A few weeks before the New Year, I was doing a little house cleaning and found myself with two trash bags full of things to drop off at the thrift store. I was a little embarrassed, to be honest. This was the second time in two months I’d loaded up a few bags with tops I grabbed off the sale rack but never wore, a kitchen gadget that was just taking up space, and the three-for-two books I kept reaching for at the bookstore. It was starting to feel like I was falling into a habit of buying things I didn’t need and then giving them away.
I’ve never felt particularly drawn to excess. Lately, it seems like I simply haven’t been as careful about my purchases as I used to be, mostly because I’ve been earning more and had extra spending money. And as I’ve been buying things I don’t need and then getting rid of them, I’ve essentially fallen into a cycle of creating needless waste.
Since my New Year’s purging, I’ve started to pay closer attention to my spending. I’ve found the simplest way to cut back on impulse buys is to ask myself some straightforward questions before swiping my card.
1. Can I afford this purchase?
This feels like a good starting spot for me. I haven’t always been wise with my credit cards, using them when I don’t have the cash and promising to pay it back later, but this single question has helped me be more responsible with my spending. I now know that if a purchase doesn’t fit in my current budget, it needs to wait until I can fit into the next month’s budget or until I can save the cash. I’m no longer making purchases that require me to borrow money.
2. Is this is a useful purchase?
Once I’ve determined I can afford an item, I try to be honest about the usefulness of a purchase. The answer isn’t always black and white. I don’t think every purchase has to be a basic need to be useful, but I do think each purchase should have a clear purpose if I am going to take it home with me. Sometimes a purchase is useful because I’m replacing my personal computer, which is beyond repair. Other times, a purchase is useful because it’s a book I know I will return to time and time again, or be able to lend out to friends.
3. How long have I thought about this buy?
Sometimes, when I’m scrolling through my phone or headed to the grocery aisle at my local Target, I get caught up in my excitement about something new I’ve spotted — the blender that would be a great asset to my plan to drink more smoothies, or the shoes that would complete my outfit for an upcoming event. I’m learning that, when it comes to certain purchases, it doesn’t only matter if it fits in the budget or is genuinely useful. If I haven’t taken at least a few days to mull it over, I should probably walk away empty handed.
More specifically, I’m trying to put off buying anything that wasn’t on my shopping list for at least 48 hours. If it’s a bigger purchase, costing $50 or more, I try to think about it for closer to a week.
4. Is this purchase a Band-Aid?
This refers to the temptation to buy the new iPhone or a new pair of shoes because you’re having a bad day, feeling particularly upset, or uncomfortable with something in your life. Shopping offers a temporary emotional reward, and that isn’t something to feel ashamed of. However, it’s important to avoid using the quick fix of shopping to cover up a bigger issue I need to deal with in my life. Maybe, instead of buying something that will make me feel better, I need to spend some time writing in my journal, apologize to my partner for a snappy remark, or even schedule a check-in with my counselor.
Increasing my self-awareness has helped me to avoid making big purchases without thinking them through, but it has also helped me to better understand what motivates me to buy things I can’t afford or don’t need. It’s a process, and I’ve got a ways to go, but I’m thankful for these four simple questions and the control they’ve given me over how I spend my money.
Originally published on March 2, 2018.