Last week, I wrote about my rule that allows me to keep up with my love of impulse shopping without sabotaging my bank account. And it got me thinking about my love of shopping in general, and the other spending rules and I follow. But the truth is, I don’t really follow any.
I grew up in a pro-shopping household; my mom loved clothes and would regularly cycle through her wardrobe, taking big bags of items to donate to Goodwill a few times a year and adding new pieces pretty regularly. I was lucky that my parents always had pretty good, well-paying jobs, so spending money wasn’t an off-limits thing. Of course, once I graduated from college and started living on my own, I realized just how lucky they were to be able to spend like they did. They weren’t reckless, and they have certainly always lived by a budget, but they also had a lot more wiggle room than most people — I just didn’t realize it at the time. If they had personal spending rules, I didn’t know about them.
Of course, at 22, I wasn’t able to keep up with some of the shopping habits I’d grown up considering to be normal (and still can’t now, honestly). Over the past few years, I’ve more or less casually tried out a bunch of different personal spending rules, especially when it came to buying clothes — but I’ve found that almost no hard-and-fast “rule” works for me, even though I do consider myself a Budget Person. Here are four major personal spending rules I’ve tried to apply to my life, why they didn’t work, and what works for me instead.
1. “Shop for clothes only a few times a year.”
Of all the personal spending rules out there, it is laughable to me that anyone can do this. I understand if you really hate shopping and don’t mind never updating your wardrobe — this might be practical for you, but it’s the opposite for me. I love clothes, and while I love the idea of bringing home a few major wardrobe hauls a year, it would never work. What would I do in the interim months, when I find myself really needing or wanting to buy something? When I was a broke 22-year-old, I essentially put a moratorium on any and all clothes shopping. I didn’t buy anything for months, even though I was actively interviewing for jobs and becoming less and less enthralled with my holdover wardrobe from college. I figured I could wait and buy a bunch of things at once, but because I was young and living in a big city and wanting to spend on “experiences” every week, I never actually saved the money to do so — and I constantly felt deprived, because even though I wasn’t buying clothes, I really wanted to.
Again, I was lucky to have a mother who was more than happy to help me out in the young-professional wardrobe department (especially when I’d come home wearing the same four outfits yet again), but I never wanted to have to depend on her to buy me clothing. But I also wasn’t responsibly budgeting for my personal spending. I couldn’t figure out how to make clothes shopping a priority over trivial things like takeout and other conveniences, even when I knew it would make me happier in the long run. Eventually, I realized I was never going to be able to save up a big enough “clothing fund” for semiannual shopping sprees — I was more focused on immediate satisfaction (which I frankly still am). Instead, I have a loose budget I stick to (right now it’s around $100 a month, give or take) so that I can buy things more regularly and as I need/want them, instead of waiting it out.
2. “Only shop at thrift stores.”
One of my best friends buys every single thing he owns from Buffalo Exchange. He is very stylish and always looks great, everything he buys is in great shape, and I have nothing but good things to say about thrift stores, and that one in particular. But I just can’t make them my go-to for clothes shopping. For one thing, I am a convenience freak, and I love nothing more than not having to leave my couch to shop. For another, I don’t like leaving that much up to chance. I’ve found a few now-beloved dresses at thrift stores over the years, but I feel like I spend far too much time sifting through racks of clothes I’d never wear or wouldn’t fit me before coming across something I really like. I must simply be too impatient for thrift stores, so I feel fortunate that I don’t need to depend on them.
3. “Try everything on in person first.”
Again, I’m lazy. As much as I love clothes, I really prefer online shopping over going to a brick-and-mortar store. (Unless it’s like, a group activity. Routine shopping by myself in the store? No thanks!) There’s the added benefit of delayed gratification, and honestly, forgetting you’ve ordered something and coming home to a surprise package is just the best. I love mail. But I also know that laziness can sometimes get the better of me, and I’ve certainly had a time or two when I’ve ordered something online and just never gotten around to returning it when it didn’t fit me.
Instead of insisting on visiting stores in person every time I need to buy something, I just stick to a few specific, decent-quality stores that either a) I know how their stuff fits me pretty well and can pretty accurately guess what I’ll like (e.g. Loft) or b) have extremely lenient return policies (e.g. Nordstrom). That way, the chances of wasting money on something I forgot to return are slim to none.
4. “Don’t shop sales or subscribe to store emails.”
This one of the counterintuitive spending rules I hear a lot here on good ol’ TFD: basically, don’t buy anything because it’s on sale. Buy exactly what it is you’re looking for, and shop around for good prices, but don’t let “potential savings” determine what you’re going to buy. Buying a shirt for $50 that originally cost $100 but is 50% off isn’t saving $50 — it’s still spending $50.
Here’s the thing: this is very good advice, but also, I don’t remember the last time I bought something that wasn’t on sale, clothing or otherwise. My safe estimate is that 75% of my wardrobe is from Loft, and as much as I adore Loft, I think it’s very silly to buy anything there at full price when they routinely have 40% off everything. And you know how I know about these? Store marketing emails — you know, the ones almost every single personal finance blog out there will warn you not to subscribe to. (I also have a weak spot for Anthropologie, but I’m not ABOUT to pay full retail Anthro prices, so thank god for the store emails that alert me when all sale items are at an additional discount. They don’t always have things I need on sale, but I’ve had many good strokes of luck.) Of course, I don’t buy things just because they are on sale. But I keep a running list of things I’d like to add to my wardrobe, and often, it’s items like swing dresses or utility jackets, both of which they regularly stock at Loft (I’ve also had some good luck with Gap’s sale offerings recently!).
If you have an awesome personal spending rules or a clothes shopping rule that I didn’t mention that really does work for you, be sure to let me know in the comments!
Holly is the Managing Editor of The Financial Diet. Follow her on Twitter here, or send her your ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org!
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