I used to think saving money was like going on a restrictive diet. Everywhere you looked, you saw things you couldn’t have. It was like sitting outside of a bakery for lunch, surrounded by the enticing smells of cupcakes and fruit pies and pastries smothered in chocolate… only to open your lunchbox and find a plain, bone-dry salad. You’d feel deprived. Furious, really. Why shouldn’t I be able to indulge? I work hard. I deserve to treat myself. What’s wrong with a little self-care every now and then?
The answer to that is: nothing. There’s nothing wrong with buying yourself treats and pick-me-ups occasionally. The problems start when our indulgences become so automatic, our purchases so quick and thoughtless, that aside from a brief flutter of excitement as we open an Amazon package or smell that new clothes smell or take that first sip or bite…we don’t come out the other end any happier or satisfied or fulfilled. Instead, we almost immediately start searching for the next fix and the next one and the next.
In my twenties, I didn’t consider myself frugal, but I didn’t think of myself as a spendthrift either. But if I compare my credit card statements from then and now (age 31), my monthly balances are less than half of what they once were (accounting for changes in my family). This is not because I live like a monk or some kind of extreme minimalist. This is simply because I make the effort to stay conscious of what needs I am trying to fill every time I reach for my credit card.
- Most Deals are Not Good Deals
OK, so we’ve all fallen for this one. You step into a store or load up your favorite website to see those words flashing in bright, neon colors, “BUY ONE GET ONE 50% OFF.” You’ve just gotta click or walk over. After all, it’s a great offer! So you check out whatever it is, usually something basic that comes in lots of colors, like classic t-shirts or leggings or lipsticks. You load them into your cart and continue shopping around. If you’re online, a message might pop up to remind you that if you add one more item, you qualify for free shipping! Great! You pick out something else that seems up your alley and type in the credit card deets. Bam. You’ve just spent $50 or 100 or more on things you had no intention of purchasing in the first place. What’s worse… you probably have dozens of nearly identical items in your drawers at home already.
Unless the deal is for something you were already intending to buy, BOGO offers cost much more than they’re worth. The second BOGO item is not “free” if you never really wanted the first one to begin with.
2. There Will Always Be Good Stuff to Buy
Imagine this: you’re shopping one day and come across a jacket that’s totally cool and trendy. With some jeans, a pare of boots and some layered necklaces, this will look so good, you think, imagining yourself sashaying in it through the door to your next Tinder date. You slip on the jacket and close it up to find…it’s just a smidge too tight. No matter how much you suck in, you just can’t quite zip it up all the way. That’s OK, you think, I’ll just wear it open anyway. I’ll be a few pounds lighter in the next couple weeks so it’ll fit me perfectly then.
STOP. Put a halt to this kind of thinking. You may lose weight or you may not. You may lose weight and the jacket still doesn’t fit right. It doesn’t matter. Buy clothes that look spectacular on you now, exactly as you are. If it was an online purchase, put it back in the bag and attach the return label immediately. But I need a jacket like this and I haven’t seen a better one around! I’ll just keep it and- There are better ones around. There are nearly endless opportunities to buy every type of thing. The only role that this specific jacket will fill is becoming best friends with a dusty hangar in the back of your closet.
3. Give Yourself a Cooling-Off Period
In recent years, the world of sales and marketing has developed to a level that is scarily effective. We all know this. But no matter how much you know or how smart you are, none of us can fully resist it. This is because these techniques work on our most innate psychology. Whether its the science of colors, smells, and sound, the specific floor plan of the store, the way the shelves are arranged, or the way that web-based algorithms have fine-tuned advertisements to completely match our hobbies, interests and moods (see the recent documentary, “The Social Dilemma”), advertising will always get you, one way or another.
The only way that we can protect ourselves from this constant brain barrage… is to completely remove ourselves from triggering environments altogether. That means walking out of the store. Closing the tab. Stepping away from the computer. Give yourself time away from that thing you feel yourself hungering for. My goal is at least 24 hours.
In my experience, the percentage of time that I’ve gone back for an item after cooling off because I really couldn’t live without it… is about 5%.
4. Always Start Small
Whether it’s equipment for a new hobby, a new kind of microwave meal, or a new brand of “revolutionary” skincare: always start with the smallest size or lowest quantity of items that you can. You may tell yourself that you’re going to eat quinoa every day for a year when you buy that 20 lb. bag… but what if you don’t like quinoa? What if that brand happens to not be very good? What are you going to do with 19.9 lbs of quinoa!?
Start small, then, if you like it, get more.
Here’s an example with two hobbies of mine: photography and sewing. With photography, I started off with an entry level Canon DSLR. Very basic. A few years after buying it, I still love using it. I’ve learned a lot more about aperture and shutter speed and framing and am probably ready for something more advanced in the near future. But what if I hadn’t liked taking pictures? Enter my sewing machine. Sewing machines range a lot in price, but they can be thousands of dollars. I bought a very simple one for under $100. You know what I haven’t done in the last six months? Any sewing. But that’s OK. I’ll sell it and it won’t end up being a huge loss. Hobbies come and go. But big chunks of savings shouldn’t go with them.
5. Think of Your Purchases in Terms of Hours Worked
If you want an easy way to pull the reins on a potential purchase, all you have to do is think about how many hours you’d need to work to afford it. If you’re not currently working, think about a job you’ve held in the past. Don’t just think about the parts of your job that are easy and fun. Think of the most menial and mind-numbing tasks that you have to do each week. Is yet another sweater or candle worth the labor? You be the judge.
Bonus Tip: No Item Will Give You the Life You Want
When I had my daughter, I quickly learned something about parenting. A lot of the time, you are busy, as in tied to one place, but also not busy, as you’re very often mentally unstimulated. You crave that stimulation, so the first place you go to… is your phone. Here’s a little secret I’d like to share with you. For the first couple months of my daughter’s life, I was not happy. I really struggled, especially as I live in a country that doesn’t have much in the way of postpartum mental health resources. Scrolling idly through social media made things a lot worse. All I saw were images of gorgeous women in flowy dresses and perfectly styled hair, walking through fields with infants cradled in floral-print slings. I saw perfect nurseries with cleanly designed, neutral furniture. I peeked into closets filled with muted colors: blush, sage, mustard …and of course a bow for every outfit. Some part of my brain connected that with happiness. My brain saw the effervescent smiles of those families… and those lovely, bespoke items…and made a powerful connection. Of course, I wanted all of it.
But really, I just wanted to be happy again. I just wanted to enjoy having a daughter the way you’re supposed to. In the effortless, laid-back way that everyone seemed to be capable of. But what I really needed was time and healing. And the knowledge that parenting is not always easy and beautiful for anyone, no matter how things may appear to the outside world.
Most of the things I ended up buying…ended up not making a single difference in our lives. So many clothes were barely worn. So many toys were left untouched. It’s easy to justify excessive spending on your child, because it’s not for you, it’s for them. And so much advertising these days harnesses the pressures of having to buy the right products, because everything else is seemingly filled with poison and chemicals and danger. But it’s important to do research, read reviews, shop second-hand and realize that no product will bring you any closer to the picture-perfect image of how a family should be.
Social media makes us think that we’re always just one perfect crop top away from finding love or a vibrant shade of eyeshadow away from confidence in our careers or one plant-derived moisturizer away from model-perfect skin. What’s more insidious is that now, more than any time in the past, the happy smiles of ads are connected to people that feel close and relatable and REAL. But it’s not real. It’s still just advertising, plain and simple.
Desperately trying to keep up won’t make you happy. Neither will stuff. All the tools to make you happy are within you. Or, you know, in therapy. Which isn’t cheap. But at least it works better than a face mask made of charcoal. And if it works, it’s worth every penny.