My first step to a better financial future was to start paying attention.
I was living and making decisions on autopilot, but one day, as I decluttered my closet for the umpteenth time, my eyes were suddenly opened.
I spent a lot of time organizing my closets and drawers, and regularly donated bags of clothing to charity. Since that was the case, I couldn't understand why my closet always felt too full. It must have escaped my notice that I went shopping almost every weekend and on most lunch breaks, just for "entertainment." I didn't always buy things, but the more you browse, the more you are tempted.
My wardrobe was like a revolving door, yet I wondered why I could never save any money. Yes, the connection should have been obvious, but I enjoyed all of my new goodies (at least for a while), so it was easy to ignore. When I finally linked my shopping habit to my empty bank account, I stopped shopping almost overnight. From then on, I wore and enjoyed the clothing I had, donated the fashion mistakes that were cluttering my closet, and eventually got to the point where I only replaced items as needed.
I didn't feel poor – I felt empowered.
Instead of giving all of my hard-earned money to the mall, I enjoyed the security of a growing savings account, and I loved using and caring for what I had. It made me appreciate everything so much more.
Eventually I realized that all of the shopping had been partly about boredom, and partly about needing to fit in and be fashionable. At least some of my self-worth had been involved. Once I stopped shopping and focused on other things – more satisfying pursuits – my self-worth increased. You know, the better you feel about yourself, the less you are influenced by whatever other people are doing. You become more independent.
So constant clothes shopping receded into the background. But a new challenge waited.
After we bought our first house, I started shopping for home goods. I constantly had plans for painting, putting up wallpaper, adding a French door, enlarging the patio, or setting a unique holiday table. We built a shelving unit that covered an entire ten-foot-long wall, and filled it with books and art and knickknacks. I collected figurines and limited-edition plates, antique quilts and other American folk art. I bought lots of toys for my children.
I was no longer a clothes-horse, but once again I would regularly declutter things I was tired of. I'd donate some items, have a yard sale with the rest, make a little money, and go out to buy other stuff, spending even more money in the process. I was back in the consume/donate cycle.
Then two things happened. My husband and I had opened individual retirement accounts soon after we were married, and over time we had slowly added money to each account. I decided I wanted a brick hearth and a wood stove installed in our living room, plus new furniture. We emptied our IRAs to pay for it, since our credit cards and home equity line of credit were maxed out.
I cannot describe how stupid that was.
We had to pay taxes on the amount we withdrew PLUS a 10% penalty because we were nowhere near retirement age. Such a waste.
The second thing happened in the mall book store when my eye happened to land on Elaine St. James' book Simplify Your Life. Two sentences in the Introduction caught my eye:
I decided that if the two of us... had gotten so caught up in the frenetically paced lifestyle and rampant consumerism of [the 1980s], there must be other reasonable people out there who had done the same thing, and who were now looking for practical things they could do to simplify their lives.
Wise men and women in every major culture throughout history have found that the secret to happiness is not in getting more but in wanting less.
"Not in getting more but in wanting less."
I didn't want a fat mortgage, maxed-out credit cards, depleted IRAs, a tax bill, and a long list of home improvements. I was out of control with my revolving door home, filled with items I would buy, declutter, and sell cheaply only to go out and buy even more. I had two children under the age of six, and I wanted to home school them. I wanted more time, more freedom, more creativity, and less worry, hassle, and debt.
It was a relief, and exciting, to discover a worthwhile goal.
Once again, it was like waking up, and I finally made the connection between my constant shopping and home alteration and our lack of money, free time, and satisfaction. I had been stupid, but never wanted to get caught in the same mistake again. I didn't want to be a discontented, insecure person. I didn't want to envy what other people had, and I didn't want to make my house the center of my life. We had spent our money as if having some sort of showplace was a priority, and I finally saw how little value that held for me. There was so much more that was worth our time, money, energy, and talents.
This wasn't a lighthearted time, but we realized that it was possible for us to change. That did add a ray of hope. There were many steps along the journey.
Can you relate to this at all? Have you ever justified a shopping habit by regularly donating used items to charity? Is there an area in your life that is claiming most of your time, money, and effort even as you're starting to sense it is not going to be fulfilling in the long run?
Maybe you have been preoccupied with the wrong things, perhaps in an effort to fit in, or feel worthy, or simply because you're bored. Maybe you're not sure what you will do if you're no longer filling your life with shopping, social media, an unfulfilling job, or constant busyness. Maybe you're only just now starting to question whether this is really going to be worth your life energy.
Have you started asking yourself, "Is this all there is?" Have you been caught in a cycle of consume, donate (or sell), consume some more, purge again, consume, consume, purge a little more... on and on and on? It's not too late to break that cycle. Your age and situation don't matter. No time is a bad time to stop living on autopilot and start making real choices for what really matters to you.
Photo by Nikola Duza on Unsplash
PlS. If you enjoyed this post, watch for my new book Simple Money: Achieve Financial Peace and Abundance with Minimalism, coming soon!