Have you ever gone to the store to get a new pair of walking shoes and you came home with a new pair of pumps, strappy sandals and a great pair of winter boots just because they were on sale? Was there a 50-percent-off sign in the mall that you just couldn't resist so you bought those $60 jeans marked down to $30—only to find they don't really fit well? Last time you and your best friend went shopping, did you buy something frivolous just to keep her company in the checkout line?
Admit it. You've probably done all of these things. Two-thirds of all women's purchases are unplanned, according to Paco Underhill, a shopping sociologist, whether they're made in the grocery store or at a chic boutique. Often we buy because we're looking for a pick-me-up or we want to reward ourselves. Or, it's because a sale looks too hot to pass up, or because we're shopping just for something to do—not because we need an item. Whatever the motivation, when you put all these shopping trips together, you've got a serious dent in your savings. You may even be putting yourself and your future in financial jeopardy. That's why saying no to impulsive, recreational and even compulsive purchases is so important.
By learning when not to shop, you'll also save a huge chunk of time. If you total up all the minutes the average woman spends in the stores, surfing the net, reading catalogs and watching shopping channels each year, it adds up to an average of 146 hours, according to The Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's more time than we spend reading or cleaning the house, and as much time as we spend cooking. If you rechanneled even half that time, say, into a workout at the gym can you imagine what the results would look like?
Understanding why you shop can help you get a grip on all this excess buying and help you focus on getting the best deals on what you really need, when you need it—like when your hard drive crashes and you've got to unexpectedly replace the family PC.
For savvy shoppers who know what they want and why they want it, it's never been a better time to bargain hunt. Thanks to manufacturers' ability to get new goods into the stores several times a year, retailers (both bricks and mortar stores and Internet sites) are motivated to move inventory as fast as possible. That means discounts, coupons, rebates and mark-downs galore. Sometimes you can even negotiate a better price right on the spot. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing you were smart enough to get a good deal on something you really need. Buying sale items on impulse, however, simply means you spent money needlessly, even if it's less money than you would have spent if you paid full price.
This month, you and your Money Group are going to learn how to stop impulse shopping and turn your quest for a great deal into a great deal of savings! Discussion Questions for Your Money Group
We shop, we spend, we pay the consequences later—yet we don't exactly understand why we do it. Use these discussion questions to help members of your group understand each other's shopping motivations and help each other to become smarter shoppers. I've included some answers and comments of my own just for fun!
How do you feel about the way you shop? Are you addicted to the mall or still wearing skirts from high school because you hate to hit the stores? (Jean's take: Sometimes hating to shop can also cause you to overspend—you may tend to buy the first thing you see to get the chore over with, even if it's twice the price as the same item down the street. I hate to shop for bathing suits, for example—who doesn't?—so I have to make sure I give myself enough time and Do a little internet research beforehand so I don't get frustrated and end up buying something I'll truly never wear!)
What kind of shopper was your mom? What were you like as a teen shopper? How have you changed over the years?
Do you go shopping for a pick-me-up when you're feeling blue? A reward when something goes right?
Does shopping give you a sense of power, control?
What's your definition of a great bargain?
When you get a great bargain, how do you feel afterward? (Jean's take: I feel powerful. Really smart. In fact, that's my downfall. I've learned to pause when something is on major sale to make sure I'm buying it because I need it and not just because it's been marked down by 75 percent.)
When you buy something and bring it home, what's the first thing you say about it? (Jean's take: I also learned that if the first thing out of my mouth is the great price I got, or the big discount, and not the quality of the item or how great wearing it makes me feel, I probably just bought something I didn't need.)
Do you feel like buying on sale is "being cheap"?
Do you routinely haggle for the best price? If not, what stops you? (Jean's take: It's hard for me to haggle face to face, so when I'm likely to haggle, I'll try to do my shopping over the phone. It not only works for hotel rooms and cars, it works for jewelry and furniture. The crucial words to know: "Can you do better than that?")
Do you often feel buyer's remorse?
How often are you returning items? (Jean's take: Buying and returning can become its own kind of addiction...not to mention it's a huge time suck.)
What are some strategies that have helped keep your shopping under control? (Jean's take: For years I couldn't resist a sale on clothes. I'd come home with bags full of items I'd never wear. Now, once a season I scour my closet to see what I need. A new brown suit? Sandals in a neutral color? I decide how much I'm willing to spend on each item. Then I go to the store and shop specifically for those items. As long as an item is in my price range, I can buy it, whether it's on sale or not. If it's not on my list, it doesn't go into the dressing room. Period.)
What are some of your most meaningful shopping experiences—your wedding gown? First car? (Jean's take: I especially remember outfitting the nursery when my son and daughter were born. What could be more heartwarming? Shopping trips that have a story behind them are often worth more than any bargain buy.)
Where do you think you'll have trouble cutting back shopping?
Who can help you through those trouble spots?
Five Tasks to Complete This Month
Marketing consultant and trend forecaster Kate Newlin, one of my guests on my Oprah Radio XM radio show and author of Shopportunity! How to be a Retail Revolutionary, said American consumers are turning into "shopping zombies" who are obsessed with discounts and will buy whatever is available and cheap. But you and the members of your Money Group don't have to walk through life unconsciously! Together you can use the smart strategies, tools and support on the following pages to reclaim the shopping experience and use what you buy for self-expression, not just instant gratification.
Task 1: Keep a shopping log. Use my shopping log tool to track every nonessential purchase (everything but food and medicine) you make in the next two weeks. At the end of the two week period, you'll get a much clearer picture of how much impulsive or unconscious spending you're actually doing.
If you're married (and can get your husband to do this exercise, too), you might find that you are not the only one who has a problem controlling impulse purchases.
Task 2: Create a shopping diary. When you're shopping for recreation, you may buy something simply because you feel guilty not buying. You want to join your friend in the fun. Or you feel bad the salesperson spent a half hour to help you pick out the perfect pair of black slacks. To give yourself a little distance, keep a small notebook with you and write down how you're feeling before you actually make a purchase. This will give you something else to do besides plunking down the credit card, and it may give you the perspective you need to see objectively that you don't really need another pair of black slacks.
While you're writing in your diary, ask yourself these five questions to help get at your true motivations. I got these from April Benson, a psychotherapist who specializes in helping people stop overshopping! (Interesting fact: She, like many shopping therapists, used to specialize in helping people overcome eating disorders. The link is that if you overdo it in one area, you're likely to overdo it in others.)
What am I doing here?
What was the trigger that sent me here?
How do I feel?
Is the thing I'm about to reach for something I need? What happens if I don't buy it?
What happens if I do buy it?
Task 3: Use the Internet wisely. If you're spending your nights surfing the Internet and making purchases you don't really need, be sure to get yourself off of those website's e-mail lists that give you a heads up on sales and new promotions (same goes for catalog mailing lists).
For items you truly must buy—your son just joined the baseball team and he needs gear, your coffeemaker has hit the skids and you need to replace it—the Internet can be a great source of bargains. Use shopping sites such as Shopzilla.com or Bizrate.com, which scour the Internet for the item you want and then list, by price, all the Web retailers that carry it. (That's the beauty of these sites, they work best when you know exactly what you want; they're no good for random browsing.) And always look for special offers for the merchandise you need. Many retailers and services (such as airlines) offer discounts for using their sites.
Task 4: Find a great shopping alternative. One of the women I coached recently was tens of thousands of dollars in debt because of what she called her compulsive shopping habit. I needed to get her out of the stores and doing something else with her time. So I gave her a pedometer and set her off to walk 10,000 steps a day. Extreme? Yes. But exercise is a great alternative to a trip to the mall. It makes you feel good (like shopping) and it's good for you (unlike shopping). So is reading a great book from the library. Or trying a new, elaborate recipe. The trick is to replace your shopping reflex with a new habit. And research has shown that you have to do something 21 times in order to make it a habit.
Task 5: Get a great deal—buy like a man. Men are more efficient shoppers than women, according to a study from Brunel University in London. It all goes back to our hunter/gatherer roots, say the researchers who conducted a 14-country study to come up with their findings. Females gather by searching and comparing, while men go straight for the kill.
What's more, men are far more likely to negotiate and haggle for the best price, having no qualms about the feelings of the person behind the counter. For them, bargaining is part of the fun—and it's often quite effective.
So next time you're shopping for something you really need, don't be afraid to get aggressive, the way your husband or brother might. You'll get a great price, and save time too.
Start becoming a savvier shopper right now. Here are some other articles that will help:
Use this worksheet to track every purchase you make outside your normal budget for two weeks. I don't care if it's a magazine or a pack of gum from the grocery store checkout, or an all-out splurge from Anthropologie or Target. When you get home (or log off the computer), write down the date, price you paid, how you were feeling when you picked out the item, your rationale for buying it and who you were with when you bought it.
Then, at the end of the two weeks, count up how many of these purchases were truly necessary, how many were impulsive buys and how many were emotional buys. Not only will you see what type of shopper you are—and where your weaknesses lay—you'll also be able to use that information to help you focus on buying only what you really need.