Information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Americans spend on average about $5,000 on apparel and entertainment each year. Maybe you spend more than that. Maybe you spend a little less. If you fall in the $5,000 a year range though, that’s almost as much as you’re allowed to contribute to a Roth IRA each year. Unless you’re a baby, you probably no longer change in size so rapidly that you need to buy a lot of clothes. Maybe clothes aren’t your issue. Maybe it’s electronics or designer shoes or jewelry. We all get that little surge of excitement when we treat ourselves to something. But, after that can come guilt, knowing we failed at impulse control. Maybe after that we find ourselves stressed when the number on the credit card bill is larger than the number in our bank account.
We often spend to potentially achieve happiness, but studies have actually found that the acquisition of stuff is not what makes us happy. In fact, the opposite is what makes us happy. Giving up more money in exchange for having more free time (like a lower paying but less intense job) makes us happy, as does spending money for the betterment of others. Neither of those involves treating yourself to a new smartphone accessory or more clothes. But, none of this information is very useful when that shiny object is right in front of you. That’s when you need something more immediate and practical to consider. With that in mind, here are questions to ask yourself before making a big purchase.
Are you copying someone who makes more?
Sometimes we participate in the spending habits of our friends without even realizing it. Subconscious peer pressure can be a real factor. We tend to go along with the group. It’s true of the way we eat – studies have found that obesity spreads throughout friend groups – and it’s true of the way we shop. But have you stopped to compare the income, budgets, and lifestyle you have to that of your friend who is buying the fancy bag? Sometimes we can forget that we can’t afford to spend money the way our friends do. We get caught up in the moment and say yes to their suggestions to go shoe shopping or order more appetizers without thinking, “Well, this doesn’t harm their budget as much as it harms mine.”
How often will I really use this?
There are some things you won’t use often, but when you need them, nothing else will do the trick. Maybe one really fancy ball gown meets that description. Or one set of fancy serving plates. Once a year, you need these things, and nothing else will do. Okay. But if something you own already falls within that category, you probably don’t need more than one. So if you’re eyeing extremely expensive and elaborate jewelry that you’ll probably only have occasion for once every few years, ask yourself if you already have something like that. If you do, that means you’d really only use this second piece every once in a blue moon.
Is this emotional?
Humans will do just about anything to avoid painful emotions. These emotions can come about after a romantic rejection, after fighting with a family member, after seeing something sad in the news, and many other things. Sometimes we eat to smother the emotion. Sometimes we drink to avoid it. And sometimes we shop. It all costs us something on the backend. Overeating regularly leaves one feeling gross. Binge drinking, well, that usually just leads to overeating. And spending to handle an emotion leads to stress when it’s time to pay your credit card bill or when your checking account is feeling a bit light. Ask yourself if you’re in the right state of mind to make a decision about a $200 bag. Did anything difficult happen recently? Are you struggling with painful emotions? Maybe deal with those and save your money.
How long do I have to work for this?
If you realize that you’ll need to work an entire day to pay something off, that can really have you rethinking that new dress. If you don’t like your job, that’s even worse. If your emergency savings are already small and you struggle to build them when buying just the essentials, the stakes become higher when attempting to splurge. Maybe it’s about buying that dress or contributing to your emergency fund that month. If you want to do both, you’d have to take on extra shifts at work or find some side hustle for extra money. If you’re someone who must work for her dollars, then every purchase you make represents hours of work necessary to pay it off.
Do I have room for this?
Seriously though, where are you going to put it? Maybe you’re buying shoes and as it stands, you’re stacking shoes on top of each other on your overcrowded shoe rack, causing them to bend and become scratched. So where are you going to put this new pair of shoes? You say you’ll get rid of a pair. Which pair? You did this dance last time you brought home shoes and you couldn’t find one pair you were ready to release, hence, the stacked piles of shoes. Have you decided to finally let go of a pair of shoes? Remember that bringing home excess things harms your mental health in two ways: you know you spent money you shouldn’t have, and you add to the clutter in your home.
Have I checked all my options?
Don’t let indifference to research cost you tons of money. Sure, there are some one-of-a-kind things you can really only get from one vendor. But there are other things that you can get from many vendors. Something as simple as a pair of workout pants or a throw pillow, there’s no reason to grab the first one you see. You can pull up dozens on Amazon in an instant and filter for your budget. You can go to stores like Ross or T.J. Maxx and find designer names for less than half off. You can pop into an antique store to get artistic items for your home. “I don’t feel like looking anywhere else” is not a good reason to spend $300 for something you could probably find elsewhere for much, much less.
Can I borrow a friend’s?
Many of the things we buy we could just borrow from friends. Specialized kitchen appliances very much fall into this category. If you want a spiralizer or processor for a recipe you only make for special occasions, there’s no reason to buy the pricey appliance for it. You probably have a friend who can lend you one. If you want a projector for a movie night, you probably have a buddy who can part with hers for an evening. If you want a quality tent for a camping trip, but you barely camp, don’t invest in a tent. Go to your outdoorsy friend who can hook you up.
Could I pay for it today?
If you are going to put this on a credit card, ask yourself what would happen if you had to pay it off today. You’re counting on making enough money by the end of the month to pay off the bill. Maybe you’re playing the dangerous game of spending more than you make each month now while enjoying the zero percent APR on your credit card for one year. But beyond the year, you don’t know how you’ll pay off the bill. This is how you get into major debt issues. Only buy things that you could pay for today if you had to.
Will it go on sale soon?
Many retail stores turn over their products so quickly that things rarely remain at full price for even two weeks. You know the ones. The dress you bought for $75 last month is now on clearance for $20. Damn. If you’re shopping at a store where this happens, just come back when they turn over their inventory. You may even be able to ask an associate when that will be. And remember if you’re shopping online, you can put something in your cart and abandon it. You’ll probably get an email from the vendor within the day, offering you a coupon to come back and make your purchase.
Do I just need a win?
Sometimes we buy things because we just need a win. Nothing else is going our way. You got a parking ticket. You didn’t get the job you wanted. Your social media post got no love. You can’t find an apartment you like. Your manuscript got denied for the 100th time. “I deserve this” might be something you find yourself saying to yourself when you just need a win. But it’s not a victory if you can’t afford it. It’s truly a financial loss. There are free wins, like phone calls to friends who lift you up or even meditating on what you’re grateful for. Counting your current triumphs can make you realize you don’t need those pricey jeans.