5 questions to ask before starting a shopping ban

wallet squeezed in a vice
Public Domain MaxPixel

Taking a stance against our consumer culture is a challenge, which is why you'll need rules to live by.

Over the past year, I've written about four different women who have implemented shopping bans in their personal lives. Cait Flanders, Michelle McGagh, Mrs. Frugalwoods, and Ann Patchett are all frugally-minded individuals who came to the sensible conclusion that buying less stuff is key to spending less money. Then they took it one step further by implementing rules in their lives to curb spending, a.k.a. the shopping ban.

This idea fascinates people for many reasons, not least of which is the rebellious nature of it. To reject the status quo, to step away deliberately from a society steeped in consumerism, and opt for what many would view as a form of asceticism, is mind-boggling. But I think people are intrigued mainly because they wish they could do it, too. Consumer debt is higher than ever; people are struggling to pay down sky-high mortgages, maxed-out credit cards, and lines of credit. They're drowning and do not know how to get out of it.

We should look to these women for guidance. Their experiences prove that another path is possible, even fulfilling. You can get back on track, reverse your personal debt, declutter your home, save money for things that really matter, if you are willing to change your habits.

In order to do all of this, a shopping ban is a good place to start. It's the equivalent of plugging a leak before trying to clean up the mess. And I suspect that all of these women would tell you start in the exact same place, since this is what they've all referenced in their own stories: Make a list.

The creation of a "do not buy" list -- or make it a "things you can buy" list, if you prefer -- is imperative. This will be your guide through thick and thin. Here are some questions to ask yourself when making this list:

1) What do your bank statements say about your spending habits?

Take a hard and close look at your spending habits. Bank and credit card statements are helpful for this. If you use a lot of cash, track every dollar you spend. This will reveal a lot about where you spend money. Look for patterns. Do you have a $100/month takeout coffee habit? Do you go out with friends and end up spending far more on alcohol than intended? Are you surprised your grocery bill is so large? Are there certain things you crave and cannot resist?

2) What does your house say about your spending habits?

Look around the house. What do you buy on a regular basis? Is your wardrobe bursting with new clothes, labels still on? Are there weekly deliveries of fresh flowers on the table? Do you pay someone to do chores that you could potentially do yourself, like mowing the lawn, doing laundry, buying groceries, or cleaning? Do you feel panicky unless you have the latest model iPhone? There's not necessarily anything wrong with choosing to spend money on these things if they add value to your life, but often we find ourselves spending money on things out of habit, without analyzing them critically.

Do a waste audit. See what is in your trash can. Everything in there has presumably been purchased by you or a family member and represents money spent. Find out where your (quite literally) disposable income is going.

3) What have you regretted buying in the past?

This excellent tip comes via Wise Bread (from which I got the inspiration for this post). Examine your feelings of buyer's remorse:

"Have you made any purchases in the last few months that you regretted later? Write them down and see if you notice a pattern. Whatever the pattern is, figure out a rule that will help you break it. Maybe you need to stop buying clothes, like Patchett did, or refuse to shop when you're angry."

For me, I tend to buy clothes at the thrift store that are less than fabulous. Even though they cost relatively little, these quick, mindless purchases add up over time. I wear them once, they don't fit right, and back they go into a donation bag. It's a bad habit I'm working to break.

4) What do you need to survive?

Figure out all the "can't-live-without" expenses. These will be rent or mortgage payments, food, utilities, insurance, transportation, etc. Depending on your profession and interests, there may be other 'necessities'; for me, a gym membership would be on this list, as it's both a physical and social outlet for me. Know that you may need to replace things that break. For Cait Flanders, this was perfectly acceptable. She allowed herself to buy "consumable goods, as well as anything essential or that needed to be replaced." The key is to be realistic about what's allowed and what's not. You want to be happy, as well.

5) How much do you want to save?

Having a bigger goal in mind, beyond that of spending less, is helpful. Is there something you're working toward, such as paying down all debts or saving a set amount for a down payment on a house? As frugality blogger Mr. Money Mustache has explained, spending less has an often-overlooked dual benefit:

"It increases the amount of money you have each month to put into savings, plus it also lowers the amount you need every month for the rest of your life."

Shopping bans are not for the faint of heart, but they can set you on a path to financial success that will greatly improve your quality of life.

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