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Simplify Your Life

To Curb Spending, Say Goodbye to Impulse Buys

April 04, 1999|ELAINE ST. JAMES

Several weeks ago, I shared a letter from a reader who had made a New Year's resolution not to buy any clothes for a year. Her decision was a great success: Not only did this save her a lot of money, but it turned out to be a totally liberating experience for her.

It isn't easy to break consumer spending habits. When my husband and I decided to simplify our lives and took a cold, hard look at our buying patterns, we were surprised to find how much of our regular spending we did while firmly locked into automatic gear.

In the course of a week, while buying groceries and other necessities, we'd always come away with a few items we hadn't anticipated buying, but which we felt at the moment we needed. Marketers call this impulse shopping, and it's the engine that drives consumer spending.

Here are some steps you can take to control impulse buying.

1. For the next month, keep a log of the money you spend each day. If you're like most people, you're probably not even aware of where all the money goes each week. You'll no doubt be shocked at how much money just gets frittered away.

2. Then sit down as a family and carefully evaluate your shopping habits. How many times a week do you go into a grocery store, a convenience store, the mall? What are the types of casual purchases you frequently make? Use your canceled checks, credit card statements or old receipts to help you here.

3. Look around your home and make a note of the kinds of things you buy--gimmicky toys for the kids, the fancy Italian grape peeler, the cutesy notepad, and all those things that now make you wonder where your head was when you slipped them into your shopping basket. Think about how those things have had an impact on your life.

Mostly they've added to the clutter and made an unattractive dent in your finances.

4. Set up a budget--and be strict with yourselves. Your objective is to cut spending to the bare bones, not only for the financial benefit to you and your family, but also for the purpose of keeping that mostly meaningless stuff from cluttering your lives. And, most important of all, train yourselves to spend your money consciously.

5. Always shop with a list. Studies show that when you shop with a detailed list you'll spend up to 30% less than when you walk into a store not having a clue what you plan to buy.

6. Resolve to go grocery shopping only once a week, with maybe one stop in between strictly for milk and other perishable items, nothing more.

7. Leave your credit and debit cards at home, and limit the amount of cash you carry with you each week to the amount you have budgeted for yourselves. Impulse purchasing depends on ready access to cash or credit.

8. Come up with some personally meaningful ways you can put the money you've saved to good use, such as stashing it in a savings account or an investment fund for you or the kids to manage, and watch it grow. Or set aside a portion of what you save for a trip or even a weekend adventure together. This kind of expenditure will create lasting memories for you and your family, and it won't fill up your drawers and closets.

Make these changes a family project and educate your kids to this process. I often hear people complain that they'd be able to cut back on impulse spending if it weren't for the kids. What parent hasn't had the experience of being in a supermarket with a child who nags for a toy or candy?

Parents give in because it seems easier at the moment. But in fact it's much easier if you teach your kids that when you go into the grocery store you're going to buy only what's on your list. If you stand firm, they'll learn, and it'll make shopping easier for all of you.

Once you become fully aware of how you spend your money, you'll easily be able to cut your spending by 20% to 30%, or even more.


Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Life" and "Simplify Your Life With Kids." For questions or comments, write to her in care of Universal Press Syndicate, 4520 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64111 or e-mail her at

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