How Forever 21 Taught Me To Be Good With Money

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Like many 20-something women before me, I’m a recovering Forever 21 addict. The store offers an insane volume and variety of cheap, trendy clothing. In high school, I would cash my measly $150 paycheck from my ice cream shop job & promptly head to the mall. Usually, I would purchase a flimsy top or dress and head home. On the drive home I was distracted, full of daydreams about what this new purchase would mean for me in terms of my social standing. Surely this would mean I would get invited to more parties! That this pair of leather leggings would give off a vibe that I was a cool girl, that I didn’t care — when in reality, I certainly did. I though that these shiny, pretty new things would solve my problems. I attribute this narrow frame of thinking to the unfamiliar rush of earning my own money, driving my own car & the power of being able to spend how I wanted.

Fast forward to what my life is like now, and I feel it’s drastically different. I haven’t stepped in a Forever 21 in months, and the past few times I did, I left empty-handed. Part of this is probably due to me growing up and having a more sophisticated craving for clothing that can actually hold up to some wear and tear, but I think it goes deeper than that. The clothes I bought never accomplished what I wanted them to. I purchased clothes envisioning that there would be a transformation that would take place when I put them on. I’ve always been partial to more bohemian, loose styles because that’s the image I wanted to project — cool and relaxed. But my $15 floral print dresses never convinced that boy I liked to talk to me at a party, or made my skin brighter. The leather leggings never convinced anyone I was a bad girl — the fact that I was almost always grounded did that instead. All these purchases left me empty. As a wise woman once said, “Underneath every piece of Forever 21 clothing is yourself.” It turns out that what I desired for my life wasn’t going to come from materialistic purchases it was going to come from within.

Reflecting on my relationship with Forever 21 allowed me to designate two categories that I spent my money on: “experiences” & “things.” An experience is something like a trip or a concert, something we keep stored in our memory instead of a closet or cabinet. Clothing and products fall under things.  Objects are addictive and tend to guarantee instant gratification. Make-up and skin products promise to make you a better-looking version of yourself, clothing allows you to imitate styles you admire. Spending money on things is necessary, but it can add up so quickly we run out of money to spend on experiences. I’ve never regret any of the money I’ve put toward travel. However, I’m too familiar with standing in a mirror at home and cursing how unflattering a cheap top is in the light of my bathroom.

It’s easy to look at clothes and start dreaming about what they will do for you, that they’ll accentuate a favorite body part or ignite conversation. I get that, and I still fall victim to that way of thinking periodically. Crafting a personal style is lots of fun & a life-long experience in itself; I’ve just committed myself to doing so with more durable pieces. I’ve rid my closet of some of my cheap clothing, and it’s made my life much easier. I’ve also been saving more money to dedicate to experiences. This way of thinking allowed me to purchase a plane ticket on a whim last week, and I’ll be joining a good friend on a camping trip in California next month.

Along with this push to spend differently, I’ve changed my idea of what constitutes a reward. Sure, buying a new pair of shoes can be a nice gift for yourself, but if it’s done often, it’s not really a treat anymore, it’s a lifestyle. Although putting money in my savings every month isn’t immediately gratifying, it does feel satisfying to stare at the growing number on my bank statement and imagine the trips I’ll be able to take or the gifts I’ll be able to give to others.

I would be lying if I said there’s no Forever 21 in my closet any longer. I still own a few items from the brand, anomalies that are somehow still intact after multiple years of wear. Yes, my choices when getting dressed in the morning are more limited after cleaning out my closet, but it’s freeing in a bizarre way. I want to look at my clothes and be able to recall the memories I created while wearing them, not dread their uncomfortable fit and fabric. I’ve taken the energy spent picturing myself in new clothes and re-directed it to imagining myself on different adventures instead. This way of thinking is hard to maintain in today’s “Treat Yo Self” culture. I still slip up from time to time, but I’m on my way.

Meredith Osborne is an aspiring writer living in the Midwest. Check out her website, or find her on Twitter Instagram

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