How I Stopped Buying Things I Don't Need

I had shirts in my kitchen cabinet. Something needed to change.

This article is part of HuffPost’s “Reclaim” campaign, an ongoing project spotlighting the world’s waste crisis and how we can begin to solve it.

I’m kind of an impulsive shopper. You might even call me a compulsive shopper. I never met a white Zara blouse I didn’t like. 

I’m also an introvert who primarily enjoys the company of New York City streets. This means a Saturday walk in November can easily turn into a $75 binge on bathing suit bottoms at H&M.

I buy something cool and cheap, rip the tags from my bounty and, by the next week, I’ve lost all interested in wearing it. On top of that, I hate returning things. My aversion is rooted in a chronic lack of patience, general interpersonal anxiety and tendency to become lightheaded while waiting in lines.

When you don’t have a ton of money or an excess of square footage to call home, these habits can get out of hand. Within the last year, I realized things for me were way, way out of hand. 

Running late to work one day, with my hands two feet deep in new blouses, I was forced to confront the fact that I was draining a modest bank account into an even more modest bedroom closet.

The person I wanted to be has one quality black blazer she wears every day. The person I had become would crawl beneath a sale rack to claim three.

Solving my problem meant confronting a lifetime of neuroses and unproductive coping mechanisms. The first step was to start returning unworn items to the stores where I found them. The next would be to stop over-buying altogether.

I was draining a modest bank account into an even more modest bedroom closet.

Fashion is estimated to be one of the most polluting industries in the world. One facet of this complex problem is the sheer volume of stuff we throw out: About 85 percent of America’s 15.1 million tons of textile waste ended up in landfills in 2013. Secondhand clothes are often sent to cheap markets in the developing world, compromising local vendors’ ability to compete.

According to the International Labor Organization, many of the 170 million child laborers across the globe are employed in garment and textile-making industries ― in part because of massive demand for inexpensive, trendy clothes in the Western world. 

Meanwhile, my walls were dripping with cheap scarves and reckless materialism. I was paying a premium for cage-free eggs from chickens treated better than some of the humans who made my clothes. I was dropping off piles of never-worn polyester to Goodwill on the way to the farmers market with reusable bags. It didn’t make sense to me anymore.

It me!
It me!

But returning things was not a habit I ever developed. It’s certainly not something I ever learned from my parents. My mom grew up poor and my dad grew up cheap, so I inherited an irrepressible drive to acquire as many things as possible for the lowest possible price. Where frugality began, more good sense didn’t always follow. If you took a gamble on a bargain purchase and it didn’t work out, you just cut your losses.

Why spend two hours and $5 on subway fare to return a $10 blouse when you can just buy more hangers? 

More importantly, shopping for deals was a bonding activity for my mother, sister and me. Even as an adult confronting my own issues with clutter and overspending, the idea of declining my mother’s invitations to the outlet mall fills me with guilt.

For our family, buying things for people is an act of love. My mother sent me many of the unworn items that remain in my closet, which I imagine her buying and mailing with an excitement I understand all too well. A therapist once told me that my “money issues” with regard to shopping are really my “mommy issues.” I stopped by Urban Outfitters on the way home.

So here’s how I began to break out of the cycle. 

I could keep buying clothing under two conditions: I’d leave the tags on an item until I wore it, and I’d keep my receipts. Previously I’d throw away both immediately with post-purchase euphoria. And rather than wear the item immediately, I’d wait until I really wanted to wear it. Often, that moment never came. 

A therapist once told me my “money issues” are really my “mommy issues.” I stopped by Urban Outfitters on the way home.

I found that when I bought a new item on a whim, I’d get bored with it faster than its return policy would expire. I always had the option to bring it back.

Parting with the item was painless, but something that took 10 minutes to buy often took far, far more time to return. It wasn’t long before I realized the excitement of buying something new wasn’t worth the time and effort involved in returning it. 

Finally, a closet filled with cheap clothes I barely liked no longer appealed to me. And now that I was keeping better track of the items I bought only to endure an aggressive Zara return line a week later, I just couldn’t be bothered to buy them in the first place. 

With that small change, I’m happier and slightly richer. I feel better about myself as a global citizen and as a woman with at least a little self-discipline. Walking past a department store on payday isn’t exactly easy, but paying rent on time and choosing an outfit in under five minutes definitely is. 

While I didn’t completely cure myself of the impulse to shop, I put up enough barriers to doing so that I created a clearer path to reducing frivolous consumption. Will I resist buying underwear later this week to postpone doing laundry? Well, I’m only human. 

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