I’m not great with money.
By that I mean I’m not great at keeping it. I’m pretty good at making it—almost every year I earn more than I did the year before.
But when it comes to budgeting expenses, squirreling away a portion of every month’s income, finding investments that “make your money work for you,” and other adult-y finance things, I get a big F.
Like clockwork, every April, my accountant presents me with mortifying numbers. “Where did it all go?” I say. “I guess we’ll have to start tightening our belts. Maybe we’ll try eating at home more.”
“You say that every year,” he chuckles.
Ah, but he didn’t know me in 2007.
That was the year of my one successful financial experiment. It’s also the year my husband and I got married. We managed to pay for our own wedding with money I’d saved from an entire year of no shopping.
Now that COVID-19 is creating a nation of savers and consumer spending is cratering, I wanted to share my story in case you, too, need some inspiration to put down the credit card. Or, if you’re already on a no-spending roll, maybe this will encourage you to keep riding it.
Where It All Began
My experiment started with a reflux-inducing Mastercard statement. I knew I’d been shopping a lot, but this bill had an extra zero more than I’d figured in my head. My yearly clothes budget? I spent it in a month.
Something had to change. I remembered seeing an op-ed by a woman who’d given up shopping for a year. I hadn’t read it—who has the time?—but the idea planted a seed.
Shoving the offending credit card bill in my junk drawer, I made the brave declaration: “No buying clothes for a year.” That included shoes, handbags, accessories, anything I might wear.
I wasn’t aiming to save any particular amount. Honestly, I was a little scared to find out how much I was spending. I simply wanted to give myself the gift of a low “balance due” line and see how it felt.
I should make something clear: Even before I worked from home in my own copywriting business, my job never required me to “look the part” or “dress for the job you want.” I haven’t worked at Condé Nast or any place where young interns are rumored to step into an elevator wearing last year’s Diane Von Furstenberg print and never come out alive.
Nor am I a celebrity who’s going to be shamed by InStyle for wearing the same flirty jumpsuit at a Hollywood premiere that I wore when stepping out to sushi with my mystery boytoy.
And yet, after discovering in eighth grade that owning multiple Benetton sweater vests could garner respect from even the cruelest classmates, I’ve always had a shopping addiction. Curbing it, I suspected, would not be easy.
An Unexpected Hiccup
I kicked off my year of abstinence by telling my now-husband, Steven, about my plans. We lived together, so he’d be the first line of accountability. Not that I couldn’t sneak a purchase past him. At the store, I’ve been known to say “no bag, thanks” so I could smuggle home a new dress or top, wrapped in tissue and rolled up in my tote bag.
I also told friends. “Wow,” one said. “So what are you wearing to Sarah’s wedding?”
Crap, I thought.
On one level, I knew nobody would notice or care if my dress for a high school friend’s wedding was a repeat. But I briefly considered pausing my clothing fast long enough to buy something new.
Instead, I reminded myself that I should stop fretting over my “look” for someone else’s wedding: “This event is about the couple, not about you.”
I also realized that if I don’t notice other people’s repeat outfits, why would they notice mine?
Here’s how I kept myself from spending.
Staying Away from Stores
Every time I was tempted by an item in the window and thought of going in “just to look,” I told myself, “If you don’t go in, you definitely won’t buy anything. If you do go in, you might.”
Avoiding Fashion Magazines
Magazines are designed to sell you the fantasy that if you buy these wide-leg, windowpane-plaid pants that look so good on the six-foot-tall, 110-pound 15-year-old, you will become her. To that I say: Sold! I knew flipping through glossy pages could send me into a buying spiral, so I left them alone.
Cleaning Out My Closet
When your closet is so crammed that items not on hangers are suspended by compression between the hanging clothes, you know you have too much stuff. You also never know what you’ll find.
I didn’t need to worry about wearing an outfit twice; turns out I had enough to wear something different every day of the year.
This process also shamed me out of wanting to buy anything ever again. So many things I’d bought and never worn. The waste made me want to puke.
A Few Little Loopholes
I decided bras and underwear didn’t count. Neither did sweatpants or anything I considered loungewear, most of which I bought from Gap Body (and still do). Luckily, I wasn’t pursuing sweats as fetishistically as we’ve been encouraged to during this pandemic. Springing for cashmere can do a lot of damage.
How My No-Spend Year Ended
Basics notwithstanding, by the time Steven and I had to put down a deposit for our wedding venue—about a year after I started my experiment—I was shocked to find there was enough in my checking account for the whole party.
After not buying clothes for a year, I had saved around $35,000. This was enough for a small wedding, just 70 people, with a DJ instead of a band. But it was at a pretty fancy New York venue.
There was lobster.
Buying a dress for my engagement party broke the seal. Then there was a new pair of earrings. And, of course, shoes. I needed outfits for the honeymoon, though I ended up wearing some version of the same thing every day. (Very European.)
Would I do it again? Absolutely. In fact, I probably should. Even during the height of quarantine in New York, when everyone only had to dress respectably above the waist (which I renamed the Zoom Meridian), I’ve found plenty to order. Bandanas to wear as masks, “fashion” masks that never fit but are too much of a hassle to return, a fitness hula hoop in case I was locked in the apartment, “good” sneakers to wear while socializing, sweat shorts (yes, shorts) because I can no longer lounge in anything that isn’t stretchy. The list goes on.
I’m terrible at tightening my belt in the abstract, but I found an all-or-nothing rule works well for me. Maybe you’re not saving up for a wedding. Maybe you’re not a compulsive shopper. (Good for you!) Regardless of your financial goal, whether it’s paying down debt or saving for a home, it might be worth giving this rule a shot.
Today, when I’m debating whether to buy an article of clothing, I picture my closet (which desperately needs another purging) and ask myself, “Would I rather have another thing to wear, or more space in my closet?” Space wins—most of the time.