Budgeting / COVID Finances / Essays & Confessions

How A 3-Month Instagram Detox Saved Me $1,100

By Friday, October 02, 2020

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Like most millennials stuck in COVID-induced isolation, I’ve spent many hours on end scrolling through my social media, praying for something to catch my eye and make the days move faster. But it wasn’t until recently that I realized how mindless scrolling affected my wallet, particularly on Instagram.

Full disclosure: I work in marketing. I should be the one who outwits the system and doesn’t fall prey to social media marketing. Normally, I scroll past the paid ads on my feed. Sometimes I’ll even report the ad as irrelevant — which in hindsight, probably made this whole situation worse, as I gave the algorithm a better understanding of what ads to serve me. 

I should’ve outsmarted the shiny allure of Instagram marketing, but as the early days of quarantine progressed, I found myself spending unemployment checks on frivolous outfits, workout equipment, shoes, kitschy t-shirts and candles (oh so many candles). Not to mention, given recent app updates, Instagram makes it easier than ever for businesses to sell products within the app itself. Just swipe, click ‘add to cart’, connect to your PayPal account and boom — another transaction made, and another hit of dopamine to the brain in uncomfortable times.

Realizing months of Instagram-fueled emotional spending was uncharacteristic of me (and being appalled at my indulgences), I decided that for three months, I’d unfollow every business account that could possibly tempt me to make a purchase. And in the end, it paid off. Let me elaborate.

Rules for the Experiment

First, I established a set of concrete rules that would make my IG-shopping purge easier: 

  • Unfollow all sales-based corporations. These are easiest to spot because they are large retailers. If all they did was sell products, I unfollowed them. 
  • Unfollow accounts dedicated to selling or reselling my retail “weaknesses.”
  • Keep any Black-owned or woman-owned businesses with less than 10K followers.
  • If more than 10 posts in a month from an influencer were sponsored, promoting their own products, or included #ad, I unfollowed (a lot of Gymshark influencers didn’t make the cut on this one.)
  • Keep information-based companies (e.g. NatGeo, NPR, other media-based outlets). At best, all they’re trying to sell me is a subscription. 
  • Absolutely ZERO purchases of any item that started as an ad from Instagram. No clicking on the ad, no swiping through to look at other products. This was the hardest rule to uphold; Instagram placed ads everywhere.

The Great Instagram Purge

Soon after this sweep, my IG following went from 800 accounts to 634. I didn’t realize how many accounts I followed that added nothing of value to my day.

During this mass deletion, I noticed most of the business accounts I followed fell into the following categories:

  • Fast fashion: Zara, Forever 21, H&M, Topshop
  • Vintage-inspired stores: Unique Vintage, ModCloth
  • Gym/fitness: Nike, Under Armour, Gymshark (This was where most of my influencer drop came from. I realized I followed a lot of Gymshark influencers.)
  • Wedding: Why on earth I followed Kleinfeld’s as if I plan on doing anything more than eloping is beyond me. 
  • Cooking and groceries: This was a bit harder to qualify, but I realized I didn’t need to follow Publix or Trader Joe’s on social media in order to make out a grocery list. 
  • Ad-driven celebs: I’m sorry, Dwayne Johnson. I couldn’t have your Teremana tequila posts popping up every other day. 
  • Theme parks: Living in Orlando, Florida means the temptation to buy the latest Walt Disney World merchandise is more real for me than most park visitors. 

I also took a stronger note of what ads were being served to me by Instagram. Paid ads ranged from lingerie to meal kit services, to running shoes to law school. Rather than reporting each ad as irrelevant, I ignored the ad and kept scrolling, knowing that if I fed the algorithm more information about what I didn’t like, it would inevitably try and feed me something I did.

The Results

Three months of trying to ignore every ad that caught my eye on Instagram proved harder than I expected. My Instagram usage during the first month dropped due to fear of me breaking my rules, going from roughly two hours of mindless scrolling each day to 20-30 minutes. 

At the end of the three months, I calculated how much I’d spent on ‘Gram-specific products during my shopping sprees and compared that with what I purchased during the 90-day window. 

(Honest note: I bought a shirt I first saw on Instagram months ago, then finally caved and bought it through the company’s main website.)

Total Savings: $1,108

Meaning that nearly $400 spent per 30 days was in some way triggered by Instagram advertising, influencers, or boosted advertising through my feed. 

What I Learned

The short answer? If you can buy it on Instagram, don’t buy it. 

I discovered that one of the best ways to evaluate whether I truly want a product or not is if I go to the website, find it there, and still want to purchase it. 

I realized that the majority of my impulsive, social-media-fueled spending came from sheer convenience. After all, I didn’t actually need any of those products, but having an easy way to buy a candle – that might add to my happiness – only encouraged my willingness to swiftly fork over the cash. But by purchasing directly from the shop’s site, thus adding a few extra steps to the checkout process, it gave my brain time to process if I actually, truly wanted something.

Other than saving me money, this experiment helped me retrain my slightly capitalism-wired brain to be more cognizant of when I’m online. Once the three months were up, I didn’t immediately add these accounts back to my feed. In actuality, there are companies I know I unfollowed but don’t remember them in the slightest — showing how little their messaging affected my life, in the long run.

This applies to influencers, too. I started asking more questions like: What’s this person’s brand? What value do they offer followers? What am I getting out of following them? What am I potentially losing if I follow them?

Overall, if you find yourself looking at your budget and wondering, “How did it get like this?” try giving social media a break. Something in our little lizard brains is hardwired to see a shiny new toy and say “I want,” but stepping away from the barrage of Instagram ads can help you evaluate if those “I wants” are worth the money.

Shelby Rogers is a Marketing Content Manager and former journalist based out of Orlando. She specializes in everything from content editing and selling software to deconstructing “nerd speak.” Shelby  also runs marathons for charity.

Image via Pexels

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