I have found that, time and time again, the act of going shopping causes almost all of the money leaks in my life. It seems like it's common sense, but it's true - whenever I go to a store or visit an online store, I tend to spend money, and it's often money spent on things that really aren't the smartest things to buy.
It happens in the grocery store. I have to go there, but whenever I do, I usually end up making an impulse buy or two, adding something to my cart that isn't on my list.
It happens at hobby stores. If I happen to see a store related to a hobby of mine, I'm very tempted to stop in that store, and when I do, I'm often tempted to spend money that I shouldn't on something I didn't even consider owning just half an hour earlier.
The simple act of going into a store opens the door wide to bad impulse shopping. Thus, it makes sense to adopt a strategy where you simply minimize and avoid shopping in your life. After all, the less you shop, the fewer the opportunities to spend money on things you don't really need.
Over the past several months, I've made a conscious decision to avoid shopping as much as possible, both online and off. I'm trying to minimize my visits to stores of all kinds, because the less frequently I'm in store, the less frequently I'll buy things impulsively that I don't really need or want.
It's worth noting that I don't have any problem with spontaneity or spending money on fun things. I simply recognize that stores have a negative impact on my long-term goals because they gobble up money and usually don't give me much value in return. I'm happy to spend money on things that bring me lasting value.
Here are some of the strategies I'm using to minimize my time in stores.
1. Keep a constant running list of the things you eventually need but aren't absolutely urgent.
We have a dry erase board that currently hangs on a wall next to the kitchen with a dry erase marker attached to it. Whenever Sarah or I notice that something is running low, we add it to a running list that takes up the right side of that message board. Then, before we go to the grocery store, we add the items from that side list to our grocery list.
If either of us notices an item starting to get low, we add it to that side list because we know that means it will be picked up in the next week or two. Doing this keeps us from having to make impromptu trips to the store when these items eventually run out and we find ourselves urgently needing them.
What kinds of items find their way onto this list? It's usually nonperishable foods that we always keep on hand, like dry beans, canned pasta sauce, dry pasta, and so forth, along with household supplies like trash bags, dish soap, and the like.
It's important to remember that the big reason for this list is to minimize "impulse" runs to the grocery store. It takes some practice to add things that aren't quite empty yet to that list instead of waiting until they're truly out. For example, if the peanut butter jar has enough left in it for a few more sandwiches, that's the time to add "peanut butter" to the white board. If it waits until we don't have any more peanut butter, then we've got a chance of being in a situation where we need peanut butter for something, like a particular sauce that we're making. This is a proactive list, not a reactive one.
2. Make meal plans at least one week in advance, and make a grocery list from that meal plan.
When we first started our usual meal planning routine in which we sketch out a few meals, use that plan to build a grocery list, and then take that list to the store, we really only planned out three or four meals in advance, which still left us going to the grocery store twice a week or so. Over time, that length has grown and our usual meal plans today run from ten to fourteen days out.
The process is straightforward. I've outlined it many times on The Simple Dollar, but here's a refresher:
Step 1: Get a Flyer
Step 2: Find Sales on Fresh Ingredients
Step 3: Do Some Recipe Research
Step 4: Create a Week-Long Meal Plan
Step 5: Make a Shopping List from the Meal Plan
Step 6: Go Grocery Shopping – and Stick to Your List
As I said above, rather than merely building a week-long meal plan, we now extend it to a week and a half and sometimes all the way out to two weeks.
This keeps us out of the grocery store, period. It chops our grocery store visits down from seven or eight a month back in the bad old days down to two or three a month these days.
Why is that so good? Each time I go into a grocery store, I usually wind up making a few impulse buys - let's say four of them. I used to visit the grocery store about eight times a month, which meant I was making 32 impulse food buys a month. Nowadays, I'm only in there three times a month, which means 12 impulse food buys. That's a lot of money saved that would have otherwise been spent on food that I didn't need at all.
3. Ask your friends or family or neighbors for help.
I often find myself needing just one item for a particular task. Maybe I need some honey to finish off a bread recipe, or perhaps I need a bigger screwdriver than what I can find in my garage.
In those moments, one might think that it's time to head to the local grocery store or the local hardware store. As always, though, trips like that turn into impulse buys, where you buy ill-considered things that you don't need.
I've come to appreciate a different approach. I ask my neighbors for help. We have a very good relationship with one couple that lives near us and solid relationships with several other nearby households. I feel completely comfortable going to any of them and asking for a bit of honey or for temporary use of a screwdriver.
Doing so not only saves me from making a trip to the store, it also actually ends up cementing a relationship with those neighbors. They get to know a little more about me and they often begin to feel comfortable reciprocating those little requests. Having a strong relationship with a neighbor is great because you then have an extra set of eyes on your home when you're traveling and a friendly face that you often see as you're out and about.
4. Learn to distinguish between 'needs' and 'wants.'
Like many people, sometimes I'll get an idea stuck in my head. I'll hear about some product or discover some minor issue in my life and decide that I need to buy some product in order to alleviate that situation. I'll get fixated on it and, over time, I'll focus on that desire so intensely that, in my mind, I'll elevate it from a "want" to a "need."
When I need something, I'm willing to go shopping for it. When it's just a want, it's silly - it can wait. The problem comes when I blur that line in my head. Keeping a separation between wants and needs is a vital part of personal finance success.
For me, the solution here is to always go back to basics. There are very few things that I actually need. I need a roof over my head. I need basic food and water. I need simple clothing. I need basic hygiene and health. I need to protect my family. I also need to provide for their basic needs. Virtually everything in my life beyond those basic things is really in the "want" category.
The trick is to recognize that your mind will elevate "wants" into the "needs" category. If you're not careful, you'll begin to believe you "need" things that aren't really "needs," and the more you do that, the easier it is to come up with more things you "need." The modern world is very good at convincing people of this - how many people "need" a cell phone today when they had no such need or desire not very many years ago? People lived just fine without them... is it really a "need"?
Keeping "needs" and "wants" straight keeps me out of stores and keeps my money secure.
5. Make a shopping list before you go to any store.
As I mentioned above, whenever I go to the grocery store, I carry a shopping list that I've prepared using a meal plan system. That list helps me to keep on task when I'm in that store.
The same strategy honestly works for every store. Write a list before you ever go into the store and then only buy things that are on that list.
The really clever part of this strategy is that by doing this every time, you often expose how going to a particular store is a waste of your time and money. If you can't honestly write down an item that you need to get in a store, why are you going there in the first place?
For me, this simple "make a list" rule keeps me from just going into stores and wandering around. Inevitably, that kind of wandering convinces me to spend money that I otherwise shouldn't spend, so the "make a list" rule is a pretty smart one. It's not like I'm giving up anything of any real importance of my life by following that list anyway.
6. Delete your credit card numbers and other payment information from online shopping sites, remove your login information from your browser, and especially delete your bookmarks to those sites.
The first two steps here are easy tools to help you get control over your online spending, but it's the third tool that really matters. Deleting your bookmarks that take you to online sites is the one truly powerful way I've found to curb your online spending.
Like many people, I rely on my bookmarks in my web browser to visit many of my favorite websites. If some of those bookmarks lead directly to e-commerce sites, it means that a shopping opportunity is sitting there tempting me every time I look at my bookmarks. An opportunity to spend money on junk I don't really need is a click away on a place on my computer that I visit frequently.
There's really no need for that at all. There's nothing I'm buying online with such urgency that I need to constantly check bookmarks for them. Thus, I simply don't bookmark e-commerce sites any more and I purged my bookmarks list of all of them. I also purged my browser history (something I do regularly anyway).
7. If at all possible, pay at the pump at gas stations.
A convenience store provides exactly what the name of the store implies: it provides convenient purchasing of goods that you might want when you're out and about. Of course, as always, you pay for that convenience. The prices on things at convenience stores are almost always far higher than you could find elsewhere - and it is exceedingly rare to find things at a convenience store that you actually need in any way.
Of course, I often need to go to convenience stores while I'm driving around because they sell something that I actually do need: gasoline for my vehicle. Thankfully, most gas stations offer a great solution for this. They allow you to simply pay at the pump.
I have a simple rule these days when I fill up for gas. Unless there is an extremely pressing reason not to do so, I pay at the pump. Even when I have to go inside for something (like taking a child inside for a bathroom visit), I still pay at the pump as it gives me a reason to not check out.
Yes, doing this does require a credit card, which means that you need to be a responsible credit card user or this strategy doesn't really work. However, assuming that you keep your credit card paid off, this little move will keep you out of convenience stores.
8. Find other social venues besides stores.
Many people engage in shopping as a social activity. They'll go together to a store and wander through, discussing the products and often convincing each other that they want something more than they actually do. I know this quite well - going to bookstores or to electronics stores used to be a social activity for my circle of friends back in the day.
The problem with using such a place as a social venue is not only does it encourage you to spend money on things you don't really need, it also encourages you to pump up your material desires, elevating very minor wants into something big in your head. It also ups the ante on the social aspect, increasing the sense that buying this or that product will somehow up your social standing in the group.
All of those things have an almost purely negative impact on your financial state. They're all responsible for encouraging you to buy stuff you don't need at all and, often, things you scarcely want. They rely on the spotlight effect to elevate your personal sense that you should buy something.
Don't. None of it is real. Instead, try to choose social activities that don't involve shopping. Virtually anything is better than shopping as a social activity, at least in terms of your finances and your ability to keep minor wants from escalating into something irresistible.
9. Avoid hobbies that encourage shopping.
Some hobbies, like golfing, encourage you to constantly go shopping to buy new things to support that hobby. There are many hobbies like this, like art collecting and model railroading and baseball card collecting, that strongly encourage devotees to visit hobby stores and online stores to further fuel their interests.
Other hobbies require virtually none of this. I enjoy rock collecting and decorating our front garden with geodes and other such discoveries. There's no cost. I also enjoy exploring trails in state parks. Again, there's no cost.
I enjoy geocaching - no regular cost there other than the initial purchase of a GPS unit, which is probably already on your smart phone. Even things like reading books don't really require purchases provided you're willing to use a library.
If you spend your spare time cultivating hobbies that don't require purchases, you'll avoid shopping situations and unnecessary spending money.
10. Keep staples on hand for easy impromptu meals.
A few weeks ago, I planned a meal that required us to have a bunch of tomatoes from the garden. It was a great plan, except that we simply didn't have adequate ripe tomatoes for the recipe I intended to make. I had to discard the recipe and ad-lib.
Thankfully, when I opened the door of our pantry, I found a bunch of staples that I could use to throw together a meal. I ended up making pasta with a sauce that incorporated some of the vegetables I was going to use elsewhere and everything turned out fine.
Having staples on hand kept me from making a quick trip to the grocery store, a quick trip that would have likely resulted in an impulse buy or two.
What meals can you quickly prepare that your family likes? What elements of those meals can you just keep on hand all of the time? The answers to those questions can keep you out of the grocery store.
11. Leave your wallet at home.
If you go out for errands, take along only enough cash to pay for the things you need, no more. This is a simple pre-emptive strategy to keep you from making impulsive stops at other stores.
For instance, if I need to run three errands in town and only one involves spending money - say, $10 at the post office - I'll only take $10 with me. That way, I'm not going to impulsively stop at the hardware store and find some tool that I "need."
This way, even if you have a sudden impulse to visit a store, it's fruitless because you don't have any money to spend there. You might stop and look around, but you can't buy anything. Of course, that seems foolish, so it's quite likely that you just won't stop at all.
Keeping yourself out of the stores, whether online or off, is a very smart way to keep your money where it belongs - in your checking account. It's all about cutting off your own chances to spend on things that aren't really very important and thus in the process improving your chances to save for the future, pay off debts, and build your life into something better.
All it takes is some simple steps, both now and later, to keep the shopping impulses at bay. Are you ready to step up to the plate?