Alex Holder, writer and author of Open Up: Why Talking About Money Will Change Your Life, explores what a recent 30 day shopping ban has taught her about mindful spending in the future
I was getting headaches. I thought I needed new glasses but then it occurred to me, the headaches only came at about 10:30pm, after two hours of scrolling. Every evening I was filling baskets, a designer scarf, some new tea towels, a highly impractical fluffy cream clutch bag from COS, a book someone I follow on Instagram had just read, trainers for my 5-year-old son. I didn’t always press ‘buy’, but in December I found myself inputting my delivery address often enough to feel quite queasy when I looked at my bank balance.
I knew it was becoming a problem, the spending obviously, but also the constant seeking. As Barbara Kruger infamously scribed in 1990, ‘I shop therefore I am’, and for weeks this was me, following the belief that if I kept scrolling I would finally find that life-changing quilted coat or the right storage solution for my son's toys. The packages would arrive, small items swallowed by large cardboard boxes, and they weren’t life-changing (in the context of my home and my body, the coveted item never quite looked like it did online). On opening my laptop one morning and having to close ten tabs: throws for the sofa, eBay searches for vintage clothes, an Amazon page full of shower curtains, some obscure danish kids' shop I realised I had to stop. Not just because of the money or the hollow feeling it left me nursing, but because of the time zap. I was channelling all my spare energy and creativity into shopping and pretending it was a productive and creative thing to do.
So, I went cold turkey: for 30 days I did not spend anything online. I probably saved myself at least £700 (I told you it had become a problem). ‘Moderation is harder than abstinence’ Claire Seal writes on her Financial Wellbeing forum, and it’s true. Removing my credit card information from my google autofill and knowing no matter how I felt, no matter how bad lockdown got, I could not turn to shopping, well, it set me free.
As Sheila Heti writes in her essay Should Artists Shop or Stop Shopping?, ‘I can only get to a new place if I stop buying — stop shopping on Amazon— stop succumbing to whatever material needs seem to emerge in the day’, I too knew salvation would only come if I quit. And in a way it did: I got my evenings back. I read. I took baths. I phoned friends I’d not spoken to in a while. I checked my bank balance an unhealthy amount, revelling in the fact that the money stayed put. It was nice to see an Instagram post and not immediately start searching for how I could buy the item. It was nice to not presume more stuff was the answer to a crap day at work or would solve yet another argument about there being wet towels left on the bed.
Of course, cold turkey is only ever the answer for so long. Unlike some addictive behaviours, like gambling or drinking, I can’t renounce shopping for life. ‘Mindful Spending’ is helping me learn how to practice spending and shopping with care. A financial advisor once told me ‘the most financially healthy person is the person who has the ability to connect their money with the things that make them happiest.’ When I was mindlessly scrolling and then buying because I was bored or because a sale email told me there were only a couple of items left, I wasn’t truly thinking about what I needed, or how this purchase might impact other purchases. I was following the whims of that day – and inevitably, a new whim would always arise the following day and so forth.
With mindful spending, I now practice a few lockdown golden rules (on top of installing an ad blocker and deleting my card information from google autofill). I keep a list. If I feel a need or a want it goes on the list. Chances are I don’t want what’s on the list a week later. I ask myself a few questions: Do I have something like this already? What could I spend the money on instead? Could I soothe myself in other (free) ways? Like going for a walk with a podcast, or getting some writing done, rather than scrolling for 30 minutes. I look at my bank balance regularly. And, finally, I’m staying cold-turkey on clothes until other people can see them.