The Year of Austerity

It’s the delusional time of year when we all make promises to ourselves that we have no intention of keeping even through the end of January. Mine is to stop buying things. I buy too much stuff. Even though I don’t buy knick-knacks or holiday decorations or home goods or anything that really is just clutter, and even though I only set foot in a Target or Cost Plus World Market or Bed, Bath, & Beyond about twice a year, I still buy too much stuff I don’t need. I’m a sucker for a good deal and tend to amass certain items without using up what I already have first.

When I was 18 and got my first credit cards, I bought all the things because credit cards were “free money.” Woo-hoo! I was living on my own but never sat down and did the basic calculations of income versus expenses, and I got into financial trouble pretty quickly. After defaulting on all four cards and tanking my credit score, I decided I needed to get it together. I started writing down every single item I bought in a journal. Even purchases as a small as a $1.59 cup of coffee at a gas station. Spending those few moments thinking about where your money went and then having a visual record of everything you spend is a great way to see how much you waste on crap and a good motivator to stop. After I got my finances back together, I spent six years living overseas: a few semesters abroad in undergrad and then working abroad after I finished my BA. This is a great plan for anyone who is trying to be less materialistic. When you are bouncing around from country to country, living out of two suitcases, and the baggage limit on an airplane is 20kg, you really have no interest in buying anything at all.

But now I’ve been back for almost 11 years and the healthy, American economic urge to buy things just because has crept back up on me over time. Especially given the rise of internet shopping over the years. It’s just so easy without the friction of having to get into your car and drive somewhere and park and walk around the store with other people in your way. And then there are all those emails and Facebook recommendations with special offers and discounts. And the wide range of goods you can get from anywhere in the world, not just what you can find locally. And Etsy and Amazon and ModCloth and eBay. And credit card numbers stored on web sites or in your browser. Granted, I now earn about five times what I did as a struggling college student delivering pizzas and waiting tables, but that still doesn’t mean I need all this stuff. I could, and should, be saving the money to retire early and take more international trips.

But New Year’s resolutions are seldom adhered to all the way through the end of the year, so I’m trying it a little differently in hopes of increasing my chances of success. Rather than wait until New Year’s day to start, I started the day after Black Friday, which means I’m already 40 days in. Not bad! It’s also a good way to ease myself into it because throughout December, I still got to buy a lot of stuff – Christmas gifts for others – which means I got that shopping fix in. And I received some nice items myself for the holidays. So, I haven’t been in total austerity yet. But the time has come.

My forbidden purchases list includes the following (in no particular order):

  • Books. I have 52 unread books on my shelf (perfect for a year!) and dozens more I want to read that I know are available in the local library. There are over 200 in my Amazon wish list, but it’s not like they are going anywhere. I can still buy them in 2018 or 2019 or any time in the future, barring some Orwellian government taking over American.
  • Clothes. I started a new job in June and did a radical little clothes experiment – actually wearing everything in my closet! I worked 55 days before I repeated a top or summer dress. And that didn’t include all my long sleeve tops, long sleeve dresses, and sweaters. And that didn’t include the 200+ items I gave away to a friend in massive closet purge. Even the amount of outerwear I own is absurd. With clothes, there’s a special line of thinking that I must follow, and it’s that I will never be satisfied because there is always something else. If I went on modcloth.com today and spent $10,000 on everything I want, I would be happy only until the next time I looked at their site because they bring in new styles every week. And then there would be more stuff that I didn’t have but felt I needed. So I need to focus on what I have, not on what I don’t have.
  • Shoes. How many pairs do I own? 40. Seriously? I mean, I’m no Imelda Marcos, but seriously?
  • Accessories. There is literally nothing I need. So many bracelets, necklaces, earrings, and scarves.
  • Notebooks. I love pretty notebooks. I used to not want to write in them until I had the perfect thing to write, and then I realized that’s ridiculous. Pretty notebooks are cheap and easy to come by; why not start using them? So I did. But then I went overboard and bought way more than I was able to use. Maybe if I spend less time shopping, I’ll spend more time writing.
  • Tea. So much tea, so many flavors. I definitely have enough to last until next fall, maybe longer, especially now that I work in an office and there is plenty of free tea there.
  • Body products and cosmetics. Thanks to a five-year-long obsession with Birchbox, I have easily enough body lotion, soap, gel, conditioner, styling products, coverup, mascara, and other things to last a year.

I had a few temptations at the beginning, especially with all the sales going on in December. Habits die hard and when you are used to getting whatever you want immediately with a simple click of a button, it can be hard to stop. But not buying things can also become a habit. Each time I was tempted, I paused and did three things:

  • Thought about how many of that kind of item I already had home.
  • Got over the “fear of missing out” by reminding myself that deals come along literally every day and when I actually need to buy that item at some point in the future, I’ll be able to find it at the right price just fine.
  • Calculated how many hours/minutes I have to sit at my job, for after-tax pay, to afford that thing. I find this tactic to be the most conducive to putting things back on the shelf or closing out that browser window without completing a purchase.

 

And that’s it. So far, so good. But now that Christmas giving and getting is over, we’ll see how my willpower holds up. What about you? What are your resolutions and how are you going to stick with them?

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