Monday, October 26, 2015

Breaking the Impulse Shopping Habit


It's easy for me to fall into bad shopping habits. Before I cared about money, I simply bought whatever I wanted when I wanted it, and the neural pathways are strong. Here was/is my terrible process:
  1. Idea. I think of something I vaguely want, either because of actual need ("I need a winter coat"); perceived need ("What I need is a way to listen to podcasts hands-free while I'm kneading dough"); saw something that looked cool ("I NEED that beret that Lorelai Gilmore is wearing") etc.
  2. Browse. Telling myself I'm "just looking" and "won't necessarily buy something now," I begin idly shopping on Amazon and other sites.
  3. Revise the idea. As I browse, I often become convinced that I want something more grand (and expensive) than I originally thought.
  4. Throw on some more stuff. Might as well add more stuff to my shopping cart while I'm at it--impulse purchases I saw on the site, other things I've wanted recently, bullshit to get up to minimum shipping costs or qualify for a deal, etc.
  5. Buy. I know I said I wouldn't buy right now, but I've gone to the trouble of building this great cart, and the deal is going to expire tomorrow, so.... BUY!!!
This process is a recipe for spending more than I need or intend. It's mindless, impulsive, and heavily influenced by forces, such as advertising and store design, intentionally designed to make me spend more.

Over the years, I've tried various methods to break the cycle and shake things up, with varying levels of success.

100% Shopping Tax

One of my earliest attempts to harness my desire to shop into something more constructive was a self-imposed 100% shopping tax. For every dollar I spent on shopping, I had to set aside a dollar in savings. This not only forced me to save, but effectively doubled the cost of all items, making me think twice about seemingly minor purchases.

Effectiveness: Low. Although this plan seems clever, it requires a fairly high level of bookkeeping which is hard to maintain. I fell off the wagon quite quickly, because at the time, I really wasn't in the habit of (or interested in) doing a lot of futzing with my money. 

The problem is that this plan required futzing, but it also only makes sense if you're not, by nature, a budget-futzer. It assumes that you budget by accounts, keeping a pool of unassigned, potentially spendable money in your checking account and a pool of money earmarked for savings in your savings account. Then, each time you spend out of your checking account, you move an equivalent amount of money into your savings account. But that's not the way I work anymore. I budget with YNAB now. The central tenet of that methodology is "Every dollar has a job," so there is no pool of unassigned money. I designate certain amounts for spending on needs and wants ahead of time; any money I don't plan to spend is assigned to my savings goal categories. Therefore, if I spend more than I planned, that's money that I have to take out of savings categories--it's less money I can assign to savings, not more. 

That said, I think this plan might work for a non-budgeter if there were a way to completely automate it.

Anti-shopping Mantras

There are times when I'm so fired up with anti-consumerist rage that I can't imagine ever wanting to buy things. I once created a document where I wrote down all the mantras and slogans that resonated with me: 
  • You already have everything you need and want.
  • Tread lightly on the earth.
  • Do you have an end-of-life plan for this item? Plastic lives forever.
  • Think about what has to happen to get this item to you: Earth's precious resources, sweatshops, Amazon fulfillment centers, shipping fuel...
  • You don't need it. 
  • You can do without it. 
  • Advertisers just WANT you to think that you want it.
  • If someone offered you the item in one hand or the money in the other, which would you take? The money, right? Take the money. 
  • Don't you want your FREEDOM more?
The idea was, when I wanted to shop, I'd just look at this document instead.

Effectiveness: Low. All of the mantras were true, but when I wanted to shop, I sure didn't consult the document! I didn't want to hear that stuff when I was in a pro-shopping mood. I tried pasting some of the slogans into my shopping list, but I just scrolled past them. 

The thing is that most of these mantras attack "just for fun" spending and hardly any of my spending is purely for fun. I do find it fun to shop, but there are logical reasons for most of the things I buy. Reading "You have everything you want and need" is not helpful when I'm planning the purchase of, say, a new bath mat. Yeah, maybe I don't technically need to own a bath mat but this is not the place I'm going to draw the line, you know? Reading the mantras when I'm just trying to accomplish a small, reasonable goal--improving the home a little for my family, looking professional at work, etc.--makes me feel attacked.

Shopping Ban

I've been very inspired by Blonde on a Budget's yearlong shopping ban. Sometimes I think it would easier for me to plan a year or even a month where I just don't buy anything new at all. After all, a simple rule of thumb (just buy nothing, dummy) is easier to remember and follow than a complex one (you can only buy if, if, if...) 

Effectiveness: Unclear, because I've never managed to actually do it. I get as far as the planning stages and it just starts to seem far too draconian. Both September and October were planned to be no-shopping months but both times I got to day one and I was like "Noooope." I think it's because I'm too contrarian. Austerity measures make me want to act out. 

Buy With Intention List

Currently, this is my most effective strategy (I get into it more in a later post). Essentially it's a basic wish list. I like calling it a "Buy With Intention" list because it doesn't necessarily cast my planned purchases as "wishes"; it seems more neutral. These are just things I plan to buy, and I only plan to buy things intentionally, and not on impulse. I'm admitting to myself the truth that I've revealed through my non-shopping-ban behavior: that I'm okay with buying stuff as long as it's in the budget and it's for the right reasons. 

The list is great because it's simple and easy to use, and it subtly interrupts the place where my previous process went wrong: between steps one and two. Instead of idea->shop, it inserts a thinking and cooldown stage between the moment of highest desire (when I first realize/decide I want something) and the moment of actual purchase. Here's my new process:
  1. Idea. I think of something I vaguely want.
  2. List. I open up my list and write down the item, including any notes on particular attributes.
  3. Wait. I step away from the list and live my life. The more time I take for this step, the better this process works. 
  4. Revise the idea. At some point, either because I'm planning a visit to a store or because I still just really want the item, I revisit the list. After some time to think, I often update my original idea. Maybe there's a different item altogether that would serve my needs better. Maybe I don't need it at all! Or maybe I just want it in a different color than I originally thought. Either way, because I still haven't started shopping, my revisions are influenced as little as possible by stores and advertising, and as much as possibly by my actual needs, desires, and lifestyle.
  5. Shop. Once I've had time to think it over and I'm confident that I want a particular item, and I have detailed notes about what attributes to look for, I can set about finding exactly what I want. I use the list as a guide to make sure the item I'm considering meets the needs I've set down. 
  6. Buy (or not). I either find exactly what I want for a price I'm willing to pay and I buy it, or I don't and I buy nothing for now. 
Effectiveness: Highly promising! I've committed to using the list for the last 2-3 months, and I feel like I'm really seeing results. I still make off-list impulse purchases from time to time, but I often regret it. It feels like instant gratification, but it's less satisfying in the end, because the things I buy using the list usually suit my needs better. An unexpected benefit is that I'm more apt to stop shopping for an item once I've removed it from the list, whereas before I would often continue shopping for items I'd already bought! Now I'm more aware and purposeful about each individual purchase and the need it's meant to satisfy. And that's the whole point of the list--not to stop buying, but to Buy With Intention. 

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