What I Learned from a Three-Month Retail Spending Freeze

Financial Gym client, Laura Branch, shared with us her experience being on a three month retail spending freeze and the lessons she learned to keep her retail spending to a minimum!

I’m still learning, but I’m in a far better place than the last quarter of last year, when I spent over $3,000 on retail purchases. I’d like to say that most of that went to Christmas presents for my family and friends, but that would be less than half true.

I’ve known that I have a spending problem, and that’s a large part of the reason I signed up to work with a trainer at the Financial Gym. Tracking my spending month over month and quarter over quarter has shed light on the ugly, unavoidable truth.

Joy, my financial trainer, is gentle but firm. She lets the numbers speak for themselves. While I’m good about saving and investing and doing all the other things right, retail spending is my Achilles heel.

While we talked about my spending at the end of last year, Joy suggested I try a retail spending freeze for the first three months of this year. I was eager to take on the challenge and to give myself a bit of a shopping detox.

I've heard people who have done Whole 30 or other elimination diets talk about how they feel worse before they feel better, and I went through that cycle many times over the three month span from January to March. It hit me that without the ability to spend money, I had to get creative when deciding what to do with myself in my free time. While I didn’t restrict myself from eating out or getting coffee, since those weren’t problem areas for me, I did find myself facing several weekend days when I might otherwise have gone to this or that store to “run errands,” which would have inevitably turned into buying things I didn’t need.

I made it through the three months, but not without struggle. Maybe because the time period I chose was the bleakest time of year, with the cold weather hunkering down and the busy holiday season past, but it felt pretty tough at times to resist the urge to buy something to cheer me up. If you don’t let yourself spend money, you have to turn to other things to give yourself a boost, like cooking something, going for a walk, watching The Crown, or reading that book that’s been collecting dust on your shelf for weeks. While these things are all more rewarding in the long run, they don’t give you that quick-fix satisfaction that shopping can.  

Through my “freeze” experience, I also decided I am not a minimalist. I know that lifestyle works for some people, and I can definitely see why it’s attractive, but that’s just not me. I like my home and my surroundings to feel cozy, lived in, and full of pieces of my life that make me smile. While I think it’s important to control my spending, I also think like is short and if I want to buy fresh flowers at the grocery store or a candle every once in a while, I should be able to buy those things that make me happy without guilt. Setting up a weekly budget with Joy has helped alleviate guilt around those occasional small purchases - and helped me find a little more joy.

Here are some quick tips I learned that helped me go from a serial shopper to a more restrained human:

  • Unfollow accounts on social media that tempt you to shop. If you get on Instagram 15 times a day, it’s going to be too hard to resist if you’re inundated with everything you’re trying NOT to buy as you scroll through your feed.

  • Make an ongoing list of things you want, and only buy off that list. I have a note on my phone where I add things as I want them, with the date. After a month has gone buy, that item is “fair game” to buy. You could do a shorter amount of time to start, like a two week pay period, or go for a whole quarter. That way when you finally do buy that new yoga mat or whatever it is, you’ll know you planned for it and you actually want it and will use it.

  • Watch Amazon or other places where you “only” spend $20 or $30 for each purchase. It adds up. For me, the convenience of Amazon is a blessing and a curse.

  • Be mindful of gifts, wedding expenses, and what you spend on other people. This is not to say that you should be selfish, but only offer or spend what you can truly afford. During my quarter freeze, even though I wasn’t shopping for myself, I was shocked to see the hundreds of dollars I spent on shower gifts, birthdays, Valentine's Day, and so on. I’ve always prided myself on being a good gift giver and being generous, but I know that my family and friends will love me whether I spend $40 or $140 on their gift. You don’t have to go crazy to prove you're a great friend/daughter/human. You’re great already, especially with a few extra dollars in your savings account.

Laura Branch