Help me stop buying stuff!
September 15, 2004 7:45 AM   Subscribe

Un-Consumer Filter: Help me stop buying stuff! >>

So round about May, I got a raise that made my rent to income ratio reasonable for the first time in my life. (I’m in my mid-twenties.) I know a lot of people here make way more, but I was thrilled to be able to finally buy a CD, a skirt, some books whenever I wanted and not end up eating ramen for a week. Now I want to save. The buy-everything time was fun, but responsibility calls. However, I’m ashamed to say, I seem to have developed a habit of “just getting it.”

How do you not buy stuff?
posted by dame to Shopping (40 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Buy a house that needs renovation. You'll never be able again to "just get" something. Seriously.
posted by NekulturnY at 7:48 AM on September 15, 2004

...and you won't have anywhere to put "it" whilst you renovate. I fully agree with the advice given.
posted by i_cola at 7:54 AM on September 15, 2004

I think you need something to save for. My "stuff" problem is that I resist small stuff easily but as soon as I have a few hundred quid spare I feel like I want to spend it on a new guitar, or a camera, or something like that.

It's easier to control now I've decided to get some money together to put down on a house.

Although I'll probably end up buying a better car or something. argh.
posted by cell at 7:54 AM on September 15, 2004

Response by poster: I live in Brooklyn, have bad credit, and still make less than thirty thousand a year. I'm nowhere close to house territory. Thanks, though.
posted by dame at 7:59 AM on September 15, 2004

If you have debt, pay them off with the extra income before you spend it on something else. If you have no debts, have a portion of your pay automatically transferred to a different account, and then try to forget about it. Eventually you'll build up a decent nest egg.
posted by blue mustard at 8:00 AM on September 15, 2004

I recommend Blue Mustard's appraoch. create a direct debit or some other electronic way to put a defined amount into a savings account every month, and forget it exists until an emergency/house buying situation. Works for me. Make sure you leave yourself enough in your normal account to still buy a treat every so often, though...
posted by darsh at 8:12 AM on September 15, 2004

Or alternatively, declare bankruptcy, take a small percentage of your extra money and put it into a "DO NOT TOUCH" savings account, then in 8 years you'll not only have your credit restored to wonderful, you'll also have a nice little nest-egg built up with which to buy a home.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:15 AM on September 15, 2004

Figure out how much you have left over each month and divide it in half. Put one half into a savings account, and use the other half as your mad money. That way you'll be doing something responsible with at least some of your extra income but won't feel deprived.
posted by boomchicka at 8:15 AM on September 15, 2004

What blue mustard said.

Also, try and arrange things to do in your free time that keep you away from shops and you'll stop seeing shopping as a leisure activity and get back to just buying things when you need them or can afford them.

It worked for me when I moved hundreds of miles away from the nearest store selling anything but essentials. After a year of not shopping I found myself back in a clothes shop looking at all this stuff just thinking "Why would I want to spend my money on that?"

/extreme solution
posted by penguin pie at 8:22 AM on September 15, 2004

Using your hourly wage, figure out how much time you had to work to buy a specific thing. Was it worth it? Sometimes reducing things down to "trading time in your life for an object" helps a lot.
posted by JanetLand at 8:35 AM on September 15, 2004

I echo paying off debt first. Do that before you save.

Here's the system I use:

I start by sketching out a budget for a typical month. This is really minimalistic: home & utilities, food & necessities, and "big things". Hopefully, this is less than my take-home pay. The extra is my target for debt payment or savings.

Next, I set-up my banking to encourage following my budget. I use two accounts.

The first account gets my paychecks. The large monthly bills that I can estimate in advance get drawn from this account, things like rent/morgage, car payments, taxes, utilities. Most of them are on some sort of automatic withdrawal, so I don't forget a payment. Keeping a higher balance in this account is a strategy to minimize service fees. The extra balance in the account is my immediate savings. This account isn't easily accessible on by debt card so I'm not tempted to use it while shopping.

The second account is the "daily" account, no-frills with a minimum of services fees. At the beginning of every month, I transfer what I've budgeted for the food & necessities category into this account. This is the account I use for frequent cash withdrawals or for debt card transactions. By keeping an eye on my balance, I know how well I'm doing on my budget for that month. Withdrawing larger amounts of cash, say $100 a time, allows me to use cash for most things and stay under the free-withdrawals limit on the account.

Finally, the "big things" category are those one-off non-recurring items like expensive clothing, gadgets, car or house repairs. I give myself a reasonable monthly value here: something will always need replacing or fixing. This usually gets paid by credit card, paid in full out of the first account at month end. This is where I most often blow my budget, and where I need to use the most careful judgement. You should have a pretty good idea about how much you're comfortable spending a month, and how much you have spent. A quick call to the cc co gets me my balance, if I'm not sure.

Finally, to get some return on the savings, every few months I skim the extra off into investments, keeping enough in the first account to minimize paying service fees.

It's not a perfect system, but I usually have a good idea of where I am on my budget, I usually have money easily available, and the credit card gives me the means if I have to buy something big right away.
posted by bonehead at 8:37 AM on September 15, 2004

After my rent hit a quarter of my monthly income (which is pretty good for Boston), I too went spend-crazy, living paycheck to paycheck just buying stuff. Eventually in an effort to curb my impulse buying, I rationed my purchases down. So I could get a CD or DVD a week, could not buy a new book until the one I was reading was at least half done, and so on.

I also set up an automatic deduction to my paycheck that I promptly forgot about.

This worked well until the twin hammers of gradschool loans and an impending wedding hit. Now I have to justify trying to justify new purchases. The nest egg is paying for the rings.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:46 AM on September 15, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone. Please keep suggestions coming. Just to make one thing clear, though--my debt is student loans, and as such, is way too big to be the only thing I spend my money on. I am paying it off, but spending ten years with no savings because I'm paying down my debts seems slightly absurd.
posted by dame at 8:49 AM on September 15, 2004

DON'T declare bankruptcy, not unless you truly can not pay your current bills and will likely never be able to pay them. Do save and pay off debt. When you have the spending Jones the best thing to do is save in ways that make it inconvenient to get your money out, like in stocks. A DRIP account where money goes every month to buy a stock is perfect. Preferably, put the money into individual stocks or at least in some sort of account that does not allow you to write checks or make easy electronic transfers to cash. If you have to put a little effort into getting at the funds you are more likely to leave them there. To stop accumulating debt, leave you credit cards home and make it a habit to pay for everything with cash. You might start using a debit card after a few months. All of this essentially trains you to change your habits. After a short while you probably won't even miss the extra spending.

It is probably not a good idea to pay of student loans early. The interest is probably low and deductible. You will get a better return on investing your money in savings.
posted by caddis at 8:56 AM on September 15, 2004

What blue mustard and darsh said. Have whatever money you want to save be automagically transferred to another account, which you never take out of (except emergencies, vacations, whatever your saving for, etc.) You can spend all of the other money on anything you want without feeling guilty. Unless you think about starving children or something.

Also, paying down debt isn't all or nothing. You can always pay more when you have extra money to save you money in the long run. Think of it as long-term savings.
posted by callmejay at 9:05 AM on September 15, 2004

Part of it is all about being reasonable. When you've had very little money for a very long time, it's easy to convince yourself that you deserve to splurge once in a while. When you start getting a bit more money, the splurging -- which you deserved, because you've been eating ramen for so long -- continues. Reigning this in by giving yourself a splurge budget, and having some worthwhile goals that can be obviously more easily attained by cutting down on splurging is a start. My trick was to leave Seattle and go to Central Vermont where half of everything was closed by the time I got home from work and no one else has any of the fancy stuff I might even possibly be interested in. This won't work for you. I'll echo what everyone else has said
- make a budget
- have two [or more] accounts, one that you never touch
- have a splurge budget, take out all the splurge money once or twice a month. once you're out of this, you are done til next month
- leave credit cards at home if you can't be trusted with them
- find ways to more cheaply purchase things [books and CDs and clothes especially] that you want which will make the splurge budget go further
- put pocket change in a jar, earmarked for something in-between splurgey and bills [ours is labelled "Nova Scotia" and we've saved almost $300 in about a year without even noticing it]
- read some books about personal finance management: Your Money or Your Life was the one that was big when I was reading these, I'm sure there's other good ones out there also. They show you whole new ways to think about cash so it's not just "I have this I want to spend this"
I also recommend doubling-up on loan payments if you can because paying more early will actually lower your interest fees down the road and make your overall debt amount lower. Refinance your loans if you haven't already, be cautious about future debts [some are worthwhile, some are less so] and try to look at your money as a means to an end later, as opposed to a means to instant gratification now.
posted by jessamyn at 9:13 AM on September 15, 2004

Here's what I did. I made a list of my absolute essentials every month (rent, car payment, insurance, food) plus a resonable amount for extras. This goes into my local chequing accout. My rent and such are automatically taken out via online bill payment.

The rest of my income goes into my E*trade account which is just enough to keep it out of mind. I've got a chequing card for emergencies but I don't touch it so it's been growing healthily for the last few years.

The only other advice I have is to pay off credit card debt first, I never got into that situation but I've seen how bad it can be from friends.
posted by substrate at 9:21 AM on September 15, 2004

like most people seem to be saying, it's a personal discipline thing, so you need to figure out what works for you: not going to shops in your spare time; making a strict budget; whatever. i had a friend who cut back on her discretionary spending (or impulse-buying, however you want to look at it) by strictly adhering to the "for everything new that goes into the closet, something old must come out" rule. she found it harder to buy a new skirt, say, if it meant she had to give up a favorite one. what worked for me was paying the savings account first and never buying on credit.

(info on the student loan interest deduction--the deduction used to be phased out over time, now it's phased out as your income increases. it's still a good idea to pay extra each month if you can.)
posted by crush-onastick at 9:32 AM on September 15, 2004

You're getting a lot of good advice here, and if you're anything like me, you'll nod your head at a lot of it and then promptly do nothing.

[Skot reads financial advice, thinks: "Multiple accounts fed by automatic debiting! That's a great idea!" Result: Skot watches more poker on TV.]

Nothing gets me to put money aside except planning for travel. The wife and I are planning our third trip to Europe, and it makes me sweaty thinking about trying to pay for hotels, so I have been putting money aside faithfully for months.

God knows why, but it's the only thing I can ever save for. I'm wretched at the whole adulthood thing.
posted by Skot at 9:53 AM on September 15, 2004

Watch the Suze Orman show.


Much more advanced investors might scoff at her, but in terms of simple instruction for people who don't know where to start, her show is great. She takes nothing for granted in terms of explaining types of accounts and debts. And unlike every other investment show I've ever seen, she doesn't assume you're married & in your mid-thirties and saving for your kid's college fund as your primary financial goal.

Gradually you'll start to pick up tips and think about where your money is being whittled away.

I wouldn't have thought to look through two years worth of papers when doing a budget, which you have to do if you want to catch the (sometimes large) incidental spending you're doing without noticing -- a dental bill, a pair of glasses, renting a moving truck. Things like that.
posted by bcwinters at 10:15 AM on September 15, 2004

Response by poster: Watch the Suze Orman show.

Is this something you would need cable for?

It seems like a lot of this advice is good, but it also seems skewed up in terms of being established and having more income than I do. To me, being able to buy stuff I need is still exciting--you mean I can buy a new skirt when the old one has a hole? I can leave the city more than once a year? I can replace the duvet that has been leaking fuzz for a year? I'M RICH.

Also, I have to say, I'm impressed by people who can put something into another account and not touch it. I do put my savings into a separate account, but I've yet to convince myself that I can't get it when I really want. So I suppose the answer really is delevop self-dis-- Hey look! A squirrel!

(How to develop self-discipline TK)
posted by dame at 10:29 AM on September 15, 2004

i'll second watching suze orman. she really is good with exactly this sort of issue--one of the things she does (and it's hard to phrase this without sounding stupidly touchy-feely or guru-y, which suze orman, most definitely, is not) is talk about the emotional/irrational aspect of how we all manage our daily finances. so, in addition to having very practical advice that doesn't assume high salary/dual income/concrete retirement goals, she also addresses things like the rush you get from shopping for shoes and how to conteract that.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:30 AM on September 15, 2004

Is this something you would need cable for?

She's on PBS whenever PBS decides that the best way to get donations is to completely change their programming from what they do almost every other day.
posted by callmejay at 10:33 AM on September 15, 2004

I am paying it off, but spending ten years with no savings because I'm paying down my debts seems slightly absurd.

It's not absurd at all. I don't know exactly what interest rates are like on student loans, but you're probably paying more interest on your debt than you could ever hope to earn on savings without taking wild risks.

You should have enough money saved up to cover a few months' worth of living expenses, but after that, yes, put it all toward the debt.

As to stopping buying stuff, try delaying gratification. In other words, when you get an impulse to buy something, put it off for a week. If you still want it after a week, and can remember what it was, and feel like going out of your way to go back to the place where you saw it, go right ahead. You will find this string of "ifs" significantly reduces the amount of impulse buying you do.
posted by kindall at 10:52 AM on September 15, 2004

Also, libraries often have Suze Orman books or cassettes or videos.
posted by JanetLand at 10:54 AM on September 15, 2004

I seem to have developed a habit of “just getting it.”

How do you not buy stuff?

I've experienced exactly the same story. For me, the "just getting it" was, on a deep psychological level, a way of proving my worth to myself, my family, and the world. I was raised by a working middle class family that taught me never to bow my head in shame and say "I can't afford it." Perhaps it goes all the way back to my father's impoverished upbringing, and his desire to leave that behind forever. After all, he did dedicate his life to climbing out of that poverty, so the last thing he ever wanted to see was one of his kids denied something simply because of the money.

I inherited a fair amount of this mentality. I refused to "let money stand in my way" and bought bought bought. I didn't drive myself into debt or anything, but I did live at the limit of my means for a long time.

Eventually, it dawned on me that I was thinking about the whole thing backwards. Instead of compulsively spending all my money on stuff, I could direct it to savings, I could direct it to investments, I could direct it toward taking some time off of work. My money is mine to spend, yes, but I don't have to waste it all on silly consumer goods.

I began documenting everything I spent. This has a way of dragging one's excesses into the light of day. Work out a system of expense categories, and use your bank statement to log everything. Resist the urge to create a "miscellaneous" category, because you'll want to hide the dumb purchases in there. It helps if you use your check card or ATM for most transactions, because those show up on a statement later. It's harder to keep track of where cash goes once it's in your hot little hand.

You may find in the end that it isn't the shoes, cell phone, and dinners out that are killing you, but your car payment, or utilities, etc. Those things can be reduced as well.

But either way, if you want to start saving, keep your savings goal in mind (what's that money for?) and set a challenging monthly savings goal. In 2 years' time, I was able to pare down to the point where I was putting 1/2 my pay into retirement or savings. It took the whole 2 years to get there, too, and I changed homes, cars, phones, etc to do it.

Now I'm kicking up my heels in month 9 of a year-long sabbatical, and ever so glad I made the effort. There's no greater expression of wealth than quitting one's job and simply not working. My middle class values are curling up their toes in delight, much moreso than if I were driving some Audi to a job I hated but needed to keep in order to pay for the damn thing. That's just a trap.

Further, if you ever want to REALLY learn how to economize, live off savings for a while. Once you have all your time, and no income, it's remarkable how much you can restrict your spending. I almost never eat out anymore, and my fridge is full of home-cooked food. I almost never get parking tickets or late fees or anything stupid like that, because I'm no longer frazzled all the time. I've had the time to unload some of my excesses on eBay, and when the time comes, I'll have the time to mount a very effective job hunt. Really, in many ways, quitting one's job can be the best thing for the pocketbook.

Oh, and one other thing note. I got an Amazon rewards credit card, which gives me something like a $25 gift certificate for every $2500 I spend on the card. This takes time, but with things like gas and car insurance going on the card, I manage to get a few per year. I spend those on frivolous goodies, just to allow myself some wee bit of luxury. Man cannot live on bread alone.
posted by scarabic at 11:01 AM on September 15, 2004

I began documenting everything I spent. This has a way of dragging one's excesses into the light of day.

This worked for me. If you use a card for most purchases, it's easy to set up a spreadsheet and just empty out the receipts from your wallet/purse/whatever every couple of days and enter the amounts against the business name. Only takes a couple of minutes. It's really sobering to look back a couple of months or so and re-evaluate whether you really needed to make that purchase. Sometimes it's a "what the heck did I buy there?" experience. If you try to remember that feeling before buying something that fits in the frivolous category, there's a good chance you'll think twice.

Has the added bonus that you'll catch screw-ups by the bank quickly, if you reconcile it against the statement in the online banking site. They do happen! I've caught checks debited twice and even someone else's purchase debited to my account.
posted by normy at 11:33 AM on September 15, 2004

Actually, if most of your debt is from student loans, declaring bankruptcy isn't going to help you. You just gotta suck it up and pay a little each month -- it doesn't have to be a lot, just something to reduce your debt little by little.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:51 AM on September 15, 2004

Michelle Singletary's financial segments on NPR's Day to Day can be interesting at times.
posted by gluechunk at 11:56 AM on September 15, 2004

The thing that helped me the most was to take all of my credit cards out of my wallet.

Don't cancel them, as cancelling credit cards can actually hurt your credit rating. Just don't use them anymore.

I now carry my debit card and an american express "charge" card that has to be paid off every month.

Forcing myself to only spend money on the things that I could already afford was the biggest contributor to getting out of unnecessary spending (but still allowing me to buy "fun" stuff when I can actually afford it).
posted by freshgroundpepper at 12:02 PM on September 15, 2004

Staying out of stores and finding an (easy!) yoga/meditation program helped me -- doing something designed to teach you that you're whole and complete as you are, not just if you lose 5 pounds or have that cool new gadget or whatever, did wonders.

Which means none of those yuppie-friendly power yoga places that push you too much :-)

Seriously, I used to shop on my lunch hour. I switched to 20 minutes of meditation instead (generally by popping into a nearby church), and the urge to spend pretty much deleted itself.

Also, I try to buy everything on debit cards, not cash or credit. When I'm carrying cash, I spend it immediately, and it's too easy to put something on a credit card without really having a way to pay it off. Paying with the debit card makes recognize that the money is coming directly out of my shrinking bank account. (On preview, what freshgroundpepper said.)
posted by occhiblu at 12:05 PM on September 15, 2004

Earmark an unwavering 40% to 60% (YMMV based on your stripped-down, basic cost of living) of your gross monthly income to be deposited in the highest-return financial instrument(s) with the highest risk level(s) you can comfortably bear (which takes some understanding of the risks of various types of investment and saving, and self-examination to decide what you're comfortable with).

Live on the rest.

As others have mentioned, do not use credit. Do not buy anything other than food and drink most months. If you can't survive without new books or music, use a library, borrow cds (and rip or download, if you're comfortable doing that), or make your own. Get rid of your TV and use the money for broadband. Go, if not veggie, at least low-meat. Do not eat in restaurants. Avoid drinking in bars -- if you go out, get lit up first at home or a friend's place, where it's cheap. Get shoes fixed, don't buy new ones. If you must buy things, get stuff that may cost a little more, but will last you 5 to 10 years. Repair, don't replace.

The thing that got me forever off the 'need stuff' mindset was travelling for years on end, owning nothing but what I carried on my back (and some books and papers in storage). It takes a while, but it eventually sinks in that stuff is a burden more than anything else.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:42 PM on September 15, 2004

How do you not buy stuff?

This is an essential question that every person in America should be asking. Our lives, our homes are so cluttered up and weighed down with crap. Our economy runs on each of us being good little consumers.

Stop listening to the siren song of the advertisers. Don't pay any attention to their billboards, TV spots, and magazine ads, unless it is to mock them. Instead ask yourself, "Do I need this?" and more importantly "Why do I want to buy this?"

That new mascara is not going to make you look like a model. How many pairs of shoes do you really need? You can get that book at the library. More knick-knacks just makes it harder to clean the apartment. Seasonal decorations are for people with more money than brains. (Don't let anyone tell you you NEED a Halloween doormat!)

Pinpoint your personal weaknesses and avoid them. For me it is white silk shirts, for the SO black T-shirts.

Figure out what you want vs. what you really need. And when you decide you really need something, shop around and put a lot of thought into your purchase. It will be that much more gratifying
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 5:43 PM on September 15, 2004

Sorry -- just talking about me, above, there. This presumes that you are out of debt. I personally regard debt as slavery, which my more-enlightened (read : richer) friends regards as errant nonsense -- use other people's money! they say -- but I have owed money precisely once in my life; a student loan that I paid off within two years. If I eventually buy a house, it will probably be for cash.

Same thing applies if you're in debt, but use that painfully large section of untouchable money I described to pay off debt first, then save.

I'd mention too that I spent more than 10 years doing what I describe above, but spending the money on travel, serially, and only in the last 5 years or so have been (still debt-free) putting the money aside for retirement/investment rather than as travel funds. Principle is the same.

How do you stop buying stuff? The answer is the same as the one to 'how do you stop using cocaine?' You just stop, or you don't, basically.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:55 PM on September 15, 2004

(Also, I didn't read the thread before posting, so I'm a doofus.)
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:57 PM on September 15, 2004

About paying debt off first: from the POV of strictly minimising your overall expenditure, this is the only way. But this can be very hard to do. One compromise is to put aside a small amount for personal spending, and a small amount for emergencies. Say 80% of spare cash on debt repayment, 10% on indulgent goodies, and 10% in the emergency nest egg. You won't pay your debt off as fast and you'll spend more overall, but it will be easier to stick to the plan.

Credit cards: unless you can commit to paying them off in full, every month, get rid of them. If you can't bring yourself to do that, stick them in an inaccessible place.

Make it a rule never to buy something on the first visit. If you see it, and you love it, see whether you still love it next week.

If you want some reading advice:
- Robert Kiyosaki is full of shit. Ignore his books, and ignore people who recommend them. A man who does not know what an asset is cannot be trusted, even less so one who lies about his background while using it as proof of his methods.
- The Richest Man in Babylon has a dreadful cheesy style but is still the gold standard for basic rules of managing your finances.
- The Motley Fool site has a bunch of basic money stuff buried in among the investment advice.

And if you want to save: beware of people with schemes that work improbably well and improbably fast. Money management is boring, only the results are exciting. Do some good solid study in your public library before you branch out into investment proper.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:34 PM on September 15, 2004

dame, if you're tempted to touch the second account - open it with a different bank, don't get an ATM card for it, and don't enable internet or phone banking. If you have to make a visit to make a withdrawal, that should make you think twice about cleaning it out.

In general, if you want to change your own behaviour, set things up so it's easier to do them right than do them wrong. It's hard to fight your own nature, so let it help you instead.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 7:49 PM on September 15, 2004

I totally agree with Secret Life of Gravy about advertising - its worth being aware that in a town or city of any size, just stepping out the door is like having someone walking along beside you, constantly shouting "SPEND SPEND SPEND".

My (nearly) shop-free current home is also advertising-free and returning to London for three weeks I was shocked by the way that every single surface seemed to be dedicated to persuading me to trade in my hard-earned cash for the latest gizmo that was just a tiny bit better than one I already had.

I'm not sure how you overcome that, but I think its just worth noting that we underestimate how even the most intelligent of us gets dragged into the culture of spending.
posted by penguin pie at 7:13 AM on September 16, 2004

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone.

For those worried about me being swept away by the siren song of advertising, fear not. Most of the stuff I buy--books and CDs--are hardly what is advertised on the subway or during the Simpsons, which are the only ads I see. And I like myself just fine as it is. The more I read people's responses, the more I become aware that it is impulse control, not trying to fill a hole in my soul.
posted by dame at 7:37 AM on September 16, 2004

Late to the party... If there's a pension plan at work, make sure you're getting the maximum benefit of any matching funds. It's like getting a raise. Read Andrew Tobias , Suze O., Jane Bryant Quinn. Take an Adult Ed. class on investing. You'll need financial skills all your life, so take the time to learn about it. Pay off car loan, credit cards, etc., before the student loans.

Set some goals. Even if a house is 10 years in the future, save a bit now. Or save for a great trip, or a piece of beautiful furniture. A year's worth of small purchases is generally not as satisfying as a large purchase of something you'll really appreciate. Keeping your goal in mind is a positive act, and will help you resist impulse buying.
posted by theora55 at 5:33 PM on September 16, 2004

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