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9 Things I Learned From No-Buy January

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Ella Ceron

At the beginning of January, people tend to make crazy resolutions that aren’t grounded in anything tangible.

“I will get skinny.” (Okay, but how do you define “skinny,” and is that such a great thing to aim for?) “I will work out every single day.” (Um, no, your body needs rest and you need to live your life.) “I will spend less money.” (Less than what?) You know how it goes.

Now, as Pinterest likes to say, a goal without a deadline is a dream. And even the most virtuous and good-for-you resolutions are bound to end at some point, or you’ll experience a slip. Nobody is perfect, and nobody should be perfect, either. You can, however, find little ways to improve in small areas for smaller amounts of time than a resolution for a whole year.

I told myself I wouldn’t buy any new clothes or makeup in January.

I know, I know. This is largely stupid because everyone knows the best, most insane sale-on-the-sale-price sales happen in January. And it’s also just really, really hard. But the thing is, when you’re a millennial without any sort of dependent looking to you for care — that coveted demographic that usually has little financial obligation to things beyond student loans, their cell phone plan, and a weekly brunch with friends — you’re usually left with a larger percentage of disposable income than most people. You might not have as much disposable income, because you’re still working that entry-level job at that start-up you swear will pay off one day, but you don’t have to buy clothes for anyone beyond yourself.

All told: I own a lot of clothes. Even when I did a massive purge of my closet a few months ago, I was still left with a ton of clothes. A lot of which I don’t wear as often as I should. And yet most weekends usually end with a new shopping bag somewhere in my apartment. Even if it’s the tell-tale yellow Forever 21 bag, it still counts.

So, to counter that, enter No-Buy January.

These are the things I learned.

1. It is not sustainable. Let’s just get this out of the way: I failed. I did not make it out of January alive, because I wandered into a Zara one day, found a pair of heels on sale for $16, and it snowballed from there. Yes, everything I bought was on mega-sale, but those heels, a scarf, a sweater, and a henley later, I was also $90 poorer. All of these items were simply variations of things I already owned. I needed none of it. But it was on sale, and I wanted variety, and so I bought it.But the thing is, these things happen. Sometimes you see something in a store that is similar to what you already own, but you like it, and you want to have that slight variation. That’s totally fine. (It actually lends itself well to creating a personal style uniform, which is a time-saver and opens up your closet to working with more of the things you own in endless combinations, but more on that another day.) Sometimes if you have a little disposable income, you should treat yourself. The thing is, however, not to do that every time you want to.

2. It teaches you a lot about impulse control. I have next to no impulse control, for the record. If I see something pretty and I want it and I can afford it, I will have it. It’s great, because it gives me a momentary sense of power, but it’s also bad because that adds up really quickly. A while ago, I started putting things on hold for 24 hours at stores, thinking about if I really wanted it, and going back the next day if it was worth that extra trip. Most often, it never is. Knowing I wasn’t going to allow myself to come back for anything in January, however, reminded me how fleeting that “want” emotion is, and that you really, really should not listen to it.

3. “I have nothing to wear!” is a lie, and most often is a euphemism for “The few pieces of clothing I rotate through frequently are all dirty and I haven’t washed them yet, but I’m too lazy to branch out and try something new from the multitudes of stuff I own.” In January, I actually managed to do that. Go figure that you can actually wear something that isn’t your typical jeans-and-a-T-shirt and the world doesn’t stop spinning.

4. Shopping is a form of self-medication. When I’m bored, when I’m upset, when I’m stressed, when I’m happy and want to celebrate… I shop. It’s a go-to reaction, probably ingrained in my childhood and that most 90s of institutions, the mall. There are other ways to cope with how you’re feeling other than distracting yourself with shiny, pretty things.

5. It’s nice to have a surplus. When you’re used to living paycheck-to-paycheck, opening a daily email from your bank letting you know how much money is in your account is an exercise in Russian roulette. In January, I suddenly found the equivalent of my rent in extra money. I had been spending all of that on excessive stuff, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what I spent it on. And never once during No-Buy did I worry that I was edging anywhere near a $0 balance.

6. Little things add up quickly. A trip to CVS. Getting a little too giddy around the olive bar at the grocery store. I did not end the month with a whole extra rent check because I slowly chipped away at some of the surplus anyway, but you still have to know when to rein yourself back in from stringing together a bunch of little purchases into a big spending day.

7. I don’t have to live paycheck-to-paycheck. I’m actually at a place in my life where I make enough money to one day not worry for payday to roll through. I’m not off the worry-train yet, because you need to build a bit of a cushion before that happens, but if I keep at it and work towards it slowly, I could easily stop working just for the paycheck within a year. That’s how little time it takes for savings to add up.

8. It’s nice to be able to buy emergency things when you need them. My wooden bed frame, which had been busted since I moved into my current apartment over two years ago (shameful, I know, but I MacGyvered it with some duct tape and stubbornness) finally became too broken to pass as a working bed frame. I was able to order a replacement — a cheap metal frame from Amazon — the day I realized it was broken beyond repair, and didn’t worry about the sudden expense. It was great, and it made me feel like an actually competent adult.

9. And it’s nice to be able to buy things that actually matter. Yes, it would take the equivalent of 50 $6 crop tops from H&M to buy a plane ticket from New York to Los Angeles, but I wasn’t buying 50 crop tops. I was, however, buying the one crop top in conjunction with a bunch of other stuff, and so it added up quickly. Now I know I can find money to fly home. I’ve had it all along.

So while I’m never going to issue such a stark restriction on myself ever again — seriously, it was dumb, there was a great leather jacket that was 80% off and still haunts my dreams because I was trying to be as successful at No-Buy as possible — I am definitely more aware. And that’s a start.

  • Maria Nunez

    I tried to do a no-buy January last year and it did not work! I then switched to only shopping on FEDERAL holidays, and I’ve been able to do it all of 2014 and into 2015. It works great because there is some type of holiday every 6 weeks or so (except towards the end of the year). I was able to really take time and plan what I wanted to buy instead of going crazy, and most good sales coincide with holidays. It’s completely doable and it provides an actual schedule to stick to. I don’t feel like I have less clothes, I now feel like I have better quality clothes and more unique pieces instead of 15 variations of the same black top.

    • Gisele

      You’re brilliant! Shopping Moratoriums are so effin’ hard! But if you have holidays to look forward to in gives you an incentive because you know things will go on sale and you will be able to purchase things at a lesser price.

  • My addiction to shopping is pretty bad. I definitely relate to point #4 (shopping is medication), but instead of hitting the mall, I hit e-shopping. It’s worse when I start going through pages and pages of clothes on eBay, which are much cheaper than their retail counterparts that are usually about 3 to 10 times the price. Still, I too end up spending way too much on clothes!

  • silverzero

    ah, i enjoyed reading this post! i would love to read more about how to create your own “personal style uniform” and about strategies for fashion on a budget. it would be cool to hear about the authors’ own journey toward creating their personal style (and they’ve kept it financially sustainable). thanks again for this post! i love this blog so much and i’ve learned and grown more empowered through it. my bank account (and future) thanks you, chelsea.

  • Leigh

    About four years ago I did a no-buy year: no clothes or accessories for a full calendar year. I had more clothes and shoes than I could wear, and decided to spend that year shopping in my closet instead of the mall. I did pretty well; I ended up spending around $200 total that year on a couple of new tops and a dress, and only bought one pair of shoes. I would never say it was easy, but after the first few weeks it definitely got easier. One trick I used was to unsubscribe from all store emails and sites like Rue La La–not getting “70% OFF!!!” emails helped a ton.

    The habits I developed that year have held, and now I am much less likely to shop when I’m bored or buy things I really don’t need. The best part was that I figured out which clothes in my closet I liked and were flattering, and it’s helped me better develop my own style.