Oprah's Debt Diet Step 8: Understand Your Spending Issues...and Save!
June 17, 2009
Part 1: Why Do You Shop? Self-Assessment
We're big believers in understanding why you behave in a certain way. As Oprah says, "Way too many of us are walking through life unconsciously." We shop, we spend, we pay the consequences later—yet we don't exactly understand why we do it.
Take this self-assessment and get to the heart of why you are spending money. It will help you get a grip on your spending in the future and make sure this Debt Diet becomes not just a short-term fix, but a way of life.
Which description best describes your mood when you are shopping?
Part 1: Why You Shop: Entertainment Almost every mall operator in this country has recognized they can't be a landlord; they have to be a place-maker. There has to be something besides shopping that either gets people there or keeps people there longer. The result: For many people, shopping is all about a social experience. You meet your friend at the mall because you want to be with her. You buy something together because that's something else you can share.
How to Resist: Delay, delay, delay. When you're shopping for entertainment, you tend to buy because you feel guilty about not buying. How can you spend nothing when your friend is already toting three shopping bags? How can you spend nothing when the salesperson has given you 45 minutes of your time?
To take the edge off, put the items you're considering on hold. If you're still desperate to have them tomorrow, you can always return to the store and buy them. Putting a little distance between yourself and the purchase will help you evaluate it more rationally. And besides, if the item is really for you, it will be there when you come back.
A Debt Diet Journal Exercise Do you see yourself in the explanation above? Do you think you can resist temptation? Write about it in your Debt Diet Journal on Oprah.com. Here's how:
Click on "My Journal." After you've logged in, scroll down to "Start a Debt Diet Journal today."
Add images to your page, edit what you've written, or delete entries completely at any time.
When you're ready to save your entry, you can choose to keep your journal private, or share what you've written with others.
Go on to Step 8, Part 2: How to Protect Yourself and Start Saving NowPart 1: Why You Shop: Mood Repair You've heard it called "retail therapy"—it really is a pick-me-up. People shop to fill the gap between who they are and who they want to be. In other words, it's a way to fill a void in your life. You believe life will be better and you will be different if you own those shoes or that pair of pants. It won't.
How to Resist: Understand the forces at work and your particular motivation for buying. Is your trip to your favorite store or website a result of a spat with your spouse or a particularly large number when you stepped on the scale? Did you just get a raise and feel you absolutely deserve to spend some of it immediately? Or, were you feeling lonely and are just so grateful to the solicitous salesperson who seemed to be the first person in a very long time to care what might make you happy? (Remember, that may be true, but it's also part of a salesperson's job.)
Psychologist April Benson gives all of her patients a laminated card with six questions on it to put in their wallet on top of their credit cards. She suggests pausing—a deep breath helps, too—every time you approach the register and asking yourself:
Go on to Step 8, Part 2: How to Protect Yourself and Start Saving NowPart 1: Why You Shop: Habit Sometimes we shop because we have trained ourselves—like Pavlov's dog—to shop. Our favorite store just happens to be on the drive home from work. So once a week we go in just to see what's new. We're never sure what we want to have for dinner, so we shop every day rather than once a week—and inevitably come out with items we didn't plan on buying.
The Internet is tailor-made for habitual shoppers. You can check the sales online just as easily and quickly as you can check your e-mail or your bank account. Marketers get this, by the way. Once they have you flagged as a habitual shopper, they do whatever they can to increase the frequency that you shop and the amount of merchandise you buy. Websites for instance, send out bulk e-mails noting that a new line has arrived in stores. Other retailers take a frequent flyer-type approach, where frequent customers are invited to trunk shows, preview sales, and special screenings of new items, even given discounts to bring them back.
How to Resist: Generally, there's a chain of events that leads you to buy. Think about it. If you always stop in the CD store on your walk between your office and your car, you've taken a number of steps. You left the office. You turned left. You passed by the window of the CD store, stopping to notice how the displays have changed since you walked by yesterday. You hear the latest Gwen Stefani playing on the pumped up audio system. You glance at your watch and see you really don't have to be home for another 25 minutes and you stop in, where you inevitably buy something. What could you have done instead? You could have turned right. You could have stayed in the office for another 15 minutes so that you really wouldn't have time to shop. You could have parked in a different lot so that you would have to take a completely different path.
The key to resisting is recognizing your behavior patterns in detail so that you can change them.
Go on to Step 8, Part 2: How to Protect Yourself and Start Saving NowPart 1: Why You Shop: Impulse Modern stores are designed to implore you to look, touch, focus, to take your eye from the thing you need to other things you may very well want. Shopping is a conflict between desire and willpower. When our desire for things overwhelms our willpower, then we make an impulse purchase. It all tends to happen in the blink of an eye.
How to Resist: You are most likely to buy on impulse when their self-regulatory impulses are depleted. You may be tired from a long day at work. You may even just be tired from the previous hour of shopping. Or you may be worried about your kids or work. All of those kinds of stresses make you more prone to buy impulsively. Monitor yourself. Don't surf to your favorite website after you've had a glass of wine, a fight with your spouse or a particularly hard day. And don't visit stores when you know you're not at your best.
Go on to Step 8, Part 2: How to Protect Yourself and Start Saving NowPart 1: Why You Shop: Compulsive Behavior The difference between impulse shopping and compulsive shopping is frequency. Impulse shopping happens when you find yourself, occasionally, faced with a purchase that's too tough to resist. Compulsive shopping is when you shop more often then you'd like, feeling unable to stop.
It turns out, there are four basic types of compulsive shoppers.
"Revenge addicts" shop as a way of getting back at another person, typically a spouse, with whom they're unable to communicate in any other way.
"Existential addicts" shop because the act of finding the right thing at the right price makes them feel important and gives their life meaning.
"Serial addicts" are people for whom compulsive shopping is just one in a series of compulsive behaviors like eating, drinking or drug abuse.
The fourth group shops to boost their mood—although in a much larger way than the people in our first group. When a compulsive shopper prepares to buy, her mood rises steadily—her heart quickens, her palms sweat. When she makes her purchase, her mood plateaus, then it quickly falls off. Her good feelings quickly evaporate and remorse or guilt sets in.
How to Resist: There is no quick fix for compulsive behavior. People who spend compulsively need to develop an emotional system that will help them tolerate distress in other areas of their lives. You also need help.
Some resources to consider:
Debtors Anonymous (www.debtorsanonymous.org). If there is no chapter in your area, try Gamblers Anonymous (www.gamblersanonymous.org). Although debt and gambling problems manifest themselves differently, they are actually fairly similar.)
You can also search for a therapist at the website www.PsychologyToday.org. To narrow the field, specify on the second pull-down menu that you're searching for help with an addiction. Then ask the therapists that you call if they've helped other compulsive spenders.
Go on to Step 8, Part 2: How to Protect Yourself and Start Saving NowPart 2: How to Protect Yourself and Start Saving Now
The other key to staying ahead of the game is saving. You need a savings stash to keep you from sliding back into debt. Think about it: You're moving along, paying down your credit cards, making terrific progress. And your dog gets a nasty double ear infection. Between trips to the vet and pricey medications, this ends up costing you close to $200. Where is that money going to come from?
Unless you have a stash of savings, you are probably going to put it on your credit card. Although you now know enough to put it on your lowest rate credit card, that purchase is going to set you back. It's going to impede your progress and it's going to make you feel rotten. That's why you need savings.
Turn Protection into Profit
As you start to pay down your debts, siphon off a chunk of money each month—3–5% is a good start but aim for 10%—and put it into savings.
Stash your savings in a safe place, such as the highest paying money market account you can find (go to www.bankrate.com to find the best rates today)—until you've got a substantial emergency cushion equivalent to 3 to 6 months salary. That's your protection. If you get laid off, if the dog gets ill, if your transmission dies, you'll be able to live and pay your bills without sliding back.
Once you've got your emergency cushion, you can start investing that money in a portfolio of stocks and mutual funds that can help you build a real foundation of wealth for your future.