratification. Without money or credit cards, you have no way to consume, and you’re forced to just accept products for what they are. This helped me appreciate the aesthetic or usefulness of something without forcing myself into the equation. So instead of representing anything significant, the thing is only a thing. It might be beautiful, it might be cool, but that’s all it is.
Another interesting thing about visiting your favorite store without money is that you also become aware of all of the subtle tricks that convince shoppers to spend — the clever advertising, the strategic store layout, the proportionate mannequins — and hopefully, you’ll remember these subtle tricks during a future temptation.
Make a list of things you already have
It sounds a little obsessive, but to curb my temptation, I used to keep a list on my phone of all of the Stuff I’ve spent money on in the past year. While shopping, I’d get that little voice in my head telling me: Hey! You reeeally don’t need this.
It’s easy to ignore that voice. Something tangible, like a list, is harder to ignore.
Also, if there’s something I want, a list helps me compare it to what I already have. I ask myself, “What is it about this new thing that I like?” Usually, I already own something that possesses those qualities.
It’s easier said than done, I know. But when I’m particularly fed up with my desire for Stuff, I just stop. I think about things in perspective. Overspending — what a problem to have! I think about my mom’s awful stories of growing up in poverty. I think about how spoiled overspending must sound to someone who’s really struggling. And I just don’t do it. Guilt probably isn’t the best tool; but instead of the guilt, if you focus on the abundance you already have, whether it’s family, friends, independence, whatever, it can help stop the urge to spend.
I’ve gotten better, but I still have setbacks. When I’m overwhelmed with work and nothing seems to be going my way, I’m especially susceptible to “retail therapy.” And, again, it’s not bad to want things. But when it gets in the way of your well-being, financial independence or life goals, it’s a nasty problem.