Money story: My no-shopping experiment
This guest post from Kamie is the first in the newly-revived “money 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 stages of financial maturity. Today, Kamie shares her resolution to break her shopping habit in 2018.
Two weeks ago, just before Christmas, I found a New York Times article about somebody who went a year without shopping.
“Why would anyone do that?” I thought to myself — but I kept reading. The author had some compelling reasons for her experiment:
- It made her more mindful of her “wants”.
- It forced her to use things she already owned.
- It helped her appreciate the things she had — and the things she was given.
- And, surprisingly, it freed up tons of her time.
I read the article, thought it was interesting, and went on with my day. Later that evening, though, I started thinking about the article again. I thought about how much I shop and how much time and effort I put into it. Could I possibly go a year with no shopping?
You see, I worked in high-end retail for a very long time. I went to school for fashion merchandising and was in retail management as soon as I graduated. Everything in my life revolved around fashion and shopping! Working at Nordstrom was my greatest success and worst punishment both at the same time.
As you can see, I learned to shop with the best of them. And shopping became an outlet for me.
Today, I'm 44 with two teenage boys, an amazing husband, and two dogs. I work for our family business, so I'm not exposed to the retail environment on a constant basis. But I still shop — a lot!
Honestly, I love shopping. Shopping makes me happy. It's fun to have new pretty things, whether it's clothes, shoes, accessories (for me or the house), makeup, furniture, or even a new car. You know: anything.
Now, let me tell you, our family isn't rich by any means. We have to budget just like everyone else. Sometimes it sucks. But we're trying to teach our boys (and each other) what it means to save money, even if we're not the best at it.
In reading the New York Times article, I could relate to much of what the author said. Shopping made her happy too, but she decided there were enough benefits to a year without shopping that she wanted to give it a try. I decided that maybe I wanted to give it a try.
When I told my husband about the idea, he looked at me and smiled. He told me that he'd be incredibly proud of me if I could actually do a year without shopping. Because he and I are very competitive, we love to challenge each other. I gave it some more thought and realized that this was a challenge I wanted to accept.
I keep asking myself, “Can I really do this? It's going to be so hard!”
But my answer to myself — for myself — is, “Yes, I can do this.”
First, I had to decide when I was going to actually start this crazy challenge. Since the new year was fast approaching, January 1st seemed sensible. I could make the challenge a New Year's resolution. This sounded great — until I realized that this would give me an opportunity to go on one last shopping spree. That seemed counter-productive — the complete opposite of what this challenge is supposed to be about.
Instead, I decided to start on December 26th, the day after Christmas.
J.D.'s note: This is a smart move on Kamie's part. As a guy who has done tons of these sorts of things in the past, I've learned that as convenient as it might seem to start on a specific day — January 1st, your birthday, your anniversary, whatever — waiting often leads to failure. You have one last blow-out before the big start, then that makes you feel lousy and you don't follow through on your commitment. Once you decide to take on a challenge, it's much better to start immediately rather than wait for a specific date. Any time I've been successful at getting fit, writing more, or cutting back on alcohol, it's because I've started now — not tomorrow.
Now that I had the when, I needed a plan to keep myself committed to this challenge for an entire year. How can I keep myself preoccupied so that I'm not tempted to shop every day?
To start, I had to decide what qualifies as shopping. This was hard. Until you do something like this, you don't realize how many things you purchase every day.
I made four lists.
First, I made a list of things that are not necessities or that I have to much of already. These include:
- Clothing, accessories, makeup, shoes.
- Electronics and gadgets, including phones.
- Furniture and home accessories. (This one is tough. Don't laugh, but I love to buy candles!)
- Starbucks. Normally, I spend a lot at Starbucks. But for this experiment, I've promised myself not to go to Starbucks unless I'm traveling for work. (Honestly, I'm not sure how I'll do on this one.)
Next, I had made a list of stores I had to keep away from. Much like J.D. wouldn't allow himself to go into comic book stores when he was getting out of debt, in order to succeed at this challenge I need to keep away from:
- Department stores
- “One-stop shopping” stores. I should only go to actual grocery stores so that I'm not sidetracked by other shopping opportunities.
I also made a list of things to do for when I get the shopping bug. Instead of shopping, I can:
- Exercise: go to the gym, go for a run, do sit-ups.
- Clean the house.
- Organize a cupboard — or four.
- Reorganize my clothes closet.
- Call a friend.
- Bake or cook.
- Remind myself why I'm undertaking this challenge. Maybe write down what I'm thinking and feeling.
Finally, I sat down to make a list of things that I can buy, which was much more difficult. There are obvious things that are okay, such as groceries and toiletries. Plus, gas and maintenance on vehicles. Once I started trying to think of things that were necessary, I realized just how much stuff I don't need. I guess that's a good thing.
After making my plan, I put it into action.
I started with my email. I don't know about you, but I get tons of messages from stores, membership clubs, and other forms of advertising. All of this email is designed to entice me to spend more.
It took some time, but I went through each message and unsubscribed from the mailing list. Honestly, I felt sad unsubscribing to email from certain companies that I love. But I realized that if I didn't do this, I'd just be tempted to shop.
Next, I cancelled my subscription boxes. I'll confess that I had a few. They're so fun to get in the mail! It broke my heart to cancel the FabFitFun box, which was my favorite. I love the feeling when it arrives and I get to open each item individually and fall in love. This might sound silly to some, but if you love to shop, you understand. As much as I hated to cancel FabFitFun, it had to be done. (J.D.'s note: After I visited the FabFitFun page to grab a link, I started being served their ads everywhere I went on the web. You've been warned.)
By the time I finished my quest to sever ties with stores and subscriptions, I was exhausted. I was emotionally drained from not shopping. How does that even happen?
I found myself wandering around, trying to figure out things to do when I wasn’t working. Shopping used to be a hobby for me, an escape, a way to fill the time. Eventually, I found productive ways to use my free time.
Productive Use of Free Time
One of the things I did was clean out our cupboards and drawers. As I did this, I realized just how much stuff we obtain over time. By the third day, I had three garbage bags full of junk and garbage. I also found items that were brand new that had never been used. I realize that is not okay, but that's how it is.
For some of these things, I created a “present box”. This is a box with all of these things I have never used but are actually pretty cool. I can give them as gifts in the future. (I guess this sounds like re-gifting, but I actually purchased these items a while back for myself.) This helps me in a couple of ways:
- First, I'm getting rid of unused clutter.
- Second, I won't have to violate my “no shopping” goal by buying gifts.
I hope to have every drawer cleaned out by spring or earlier!
Next, I had to figure out what to do when I was out of the house. As I said, normally I would go shopping. Instead, I've been substituting the gym.
I'll admit, the gym is an added expense, but I already have an existing membership, so why not use it? If you were doing a no-shopping experiment, this might violate your definition “shopping”. For myself, I've decided this is within my rules. Going to the gym has proven to be a very logical and healthy decision. It gives me somewhere to put my extra energy and get out of the house at the same time. I'm loving the exercise. It’s a great way to stay focused!
But here's the big question: Have I purchased anything?
Unfortunately, people make mistakes. Yes, I goofed up. I bought a song off iTunes. No big deal, right? Wrong! I realized right after I had done it that it wasn't a necessity. It was a habit! You don’t realize just how many little habits you have when you are trying to be achieve something. [J.D.'s note: I have an iTunes habit too. It's something I'm working on.]
I was really bummed when I realized that buying songs from iTunes would violate my “no shopping” rule. I love to get new music! To fight this, I took time to make some new playlists out of the music I already have. This way, it sounds new to me! (Secretly, I’m crossing my fingers that my husband will buy music and I can steal it because we have a joint account! Is that cheating?)
As I mentioned in my first installment, one big issue I'll have this year is Starbucks. Normally, I spend a lot at Starbucks. And I'll confess that I've bought coffee there a couple of times this year. I have cut down a lot, no doubt, and I'm trying to steer clear…but it's difficult.
To fight my Starbucks habit, I've started taking coffee with me from home in the morning. I've also made sure that I have everything I need to make coffee and tea at work.
These changes have had some unexpected side effects. Not only am I saving money, but I'm also saving time, especially since I'm no longer driving to Starbucks on my breaks. Plus, I've started bring my lunch to work too. I'm saving time and money two ways with this plan.
I don't think I've licked my Starbucks habit yet, but I'm making progress.
Revising My Rules
Next, I decided to update my list of what I can purchase. When doing something like this, you have to decide what's important and a necessity for you. Everyone is different. Something that's necessary to me might not be necessary for you. Over the past month, I've had to re-evaluate my own definitions.
For example, I added hair products and face creams to my list of acceptable items — but only when I run out completely. (No shopping for the sake of shopping!) Healthy hair and skin are important to me, a part of basic hygiene. I don't think buying personal care products counts as “shopping” as long as you're not over-indulging.
This is a fine line, right? I really had to think about this one and break it down in my mind. But I've found that setting limits on when and how often I can purchase items has helped immensely.
When Free Isn't Free
I had my next realization while watching TV one night.
A commercial came on with two women who were talking about earning cash back from shopping. “That makes sense,” I thought. “It's like getting a gift with your purchase. You're getting something for free.”
Then it hit me. It's like my husband is always trying to tell me: “If you're spending more money in order to get something for free, then it's not free. You've just spent another $50.”
The same thing was happening in the commercial. The women were spending more money to get more money back…but it was only like two percent. “Why would they do that?” I thought. “It makes no sense.”
But the most exciting thing that's happened since I started this no-shopping experiment is the support I've received from my family and friends. (Full disclosure: J.D. is my brother-in-law.)
In fact, my mom is now doing this challenge with me! Having somebody to do this with actually makes it fun. I don't feel like I'm on my own, struggling with the ups and downs.
The first few weeks of this have been interesting. Despite a couple of slips, I'm determined to keep going. I'm learning to be logical about how to accomplish my goals. Plus, I'm saving money and time too! But the best thing is having my mom and husband on board. We'll see how it goes from here…
Have you ever participated in a no-spend challenge? What rules did you give yourself? How long did it last? How well did you do? Do you have any advice for others who might want to try this?