Why Shopping Is the Enemy of Your Wallet … and Eight Strategies for Reducing Your Shopping Trips

Once a week, I go to a community board game night held in an open meeting room that’s conveniently next door to a local board game store. (In fact, that store is the reason they use that location for the community game night… imagine that!)

While there’s nothing for sale in the actual meeting room, many people will actually “meet up” beforehand in the game store because, frankly, it can be kind of boring if you’re the first person to show up as you’re just sitting around waiting for others.

So, probably once a week or so I find myself in this local game store. I rarely even want any games when I go in there, but I’ve come to notice a few things while I’m inside, things that explain why shopping is bad even if you don’t buy anything. These things hold true regardless of the type of store you’re in.

First, being in a store makes it easy to fulfill minor wants that you would have never otherwise fulfilled. For instance, perhaps there’s a board game (using this store as an example) that I’m somewhat interested in playing. I wouldn’t buy it if I didn’t happen to be in that store, but there it is, sitting on the shelf. And look – it’s 15% off today! Suddenly, I find myself strongly drawn to fulfill this minor want.

This can happen in any store. I’ve watched it happen with my wife in a bookstore, my father in a hardware store, and my children in a candy shop. There’s something in the back of your mind that you want that you wouldn’t normally fulfill, but when that item is sitting right in front of you, that want starts singing loudly and becomes a much stronger impulse than before.

Second, wandering around a store makes it easy to generate new wants out of thin air. This is the entire purpose of retail displays – they’re designed to make you look at products, pick them up, and churn yourself up into wanting it.

This works at all kinds of stores. I’ll go into a grocery store, for instance, with a shopping list in hand and no interest or desire to buy anything else, but then I’ll see something on a display and I’ll want to buy it. Regardless of whether I actually decide to buy it at that moment or not, the seed is planted and it might grow up into a purchase later on. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a worthwhile purchase or not, it’s something I didn’t need and didn’t even consider until the store convinced me that I wanted it.

Third, it’s really easy to impulsively buy small things. That’s why there are so many candy and soda displays near the checkout aisle at a grocery store. It’s so easy to just grab one of those items and add it to your cart on the way out, completely impulsively. After all, it’s inexpensive, right?

The stores do this because they know that if everyone buys an inexpensive impulse item or two on each visit, they’re going to be rolling in the dough. Similarly, if you buy this kind of inexpensive impulse item on each visit, you’re going to be spending a lot more money than you think.

It’s clear from all of this that simply visiting a store, regardless of what you might spend in there, is something that has infinite potential to cost you money, whether now or later on. It generates new wants, pushes the desire of your already existing wants, and makes impulse buys so easy. All of those things eventually sap money right out of your pocket.

So, what’s the solution? The solution is simple: Reduce your total number of shopping trips in a given month or year.

After all, the fewer times you visit a store, the fewer opportunities you’ll have to generate new wants, have your current minor wants pressed into major desires, and give in to impulse buys.

Before we go any further, let’s stop for a minute and look at what actually constitutes a “shopping trip.” I define a “shopping trip” as any interaction with a business trying to directly sell you something that you choose to participate in. Any time you visit a store, that would be a “shopping trip.” However, any time you visit an online retailer, that would also be a “shopping trip.” Any time you watch a home shopping channel, that’s also a “shopping trip.” Any time you leaf through a catalog would probably be a “shopping trip.”

Since each shopping trip effectively saps money from your wallet directly or indirectly, the key to keeping more money in your wallet is to reduce your shopping trip count, but how do you do that?

Here are eight powerful strategies for reducing your shopping trip count. The goal of each of these strategies isn’t to keep you from buying things that you need or to force some kind of deprived life upon you. The goal is to keep your money in your pocket by simply reducing your wants, many of which are generated and inflated by the shopping experience.

Strategy #1: Find a New Social Outlet

Many people go shopping in groups as a form of social interaction or group entertainment. You’re hanging out with your friends, you’re bored, why not go to the store to wander around together?

The problem with this picture isn’t hanging out with friends. Social interaction is one of the best parts of life. The problem is with going to a store as part of that social interaction.

When you go to the store in a social way, whether as “retail therapy” or simply a normal social excursion, you have all of the challenges of a shopping trip noted above, as well as the social pressure and social cues that come into play when doing something with your friends.

The easy solution is to simply find a different social outlet than shopping. If you get together with your friends to shop, find something else – pretty much anything else – to do. Go to a state park and walk around on the trails. Have friends over for a movie night. Help each other with home improvement projects. Train together for a 5K run. Have a board game or card game night. Host a dinner party. There are countless things you can do socially without shopping, so do those things instead of shopping.

Strategy #2: Find a New Hobby or Emotional Outlet

If you have a routine of engaging in “retail therapy” whenever you feel unhappy with your life, you’re likely subscribing to a routine that actually makes your problems worse over time. If you’re stressed out by money issues and use retail therapy, you’re literally making the problem worse. If you’re stressed out by career issues and use retail therapy, you’re locking yourself even tighter into your career path because you’re setting yourself up to need more money down the line.

The solution to all of this is to find a new “therapy” for your troubles, one that doesn’t encourage you to spend money and doesn’t encourage you to cultivate material desires.

One of my favorite hobbies is reading, for example. I go to the library, check out an armload of books, and then when I want to de-stress, I just get lost in a book. I also like playing board games and, although that hobby can be expensive in its own right, few things de-stress me more than playing one of my favorite games that already resides on my shelves.

If your main hobbies or your main emotional outlet involves going to a store, put in the time and effort to discover new things that can help you deal with your emotional twists and turns. Try doing things like hiking or vigorous exercise or meditation or something that completely mentally engages you, whatever that might be (for me, board games and books do this).

  • Related: How Establishing a More Joyful Daily Routine Can Save You Money and Make Life Better

Strategy #3: Be Patient With Your Wants

It’s perfectly normal and healthy to have material wants and desires. The problems come in when you’re too quick to give into those material wants and desires.

The reality is that you don’t really need the things that you might be wanting. I don’t need a new board game. I don’t need that delicious looking piece of gruyere cheese at the store. I don’t need a bomber of that new flavor of craft beer. I don’t need a new pair of shoes.

Those things are wants.

The trick is to get those wants under control and to be patient with them, for three reasons.

First of all, if you’re patient and selective with your wants, you’re going to shop a lot less. You have fewer reasons to go into stores if you’re not giving into your wants constantly.

Second, your appreciation of each desire that you fulfill grows greater if you fulfill fewer of them and fulfill them less often. If I get a new board game each week, I don’t appreciate them. If I get a new one once every three months, I really appreciate the new one.

Finally, many wants fade with time. That’s because most wants are fueled by something external to ourselves – we’re influenced by a friend or a magazine article rather than an authentic internal desire. If we’re patient with our wants, most of them simply fade away because in reality they don’t matter to us very much at all.

I like to use the “30-day rule” when it comes to things that I want. If I decide I want something, I simply jot it down somewhere and don’t buy it right away. Instead, I give it at least 30 days. If that desire is still on my mind in a serious way after 30 days, then it’s probably worth the investment. But the vast majority of items don’t make the cut: I forget about them long before the 30 days are up.

Strategy #4: Plan Ahead for ‘Necessity’ Shopping

It’s a familiar story for a lot of people. They’re on their way home and they realize that they need an item or two to make supper with, so they stop at the store and pick up those items, but before long they’ve added several extras to the cart and the bill is suddenly $40.

If you tend to shop for the things you need on the spur of the moment, you’re making a significant money mistake, because, as I discussed earlier, every shopping trip is loaded with opportunities to fuel wants and desires and to make impulse buys. Grocery stores are particularly nasty in this regard, especially if you stop in while you’re hungry.

A much better approach is to simply plan ahead for necessity shopping. The most obvious way of doing this is to simply plan your grocery store trips in advance by making a meal plan (ideally one that’s based on that week’s grocery store flyer) and then making a list from that meal plan. Then, when you go to the store, you can just cruise through it following your list. The best part? You’ll only need to go to the store once every seven to 10 days or so.

For all of our food and household supplies, we go to the grocery store about once every 10 days and to a warehouse club about once a month, meaning that we make four grocery/household supply trips in an entire month. This means that there is far less opportunity for us to give in to impulse buying because we’re simply not in the store that often.

Strategy #5: Delete Easy Access to E-Commerce

Another expensive avenue for shopping comes from online stores like Amazon.com. Sites like Amazon make it incredibly easy to browse through mountains of goods and then make a purchase without even hardly thinking about it. In fact, when I’m logged into the site, I can go from looking at an item to having the item on its way to me in about 10 seconds, and I can do that from basically anywhere on my phone.

That’s not a good thing. It makes fulfilling impulses far too easy.

My strategy for counteracting this is to never, ever store login information for e-commerce websites on my phone or my computer. My password is fairly long and complicated, but I don’t store that password and I log out every time I’m done using the site so that I have to type it in again. This makes it substantially more time consuming to shop online.

I also don’t store credit card information at most online retailers. If I’m going to shop at those sites, I’m going to take the time to get out my card and type in the number again, which also takes up some time.

That extra time is often enough “pushback” to keep me from making less important purchases. I’ll decide that I can just do it later and then the desire to buy that item slowly subsides.

Do a little bit of planning for your store visits. Think about what you’re going to buy in advance and try to coordinate things so that you’re not making routine visits to the same store. A good grocery shopping routine is a great step here.

Strategy #6: Reorganize Your Home

Many people go shopping out of boredom. They have a feeling that there is nothing new in their life and they use shopping as a tool to seek out that sense of “newness.”

What I’ve found, time and time again, is that there often is something new in your life already, but it comes in the form of things you’ve forgotten about that have found their way into the back of the closet or in a box or in the dark recesses of a storage area.

Likely, you have clothes stowed away in your closet, perhaps even from a few years ago, that you’d be excited to wear except that you’ve forgotten them. You probably have books or DVDs or other items socked away in the back of the closet, items that weren’t intended to be hidden and forgotten but just turned out that way. Most houses are littered with these kinds of things.

Go through your closets, your pantry, your cupboards, your storage places, your junk drawers, your cabinets. Pull everything out and see what things you discover.

It’s highly likely that you find something that surprises and delights you without the need to go to the store, spend money, and be enticed into desiring new things.

Strategy #7: Find Entertainment Outside of Mass Media

Like it or not, the things you see on television, in magazines, and in many movies are littered not only with advertisements, but with product placement directly within the entertainment. Companies pay quite well to stick advertisements all over the place, but they pay just as much to sneak their product right into the articles or right into the television program or right into the movie, ideally in a way that highlights how great that product is and thus encourages you to buy it.

While this isn’t strictly a “shopping trip” per se, it certainly does have the effect of increasing the strength of material desires. The whole purpose of marketing is to make you want to buy things, and much of modern entertainment mostly seeks to deliver that marketing right to your door.

So just skip it. Find something new to entertain yourself with.

Like what? Read a book. Go hiking. Play soccer. Go fishing. Listen to some music and dance. Watch an independent movie. Start a garden – or tend to the one you have. Do something community-related. Play a board game. Build something with your bare hands. Just avoid things that are supported by advertising or are littered with product placement.

Strategy #8: Focus Your Energy on Practical Self-Improvement

The response that many people have to these ideas is that it’s going to leave them without many of the things they do regularly. It’s going to be boring. It’s going to result in a lot of unfilled hours.

That’s not a sad thing. That’s opportunity to build a better life.

Fill some of that time with new hobbies, sure, but also fill some of it with things that improve you. Take some classes so that you can earn a degree or certification. Get some exercise and improve your body and energy level. Read some challenging books that really stretch your mind. Redecorate your home and make it inviting to guests so that it’s much more fun to have a house party or a dinner party.

If you’re having to cut shopping trips out of your life, don’t just sit around with nothing to do. As the saying goes, the devil finds work for idle hands to do. Instead, fill that extra time and use that extra energy to make your life better, not just today, but over the long run.

Final Thoughts

One of the best moves I’ve made in my life over the last several years is to simply cut down on my number of shopping trips. Because of that, I actually want a lot less than I used to. I simply don’t have any desire to go shopping at all and I can’t even really name anything that I want to buy.

Having that kind of mindset makes it very easy to not spend money needlessly and instead use it for better things, like a financial life that’s free from debt and well along the path to financial independence.

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.