we've learned

Not Quite a Shopping Ban, But Not Shopping

this past weekend marked the first time in two months that we bought things, which has got to be a record for us. of course we’ve bought groceries, and last week we had to buy sonicare toothbrush heads, but those are all necessities. we’re not sure that we’ve ever even gone a month without buying some piece of non-necessary something before.

our last purchase before that was april 13. a pair of sandals, purchased at a big discount (of course). and from a quality brand that will last a long time (of course). and in a color and style that will ensure they stay in heavy rotation (of course). all of the “of course” labels are to say it wasn’t an entirely stupid purchase, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an impulse buy. it was.

buying those sandals was a wake-up call, of sorts. a reminder that, even if we’re living way below our means, we still have to improve our habits if we’re going to be able to live within our early retirement allocations in a very short two and a half years’ time. once we quit our jobs and live off of our investments, we can’t just buy a random pair of shoes, no matter how practical they are. we’ll blow through our saved-up funds in no time if we allow ourselves to make mindless purchases. we have to change how we think about spending, and change our behavior for the long term.

no more impulse buys

as soon as the light bulb went off — “that was an impulse buy!” — we made a resolution. no more impulse buys. no more buys at all for a while. maybe, like with a juice cleanse that resets your taste buds and eliminates sugar cravings, we just needed a reset. a spending cleanse. without thinking about it, the first month passed. before we even checked to see how long it had been, we were almost two months in. that was promising, since it said we weren’t constantly beating back temptations. when we wanted to buy something and chose to say no instead, it wasn’t a hard decision. we’re practiced enough at prioritizing our long-term goal (early retirement) over just about everything else, and curbing purchases felt like an extension of that.

which brings us to this past weekend. saturday we were at a home improvement store, buying supplies we needed to make repairs at our rental property, and we decided to buy something for us. an extension cord. hardly exciting, but it presented a choice: do we buy it, and lose the two months of momentum behind our decision not to buy things, or leave it at the store? we decided to buy it. we didn’t have an extension cord, and not having one was stopping us from using our power tools in the garage. not using the tools meant not being able to do repairs ourselves, and potentially having to hire other people. that would have been a dumb financial decision to make just to uphold the idea of a shopping ban.

then on sunday, we decided to buy a rear-view mirror that sticks onto a bike helmet. we’ve had a few close calls with cars while on our bikes lately, and we’re inclined to make a few small changes to improve our safety. our goal is to continue biking more and driving less, and we can’t bike more — let along retire early — if we get seriously injured on the bikes. that seems like an easy decision to make, to buy that mirror, but then just about any purchase could be justified this way.

what now?

so now, we’ve bought stuff, and we’ve squandered those two months of not shopping. what does that mean for us, moving forward? as motivating and reinforcing as it can be to track time and momentum, we’re not going to declare an official shopping ban. but we’re still not going to shop. this post puts a date on our last “lapse,” so maybe we’ll end up keeping track. or maybe we won’t. maybe we’ll buy something tomorrow. maybe we won’t buy anything for six months.

related post: why we don’t follow a budget

our goal is to be intentional about everything we buy, which we’re already pretty good at, but can still get better at. asking first if we can live without something, or could use something we already own in its place. next asking if we could borrow that item from someone else, or if we really need our own. and only then considering buying it. but also accepting that we don’t even need everything we think we need. sometimes if we just wait, we end up not needing that necessary item after all.

setting ourselves up for success, without a shopping ban

you’ve probably heard that making new habits stick is as much about creating systems to reinforce those habits as it is about making up your mind that you want to change. here are some of the systems we’ve put into place to create those positive habits:

  • we unsubscribed from every purchase-related email list we were ever on. no more temptation to shop sales if we don’t know about them.
  • unsubscribe from catalogs (this also saves paper!). we use catalog choice to get off mailing lists. if any make it to our mailbox, they go straight to the recycling bin. 
  • we cut almost everything off of our amazon wishlist, and got rid of our amazon bookmark. no more temptation to buy “needed” items when their prices drop.
  • we no longer go to stores that might tempt us. outdoors stores are our kryptonite, so we try our hardest not to set foot in them.
  • we are more closely tracking every dollar that we’re spending, so we’ll feel the pain of that impulse buy if we lapse. not wanting to have to account for those dollars spent is a powerful motivation not to spend them, as many have noted before us.

have you ever tried a shopping ban? did it work for you? how do you avoid shopping or other impulse spending? share your thoughts in the comments!

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25 replies »

  1. I second staying away from outdoor stores. I find that the best way to stop impulse buying is, as you have noted, not exposing yourself to opportunities in the first place. If I’m not exposed, I don’t miss it. But once I set foot in a garden center and see all the pretty things, the desire for material possessions kicks in.

  2. My wife and I don’t really institute shopping bans, no. Instead, we simply practice, maybe implicitly, walking out of stores with absolutely nothing in our hands.

    For example, my wife is a HUGE organizer, and a new Container Store just opened up pretty close to us, so we decided to drop in and take a look. We promised ourselves before we went in that we weren’t there to buy, just look. So, we spent about 30 minutes or so looking around, noticed a lot of really cool things, we talked about where this item or that hook could be placed in our home, looked at a few foldable raincoats for our trip to Glacier next month.

    And low and behold, we walked out of the Container Store with…NOTHING. We stuck to our guns like we said, and I think it’s because we’re used to walking out of stores after buying nothing, so it doesn’t seem like such a strange thing any longer.

    Before we made the decision to retire early, I honestly felt strange walking out of a store without a bag of stuff in my hand. It didn’t have to be much…just something. In fact, I remember a couple times feeling concerned that, without a bag in my hand, someone would think that I’m trying to steal something because, after all, we can’t possibly walk out of a store without buying anything. That’s just impossible…or so I thought.

    We will do this a lot, whether it be the Container Store or Target, or even Bevmo (an alcohol dealer in the state). The more we do it, the easier it gets.

    • You guys are pretty much heroes for escaping the Container Store with no purchase! ๐Ÿ˜‰ We have, in fact, done a few practice outings like that — browse and buy nothing — but find that avoiding temptation entirely works best for us.

  3. We have been trying to cut spending in a similar way for maybe 10 months now. We had been focusing on if we ‘want’ or ‘need’ something, and have gotten that mindset down. It takes time – its like breaking a lifetime of bad consumer habits. Now, I have been focusing on the ‘need’ items and trying to figure out if I can creatively repurpose something we already own for that need.

    I do throw any ad or catalogue in the mail straight into the trash. And I have unsubscribed from emails that try to sell or tempt me into spending money. I figure, if I don’t know that a product exists – then I won’t want to buy it!!!

    • You’re so right that it’s a lifelong habit that needs breaking for most of us. Or maybe even a mild addiction for some. So we’re with you — just stay away! If we don’t know something exists, we don’t crave it!

  4. Creating systems for habits I definitely learned after reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg! I cannot necessarily say I’ve tried a hard & fast shopping ban. For me, implementing restrictions isn’t entirely beneficial. Instead, I create a conscious thought process behind all my spending, or making sure I have a true intention to make a purchase. In order to avoid shopping/impulse purchases, I keep busy with tasks/hobbies/passions! Reading, writing, exercising, cooking (yes, we purchase the groceries – but do enjoy the process of making our meals at home!), and the like. Once you implement the systems to create the habit, you forget you even made the effort to do so in the first place! :)

    • You have such a smart way of thinking about this! And so great that you love cooking — that will save you many, many dollars over time, as you surely know. ๐Ÿ˜€

  5. Shopping for me is a great pleasure. I love shopping. I wander stores, especially hardware stores, browse catalogues and fliers and I am always on the look out for something new and clever and pretty. When I shop, I shop for ideas and information, especially about quality. I almost always walk out with nothing. This has the major advantage of allowing me to know exactly what store is most likely to have things cheap when I do want to buy or to find weird things no one else has for very specific needs. I think the closest thing I have to an impulse buy is we walked in a Dick’s store and saw a canoe cart that would allow us to get our canoe to the water without carrying it. That we bought on the spot without checking any other store to be sure the price was right and the quality was the best. It was just too perfect, too clear and too well designed to pass up and we have used it a lot. I have never really understood people who can walk into a store and walk out with tons of stuff first time they see something. I have to shop around and price/quality compare first. I just bring myself to buy something unless I check at least three other stores for the same thing first. I think it was because when I was young my family was poor. As a young woman we were poor and sometimes we had stretches where we ate nothing but oatmeal for a couple of days until money came in. With my husband today, we never used credit cards in the early years because we went through divorces that destroyed our credit rating and we didn’t have any. We had to save up for stuff or wait for payday. We had a period of three years where I had very high income (for me) and I had most of the money going into savings, all our bills were paid and we had plenty of food. I quite deliberately let go and indulged myself. If I saw some pretty thing I just bought it. I bought myself a few of those Svartovsky crystal animals. I also bought a totally stupid ridiculous Royale Doulton Figurine of a lovely Victorian era lady in a flowing dress. Spending got boring fast. I recall looking at a silly little ceramic bird a few days later and thinking how poorly done it was compared to a real bird. In our last trip south I discovered Maynards. Totally new store I had never been in with lots of neat new clever stuff. Hubby dearest was visiting colleagues and I spent hours wandering Maynards. The only thing I bought was two electric nuts I needed to fix a loose connection sitting in a clearance bin because the package had been opened.

  6. I thought this one particular outdoors store was going to break our bank a couple years ago! Now we first look to see if we can the item used before purchasing from the store (and shop online instead of in person; my husband is like a little kid in a candy store when he walks in there!). I also try to put off purchases when we first start talking about something, often times I find that when you revisit that purchase in a month or so, you realize you may not have the same impulse anymore or even have the need for it.

    Have a great weekend you two :)

  7. We stay out of stores as much as possible! We like to carefully plan out what we need for groceries and supplies. Despite all of this planning, we don’t beat ourselves up when an unplanned purchase is made. Life is meant to be enjoyed and it’s important to have balance!

  8. I like your ideas about Unsubscribe from email lists and catalogs. My not exposing yourself to these things you don’t even know what you are “missing out on”. I put a “No Junk Mail” sticker on our mailbox and Unsubscribe from every email mailing list that was trying to sell us something. It’s less clutter to deal with, saves paper, saves time and saves cash!

  9. This whole shopping ban is an interesting concept and one that we have never tried. I’m kind of surprised to see you doing it given that you, like us, seem to reject the whole “extreme frugality” thing in your overall philosophy. Maybe it would be an interesting experiment for us.

    I would think that “not being allowed” to buy something would make us want to do it more. We seem to be not very good at following rules. While not buying just to buy is probably a pretty great model for everyone to follow, I think that not allowing ourselves to buy anything would be counterproductive to us. I never want to live with a poverty mentality.

    The reason saving has always been easy for us is that we’ve focused on the saving and earning sides of the equation simultaneously and so we’ve never (at least not since college and maybe our first year out) ever really experienced sacrifice which most people associate with saving. It is also why we plan on earning some income and building several buffers into our post-retirement lifestyle.

    • True — extreme frugality is not our thing. And like you, we aren’t good with strict rules. It really was more of an experiment and mental reset, to ensure that if we must go without buying anything, we can. We don’t want to have to work in ER (we expect to do it but want to be picky), so there could be long stretches when the market underperforms when we have to live lean. Want to be sure we can handle it!

  10. I hate shopping, so I have the opposite problem that most people do. If I need something I can’t buy on Amazon, it takes a lot to get off my butt to go out and buy it. Currently I really need to step up the work attire, but I’m too lazy (just dislike it) to go and try on suits, shirts, and pants. I’ve been meaning to go for months now but keep putting it off. A shopping ban would not be a problem for me :)

  11. Funny you mention sandals because I’ve been really really wanting to buy a pair, but I’m being strict on myself and forgoing the sandals. I won’t have to wear boots throughout the summer since I already own 2 pairs (that I like) and should wear through before buying anything else.

    Good on you 2 for shopping less. I don’t think a shopping ban would work for me, but removing myself from temptations like what you’ve done, is definitely helpful and doesn’t feel restrictive at all.

    • You’re right that that’s the key for us: removing temptation. We don’t want a total ban, but do want to set ourselves up for long term success.

  12. We also don’t have any “shopping bans” in place because we follow the same rules of being “intentional about everything we buy.” Most everything we buy we either need and/or have researched before walking into and out of a store. This has helped us stay in budget most months and, if not in budget for the month, then at least for the year. It’s also kept unneeded clutter from accumulating in our house (a big no-no in our household). And while I think a spending cleanse would probably be helpful, if it’s anything like a juice cleanse (which I posted about a while back), it’s no walk in the park and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone! But I think you guys can handle it ;) Good luck with your “cleanse” and we look forward to seeing how it goes!

    • Thanks! We think we’re done with the cleanse/reset. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Now just resuming our mindful spending with even more mindfulness. Your approach sounds great — glad it works for you guys!