Paycheck Chronicles

Breaking The Shopping Habit


Shopping for entertainment: it's an interesting hobby, and one that is dangerous to your financial stability.  Breaking this shopping habit could make a huge difference in your entire life.  I'm not exaggerating!

Maybe it is because we have been overseas for so long, or maybe it is my frugal nature, or maybe it is because I'm just plain busy working and raising four kids, but I haven't shopped for fun in years.  Moving back to the US, and having teenagers, I have observed that it seems to be a common thing to go shopping just for the sake of going shopping.  Not because you need something in particular, but as a form of entertainment.

This is a bad idea for two major reasons that are closely related to each other.

The Problem With Shopping For Fun

The problem with shopping for fun is that retailers are very, very smart and they spend a lot of money to figure out how to get you to spend a lot of money.

First, it is human nature to want things.  The more things you see, the more things you'll want.  And the more things you want, the more things you'll buy.  You may tell yourself that you truly need these items, but the reality is that many times they are items that didn't even know existed before you saw them in the store or the catalog or the website.  Every recreational shopping trip, physical or virtual, exposes you to thousands of products.  There is a cumulative effect to the process:  you may see an item numerous times before deciding to the make the purchase, and you may actually convince yourself that it is a necessity.

Second, it is also human nature to value a good deal.  If you're in Home Depot, and you see a fire pit for 80% off, it is easy to convince yourself that you had been looking for a fire pit.  If' your online and Old Navy is selling fleece hoodies for $5, it makes perfect sense that everyone in your family needs a fleece hoodie.

The double-whammy of the shiny-new and the deep discount is hard to resist.  I used to do this all the time.  I'd go to Target to buy an item, but check out the whole store while I was there.  I rarely left without spending $100, even if I just went  to buy socks.  Stores have so many nifty items, and such good sales!  Then, as a joke, I gave up Target one year for the Lenten season.  I didn't stop shopping, I just went to other stores when we needed something.  It wasn't such a joke when we came to the end of the first pay period in Lent and we had a noticeably high balance in our checking account.  I was shocked.  Changing the store choice resulted in significantly lower overall spending.  It was a very educational experience, and I learned a lot about myself and my shopping habits that year.

The Solution

There are many ways to break the habit of shopping for entertainment.  I encourage you to try some of these ideas for a while and see if you notice a difference in your stuff-craving and/or your pocketbook.

Change Your Shopping Spots

As in my example, consider changing the places where you shop if you know that certain stores, catalogs or websites are trouble for you.  If you always spend $300 when you go to Sam's Club, see if you can feed your family without going there. If that's not realistic, brainstorm ways to skirt around the problem. Maybe a family member could do the shopping, or you could go to the store when you have a limited amount of time?  Throw out those beautiful catalogs as soon as they arrive.  Better yet, call the company and ask that your name be removed from the catalog mailing list.

Find Something Else To Do

If you shop because you are bored, find another activity that you enjoy.  Do puzzles, volunteer, learn how to knit, exercise - whatever floats your boat.  It sounds crazy, but money expert Mary Hunt broke her shopping habit by ironing!

If shopping is a social activity that you enjoy with friends, substitute time at the mall with meals shared at home, fun exercise, board games, or a book club.

Deal With The Things You Already Have

Nothing kills the desire to shop more than dealing with just how much stuff you already own.  Rather than shop, focus on your current possessions.  Pull out all your bins and deal with everything.  It might help to start with one part of the house so you don't get crazy.

I recommend starting with your clothes.  Do all your laundry, even the hand-washables and stuff that is stained.  Clean and organize your closet.  Mend things that need to be mended.  Iron things that need to be ironed.  Take dry cleaning to the dry cleaners.  Consign lovely but never-to-be-worn again items.  Donate things that you're never going to wear again.

When everything you own is clean and sorted and put away beautifully, turn your attention to other trouble areas.  For me, it is office supplies.  You may have way too many kitchen items, or a linen closet that can't be shut completely.  You know your problem spaces; work on them.

The benefit of this is two-fold:  First, it occupies your time.  Second, you become more aware of the volume of items that you already own.

Why Bother? It Doesn't Hurt Anyone

Recreational shopping can cause a variety of different issues, but the main problem that concerns me is the financial impact.  It is almost impossible to shop recreationally without spending money.  And even when you're "saving," you're still actually spending.  And even small amounts add up...

It is nearly impossible to separate the costs of recreational spending from the costs of necessary spending, but let's just look at some examples.  Let's say you spend $100 a month on items that you wouldn't purchase if purchasing didn't require shopping.  Over the course of a typical 50 year shopping life (just grabbing a number here), $100 a month would be $60,000, if that money didn't earn any interest or wasn't used for some other activity of value.  Even at an historically low 3.0% interest, that same $100 per month would just short of $140,000.  That is a boatload of money!

The potential impact of that $100 per month increases if the money is put to work, paying off debt or building a business or funding an education.  $100 per month could equal hundreds of thousands of dollars in lower interest or business profits or higher pay due to education.

Wow!  This little morning musing has turned into over 1100 words.  Can you tell that I feel strongly about this?

I'm curious your thoughts on this topic.  Do you enjoy recreational shopping?  Do you think it fine, or do you see it as a problem?  Let's continue the conversation in the comments.

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