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A cartoon drawing of a woman carrying a shopping bag in her arms while walking happily past stores decorated for Christmas and displaying sale signs. KIMI for Vox

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The case for buying less — and how to actually do it

Buying fewer unnecessary items is good for the planet, your wallet, and your brain.

This holiday season could be a scary time for some: Between inflation (prices have risen 8.2 percent in a year) and economic uncertainty pointing to a potential recession, in addition to ongoing pandemic recovery, it might not be the ideal moment to think about buying a bunch of crap.

A 2019 survey by Ladder and OnePoll revealed that Americans spend an average of $18,000 per year on nonessential items, including streaming services and lattes, impulse Amazon finds, and unnecessary clothes. Not only is this enough to buy a semester of in-state tuition for your soon-to-be-college kid, but it translates to lots of clutter you have to deal with as items become unnecessary with time. Household goods and services are responsible for 60 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, one study shows. It seems we are as aware as ever of this fact — since the pandemic, consumers want to reduce their unnecessary shopping behaviors.

But buying less of the stuff you don’t really need isn’t an easy ask, and it might be a process, as lots of tangled-up emotions are often behind shopping. For some, it’s a fun outlet with friends. For others, it provides safety and security to know you have everything you might ever want or need. And for still others, it’s a simple dopamine rush in a life that can at times feel otherwise mundane. Still, it’s not all self-serving — people increase their buying to purchase items for loved ones around the holidays, though Stanford says the whole process leads to 25 percent more waste.

So on your journey to buying less crap, practice some patience and grace. Expect a bit of struggle, and progress over perfection. Here’s how experts recommend getting started.

Zero in on a buy-less goal that matters to you

Like most things in life, without a concrete goal, your heart probably won’t be in your mission to buy less. Financial coach Annette Harris, who helps people achieve their spending and saving goals, first asks her clients not what they can cut, but what they are saving for. “Set that goal you have for yourself instead of just saying I need to stop spending,” she says. Some of her clients’ goals have included saving for a down payment on a house, buying furniture for a new home, saving for college for their children, preparing to pay cash for travel instead of putting it on a credit card, eliminating debt, and realizing a profit in their business.

Barriers still arise. A big one she sees clients encounter is wanting to make their kids happy, or spouses who aren’t on the same page with their savings goals. In these cases, she suggests a gradual reduction in spending rather than a freeze, as well as honest conversations with your family about the intention behind your goal.

Choose items you need for the long haul (Marie Kondo says so!)

Marie Kondo — author, Netflix TV show star, and famous tidying expert — tells Vox via email, “When I am making a purchase, I always consider the intention that the item will have in my life.” This thoughtfulness before hitting the checkout button in your e-cart is one of the multiple tips experts have when it comes to actually buying less crap.

Take an inventory of how many of your recent purchases were designed for one-time use — a cocktail dress you won’t wear again after a friend’s bachelorette party, a holiday decoration that assuredly won’t last till next season. These items are frequently part of the junk that gets donated eventually, Kondo explains. “The types of purchases that often turn into clutter are items that typically didn’t serve a strong purpose in the first place. As time goes on, they become even less useful as they fall further by the wayside,” she says. “When you are purchasing something for an occasion or a specific one-time use, it can often quickly turn into clutter. I like to invest in staple items that are meant to last a long time, whether that is something in my wardrobe or home decor.” She gives an example of a closet that can get cluttered with trending clothes that go out of style quickly, rather than timeless pieces that will stand the test of time. She opts for neutrals, solids, and basics instead.

Change your buying language when it comes to “want” versus “need”

Words are powerful, enough so that they can subconsciously impact your buying habits. Tracy McCubbin, a decluttering expert, CEO of dClutterfly and TikTokker who recently published a book called Make Space for Happiness: How to Stop Attracting Clutter and Start Magnetizing the Life You Want, says we have to stop using the word “need” incorrectly. “As in ‘I need a new pair of jeans. I need a new jacket.’ I can guarantee that most of us have all the jeans and jackets that we need.” Instead, we should channel our preschool vocabulary lessons that taught us to distinguish between wants and needs: “‘I want a new pair of jeans. I want a new jacket.’ Once you change your language, the item ceases to have as much power over you. It stops being a necessity and starts being a craving. And a craving usually only lasts 20 minutes,” she says. “So once the feeling passes, it’s easier not to purchase the unneeded item.”

Build in wait time to curb impulse purchases

If impulse buying is behind many of the items cluttering your home, it’s time to instate a waiting period with purpose, McCubbin says. She recommends a potential waiting period from some purchases that might be larger, with an aim to curb impulse buying. “This provides you the time to research to see if the item is worth the cost and if you can afford it. This is the start toward creating a healthy acquisition cycle.”

Some of the top impulse buys you might immediately be able to trim back on, she says, include kitchen gadgets that something like a simple knife could be used for, electronics and appliances that seem like time savers but aren’t, clothes that don’t fit well, skin care and anti-aging products, and more: “We believe they will fix all our problems, so we overbuy these products looking for a magic fix.”

Impulse buying can also apply to buying for others, even with the best of intentions. Instead of snagging that hilarious mug or pair of funny socks for a relative or friend when a social media ad pops up, consider giving with intention to remove extra purchases you haven’t really thought through. Making a list ahead of gift-giving season, and even talking to your recipient about what they’d most love to have this year, can help you give within your budget and in a more meaningful way.

Know what items you already have

Can you remember, right now, without looking, how many black shirts you have in your closet? If not, it’s time to take inventory of what you actually have to prevent unnecessary spending, according to Harris. She tells clients to turn all of their hangers backward and see what they haven’t worn in a year, to be able to trace back to the source of unnecessary spending on items they don’t even like or want. This will also reveal, in some cases, that you “don’t know what you have currently in your house.” She also recommends color-coordinating closets to see what you have, to prevent buying yet another yellow shirt when you already have a few.

Ashlee Piper, sustainability expert and author of Give a Sh*t: Do Good. Live Better. Save the Planet. who creates virtually zero trash, recommends “need notes,” which involves listing things you will need for a given time period. Then, she brainstorms alternative ways to get that item without spending money. “Could you get it secondhand? Could you borrow it from a friend? Do you have something that already serves this purpose? Could you get it for free in your free groups? Do you have a gift card kicking around, or store credit, where you can use it to buy it new in a store?” She says “getting ahead of the planning” is the first step.

Take a break to assess your shopping habits

In 2013, Piper embarked on her first “no spend” year, when she wound up saving $16,000. She still bought groceries, repairs, and necessities, and she still acquired items she wants, but instead of purchasing them, she leaned into buy nothing or secondhand stores and social media groups, and upcycled or repurposed something she already had.

Since then, she’s led others through social media challenges under the hashtag #nonewthings, where about 12,000 people signed up during her last month-long challenge in July. She tells Vox, “Some folks just do it for a week and glean a lot of interesting insights.”

Along the way, she’s noticed that digging into the emotions behind purchasing habits is key to change. She compares shopping to dieting — you stay on the wagon until you have a bad day, then you break your plan. “The same for me happened with the desire to browse and shop, especially online.” She says high and low emotions, along with boredom and even procrastination were the root causes of overspending for her. She also nods to the fact that spending freezes can be more challenging in larger families, such as those with multiple kids, where you are procuring items for others as well.

In addition to reaching these goals, Piper says there’s a concrete indicator of success with a big payoff: “When clients feel less anxious ... life changes as a whole, and you’re in a different physical and mental space.”

That decrease in your own anxiety and improved strides toward financial goals that matter to you will no doubt be a gift to those around you this holiday season, and will serve you well in the months to come in spite of the economy’s volatility.

Alexandra Frost is a freelance journalist in Cincinnati, specializing in lifestyle, health and wellness, and parenting topics.

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