I never thought I had a shopping problem until I decided to stop.
It was January. After Christmas shopping and buying several presents for myself (who can resist an Anthropologie blanket when it’s on sale?), I saw that my bank account and my ability to say “no” were both getting low. My housemate joked that almost every night when she came home an Amazon package was waiting at the door. She wasn’t wrong—I’d fallen for Instagram ads promoting everything from cute shoes to fast-drying towels.
And here’s the real problem: I never have buyer’s remorse. I simply don’t feel guilty over what I’ve purchased. I usually end up using it or wearing it, and if I don’t, I’ll give it away or stick it in the back of my closet to reevaluate at a later date. Whether it’s a fake fur coat or a chunky neon yellow sweater, I love what I buy.
However, inspired by the rise of minimalism and my own growing awareness about supporting ethical brands, I decided it was time to stop and take a breath. So I decided to try a two-month break from shopping. I wouldn’t buy any clothes, shoes, or accessories for two months. I needed to reevaluate why I was shopping. What was the motivation behind my buying habits? Why was I shopping so much more now than in the years before? Why did I find myself drawn to cheap, quick clothing rather than saving and investing in nicer pieces?
I needed to clean my closet. And clear my head. Here are a few things I learned through the process:
Shopping isn’t the best coping mechanism.
I realized my shopping correlated with my stress level. Hectic day at the office? Suddenly I was scrolling through Instagram. Bored after a long week? Nothing better than curling up under the aforementioned Anthropologie blanket to browse through their sale section. Feeling lonely? Amazon is just a few clicks away.
I suddenly realized that I was using shopping as a way to decompress. It felt relaxing. It also felt empowering. If I wanted something, I could get it.
When we shop, several parts of our brain are activated during different stages of the experience. Neurologist Dr. Heidi Moawad explains, “The nucleus accumbens, which is closely associated with the reward pathway of the brain, is activated upon consideration of a desirable item. The insula, an area often associated with pain and negative emotions, is noted to become activated when the price of an item is considered.” Shopping also produces dopamine, the pleasure hormone that is activated when we eat the food we love or see someone we care about. Though for some the pain of handing over their money is more than the pleasure of getting a new item, for me, and for a lot of people, the pleasure outweighs the price. The neurological responses in our brain indicate why shopping can become addictive. We get hooked on the “shopper’s high.”
What I came to realize during my break from shopping was that this is a counterfeit relaxation. While the dopamine is addictive, it is not really restful. It is just the gentle numbing of an overstimulated brain. What my mind and body and spirit really needed was connection, not another outfit.
I started to replace my shopping-to-decompress technique with alternatives, things that were hands-on and connected me with something meaningful. Here are several ideas that worked for me:
- Journaling: This is a great way to pause and process. I like to write a page or two without stopping and then reread it and see what spills out. A couple of questions sometimes help me get started: what am I grateful for today? What am I proud of today? What could I do better tomorrow?
- Cooking: I love how kinesthetic cooking is. A great game that doesn’t break the no-retail-shopping rule is to head to your local farmers' market or a good grocery store, buy three items that look fresh, and then find a recipe for using them.
- Plants: I don’t have a green thumb and I don’t have a yard, but I highly recommend buying a couple of hardy herbs or taking a clipping from a friend and taking care of them. There’s something deeply satisfying about growing things.
- Reading: Pick up a novel and get lost in a different world for a while. Live in someone else’s skin. Or, grab a biography and learn about the life of someone you hate or admire or love.
- Painting/Drawing: Grab some acrylics, a canvas, and a brush—or just use your fingers. Don’t worry about the final product. Enjoy the feeling of the paint and the way the colors mix together. Breathe.
These kinds of activities, even if they require you to make an initial purchase of paint supplies or potting soil, actually do help you refocus and rest because the pleasure from them is not in the purchasing but in the creation that happens after the purchase. You are creating and connecting, not just consuming someone else’s creation.
There is freedom in saying “no.”
One of the biggest breakthroughs for me was the freedom I felt saying “no.”
Every time I see an ad for something, I have to decide in the moment: should I say “no”? And if I say “no” the first time, Instagram’s sly algorithm is sure to show it to me again sometime after midnight when my resistance is at a minimum. But for these two months, my answer was already set.
I was free to look but not buy, and no perfectly-targeted ad was going to lure me in. Even now, months after my retail shopping break, I still don’t feel the same pressure to buy that I felt before.
Your atmosphere impacts your attitude.
During this period, I decided I would also clean my closet. Big black trash bags of stuff crowded the floor of my bedroom: cheap stuff, mostly, the kind that pulls apart at the seams and stretches out after a single wear. I realized I wanted to invest in fewer, but higher-quality pieces, so my mantra became “Less but better.” A practical aside: I also got rid of the oddly shaped hangers I’d collected over the years and replaced them with wooden hangers.
As my closet became less messy, I felt my attitude shift, too. Instead of burrowing through piles of clothes in a rush to find something to wear, I started to enjoy picking out an outfit the night before and laying it out, ready to go.
Breaking a habit gives you lasting results.
The two months ended, but it’s surprising how taking a break has impacted me even long after the break is over.
My closet still remains pretty simple. My wooden hangers still inspire me to keep my clothes organized. And I don’t feel the same pressure to buy something whenever I see a well-targeted ad or an alluring sale. I feel empowered to resist the perfectly-tailored advertising that overwhelms our modern culture. That resistance is like a muscle; the more I used it, the stronger it became, and the easier it was—and is—to say no.
Do I still love shopping? Absolutely! Do I suffer from buyer’s remorse yet? No. And I probably never will. But I have learned to take a deeper look at my habits, to find out why I am doing what I’m doing.
As we head into the fall, it’s a great time to take a closer look at your closet and evaluate what you have and why you bought it. And then take a break: a week, a month, whatever you need to rest and reset.
When you come back to your closet, you might be surprised what you’ve learned!