How this no-shopping exercise can curb your overspending habits

For overspenders, a year of no shopping

I spend too much. It’s not like I’m blowing $500 on weekly spa treatments. But the little stuff adds up—a fun chair for my living room, a scented candle (self-care, right?). Hardly a week goes by without an Amazon box on my doorstep. I want to save for a condo, but at the rate I’m going, I won’t have a down payment until I’m 90. I’m kind of desperate. Help!

—Monika, Columbia, Mo.

You’re hardly alone. Overspending plagues all age groups, from Gen Z to millennials to even seniors, as we all sometimes let our emotions drive our buying.

While it may be helpful to track your spending, just telling yourself to cut back is often not effective. As a woman I know named Samantha who was in your situation tells it, “We had a house full of stuff, but somehow we kept buying more. There always seemed to be a good reason for our purchases, but our credit card balance hung around like the last five pounds I can never lose.”

Desperate times often call for desperate measures. When Samantha and her husband, Eli, read a New York Times essay by novelist Ann Patchett, who had refrained from shopping for a year, they were intrigued. It sounded extreme—but then so was Samantha’s inability to stem the steady stream of purchases entering their house. So she and her family decided to see if this overspending crash diet could work for them, too. Here’s what she learned during her year of shopping minimally.

Put it in writing

Samantha and Eli actually wrote up a contract together. They made certain exemptions: They could still buy gifts, books that were not available through the library, materials to make basic household repairs, and kitchen supplies like sponges and plastic wrap (but no new pots and pans, etc.). They would buy no new electronics, clothing, furniture, home décor, or linens. They stocked up on socks and underwear before the new year, and battened down.

Make do with what you have

At first it was a challenge. When Samantha wanted to bake a layer cake for her son’s birthday, she discovered she didn’t have any cake tins. Instead of going straight to Williams Sonoma, she improvised with a couple of pie pans. She was surprised at how much pleasure her ingenuity gave her. Eli, meanwhile, was furious when the puppy chewed up his earbuds. Rather than order a new pair, he rummaged through a few drawers and rediscovered earbuds he had purchased on a business trip and forgotten about.

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Splurge, within the rules

Of course, too much austerity is no fun—and it can backfire. So find a few things that will bring you joy but don’t involve bringing “stuff” home. Go ahead and get that fancy latte or buy that not-on-sale salmon for dinner. Join a kickboxing gym or sign up for a pottery class. Take Samantha and Eli: When Thanksgiving rolled around, they bought a new platter for the turkey and some new pillows for their overnight guests.

Be realistic

Samantha and Eli’s son, Cal, who’s 12, wasn’t on board at first (and they did make exceptions to their no-shopping rule for school projects, athletic equipment, and gifts). But after an initial period of adjustment, he stopped really noticing—because he had everything he needed. He receives an allowance, which he used to buy a couple video games, a splurge that even he remarked on.

Reap unexpected benefits

When Samantha and Eli reached the end of each month, they noticed money wasn’t as tight as it had been. By March, they were able to pay off their credit card debt. But what surprised Samantha were the side benefits. More free time, for one. Online shopping had become a form of recreation for her. But with that activity off the table, she didn’t feel tempted to visit her favorite shopping sites.

When her family went on vacation (yes, vacations are fine), she spent more time enjoying the beach with her family instead of shopping for souvenirs, because she knew that all they would be taking home was memories. (And with more give in their budget, her family was able to squeeze in an extra weekend trip over the summer.)

Over the course of the year, Samantha kept a list of things she wanted to purchase when the no-shopping year was up, from big (a new sofa) to small (a bud vase for the kitchen window). She and Eli finally broke their spending fast after Christmas and hit a bunch of post-holiday sales to address that purchase punch list.

But, to Samantha’s surprise, she found that no longer coveted about half the things on her list—mostly clothing items that had seemed vital at the moment but, after going months without, had lost their appeal. Many of the items she once thought were “must-haves,” she realized, were really would-be impulse buys.

Try it!

Okay. I get it. This is an extreme exercise to curb overspending. You’re trying to free up cash to save for a condo, not live like a monk. But if a year feels too long, try committing to a shorter period of time, like six months, or even three. Set an aggressive savings goal for your down payment, and funnel the money you save into it. (You’re already trying to save between 10% and 15% with various automatic savings plans, right?) If you can get a friend to join you, you can cheerlead each other when the going gets tough (and hang out while the rest of your friends go shopping).

If you want to try a baby steps-variation on this, try to go a whole weekend and only spend $25, or spend no more than $20 on groceries for a week while you clean out your fridge and your pantry. Or check off “delay a purchase” on your to-do list each day. I’m not a big fan of straight-up budgeting (it never really sticks), but if you add this game element—can we do this?—I think it’s much more likely you’ll hit your spending and savings goals.

Let me know how it goes!

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