Do you spend time scrolling through shopping websites only to realize a few hours have passed? Do you have a bad habit of frequently buying more than you need, and you’d like to cut back?
My own answers to those questions are yes and yes. Shopping is so fun, but it has big downsides: 1) the amount of time and energy it wastes (both up-front when you buy and down-the-line when you are cleaning or moving), and of course 2) the money that it costs!
Luckily, with the strategies I’ve been using, I’ve gotten a lot better. Read on to learn how to reduce your shopping so that you can free up your money and time!
Set a Time Limit on Browsing
There are a couple ways to do this. If you’re browsing online, you can set time limits on your phone/tablet/laptop. I personally have a daily limit of 15m for Mercari on my phone. I also have a 15m daily limit for Instagram because I never have more than a couple minutes of real content to catch up on and the rest are product updates.
Another way to do this is to predetermine the amount of time you will spend in a physical store before you walk in the door. For a reference point, I can complete most big grocery-only runs in about 20 minutes, and if I only need two items I can be in the checkout line in under 5 minutes. I’ve done this enough that I don’t even need a time limit anymore, because I’m in the habit of going straight for what I need and ignoring other temptations!
Predetermining the amount of time you spend in a store also applies to shopping for clothing. For me, shopping for clothing is exhausting! It took me many years to realize that after about 15 minutes I get past the point of enjoying myself. Your threshold may be different, but I encourage you to experiment with time limits.
Wait On What You Want
(Cue Paul Pena.)
When you want to buy something, write down the item you want to buy, and give it some time. You can experiment with the amount of time, but they key is to avoid impulse purchases and instant gratification by inserting some amount of delay between the moment you want something and the moment you buy it.
Another way to do this, especially if you’ve already spent time browsing and have things in your online cart, is to take a screenshot of the cart instead of buying on the spot. You can always come back to the screenshot later if you want to!
This strategy has multiple benefits. It reduces buying, because you delay purchases. It reduces browsing, because you delay needing to look for something when you think of it. And having what you want written down can also be useful for prioritizing what to actually buy later.
Personally, I usually forget about or decide against buying 90% of things I write down, so this strategy works really well for me.
Don’t Shop Sales
Sales are a premium strategy for getting people to buy things that they were not otherwise planning to buy. Next time you visit a website or store because they are advertising a sale or deal, ask yourself if you would visit if they didn’t have a sale. If you weren’t planning to visit in the first place, then any money you spend there is 100% more than you would’ve spent without the sale. That’s not really a great deal after all.
For me, sales also make me spend way more time on a site than I would usually because I want to make sure I’m not missing out on anything. Is 15 or 20 percent off really worth that extra time? Even more, why do I feel the need to spend money that I wouldn’t have otherwise spent, just to take advantage of a sale? That makes no sense!
To be clear, I’m not saying to never buy anything on sale. If you’ve been waiting on something on your list (see point above), absolutely, buy it on sale! The main point here is to keep an eye out for how sales affect your behavior. They may be tempting you into shopping for and purchasing things you don’t need.
Calculate the Actual Value to You
Advertised value is not the same as value to you. A “$24 value” “free” gift has $0 value to you if it’s not something you want or need. (In fact, it arguably has negative value, because you have to expend effort to store it and/or get rid of it.)
In addition to free gifts, this principle also applies to bundle deals and clothing.
Bundle deals. If you saw low-effort, high-reward beauty, you’ll know I love skincare and subscription boxes. Subscription boxes and bundle bag deals always advertise high values, sometimes in the hundreds of dollars, for a low low price of $40!!!! The catch here is to calculate the value to you. I don’t need any makeup, so any makeup in bundles has no value to me. And a $80 serum that would replace the one you normally buy for $20 doesn’t have an $80 value to you, because you wouldn’t pay $80 for it in the first place. So, beware the advertised value of bundle deals.
Clothing. High value clothing is clothing that 1) will last and 2) you’ll wear a lot. If a piece of clothing costs $7 but it’s going to pill on the first wear, or lose its shape after the first wash, then the value to you is $7 per wear. If a piece of clothing (say a quality coat) costs $100 but it’s going to last 5 years, and you’re going to use it twice a week, that’s about 20 cents per wear. Watch out for high price tags with a large percentage off – those numbers are all about making sales and are totally unrelated to the actual value to you!
In sum, advertised value and actual cost can be very different from the actual value to you. Focusing on the latter can lead to better (and thus fewer) purchases.
Consider the Raw Material Impact
Consumers in privileged countries like the United States are some of the greatest contributors to global warming because they consume.
Consumption has big costs for the planet, from the cost of creating or synthesizing raw materials such as cotton or plastic, to the cost of creation of the end product in a factory, to the cost of shipping the product, to the cost of transporting it to a landfill (or recycling center) when it’s “consumed”, to the cost of the gases it releases as it breaks down in landfill (or the perhaps the cost to recycle it). Every step along the way takes energy and resources from the earth and contributes greenhouse gases and various forms of waste/trash (including – eventually – the “consumed item” that gets thrown in the wastebin).
The best way to reduce greenhouse gases and many forms of waste is to not buy unnecessary things in the first place. Consider that next time you hit the checkout button.
I find this especially helpful when I’m buying inexpensive things. A lipstick on sale for $5? (Or a low-quality dress, or some plastic squirt guns?) Sure, the cost to me may only be $5 (plus tax and maybe shipping), but it comes in a combo plastic-metal tube which cannot be recycled, plus I’ll use it every few weeks at best, so I’m really paying $5 to create more trash. The same issues apply to most inexpensive items. They may be cool for a little while, but most of the time they quickly become trash.
Consider reducing your waste and your impact on the planet by simply not buying things you don’t need. It’s not a glamorous way to help the planet, but it is effective.
Don’t Buy Items Online, Especially Clothing
Have you ever bought something online only to pull it out of the package and realize it doesn’t feel as soft or as sturdy as you expect?
Buying online is a gamble, especially when it comes to clothing. It’s hard to tell how a piece is going to fit based on the photos, and it’s even harder to tell how a piece is going to feel. I’ve had some big disappointments in pieces that had good reviews but when I touched them for the first time the fabric was not comfortable, or did not feel good-quality.
Whenever possible, hold items in your hands before buying. Marie Kondo advises holding items in your hands before discarding, and I see no reason why this should not be applied before bringing new items into your home. It is a totally different experience from viewing pictures or reading reviews.
To make this more concrete: I recently made two disappointing online purchases, a beautiful dress and a frying pan. When I took the dress out of the box, I immediately felt that it was not as well-constructed and sturdy as I was expecting. I was disappointed but I nevertheless kept it… unfortunately. I only wore it once before finding it a new home. If I would’ve touched it before I fell in love with the way it looked in photos, I would likely have not wasted my money.
I also had high hopes for the frying pan, which I had extensively researched before purchasing. However, when I took it out of the box, the weight distribution was all wrong and I knew I would have trouble tossing food in it. It went right back in the box and back to the retailer. If only I had bothered, in all my research, to go to a store and hold one.
Buying stuff online is obviously convenient, and sometimes there is no other option depending on what you’re buying and where you live, but buying in-person gives you the most complete information about what you are buying. That allows better purchasing decisions, which results in fewer bad purchases and fewer purchases in total. I highly recommend buying in person whenever possible.
Pay For Shipping
How many times have you bought more than you needed to hit the free shipping minimum? I was discussing this with a friend, and we realized that we both do this!
The thing about “free shipping” is… just like “free lunch,” there is no such thing! Someone has to pay USPS to get your items from place to place. If shipping is “free”, it’s really just rolled into the cost of the items, because the business has to pay for it somehow.
I recently paid $9 for shipping on a purchase of a $15 pound of gum. The particular gum I wanted to try out is “biodegradable,” and it’s sweetened with xylitol so it’s better for my not-great teeth. I was able to buy it in bulk so I create a little less trash. The shipping cost was high, but even after the cost of shipping, the amount of gum was cheaper per piece than what I can get in a local store, and it was exactly what I wanted!
So, just pay for shipping sometimes. Watch out for “free shipping” minimums which might be causing you to buy more than you need. Remember, extra items are not a great deal if you don’t need them in the first place.
Track Everything You Buy
Keep a single list of everything non-consumable that you buy. This includes things like clothing, electronics, and kitchen gadgets, but does not include things like bananas, toilet paper, and toothpaste. Non-consumables are less hassle to track than consumables, and they’re also a lot more work than consumables to deal with when cleaning house or moving, so it is valuable to keep the amount you accumulate in check.
Tracking helps you with awareness of how much you buy and how much you are adding to your home. It will also help with reflection as you look back on everything you’ve bought. You might see patterns of bad habits emerge, or you might use your list of several months of purchases to set a goal for the months following.
Having recently done a big clean out at home, I started the new year with the hope of not reversing all my hard work by continuing to accumulate things. Tracking is a lot less effort than a full-on ban which has made the practice easier for me to stick with. Seeing my growing list is a gentle reminder that I mostly buy things I don’t need, which is a reminder that I already have everything I need, and I don’t need to be shopping.
Track everything you buy to keep tabs on your purchases. The knowledge you gain will help you reduce your shopping!
Conclusion and Further Reading
Above are 8 strategies to help you stop shopping so you can reclaim your money and time. The most effective strategies vary from person to person, so some of these strategies may work for you while others do not. I wish you luck in your personal journey!
- Shopping for clothing: Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion by Elizabeth L. Cline. This fascinating book explores the lifecycle of clothing, and I found the insights about end-of-life clothing particularly fascinating: we think we are donating our unwanted junk to Goodwill so it will find a new home with someone less fortunate, but often what we donate is really just junk that no one else wants.
- Tangentially related to the environmental point, about how environmental destruction has human casualties: Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Even though the book is focused on politics, the environmental impacts on people was my biggest takeaway.
- The lifecycle of products and the creation of waste: Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart. This book is about trash and how the vast majority of products are bound for the “grave” (the landfill), immediately or eventually.
Engineer, 8w7, and practical idealist. Sharing practical strategies and learnings to help you on your personal journey. I post on Mondays.