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12 Ways to Become a More Rational Shopper

Ideas to help you buy less and love what you already have more.

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Cleaning, sorting, selling, and donating is one way to battle the bulge—but another, and ultimately better, solution is to nip it in the bud by buying less and enjoying what you have more.

If, like many, you avoid the dark recesses of your storage areas because they serve as reminders of poor buying decisions, or you feel guilty about purchases that were ultimately unsatisfying, or you simply want to cut back on excessive spending, here are 12 tips that could help:

1. Explore, inventory, and know what you already own. Jenna Suhl, associate luxury manager for popular online consignment retailer The RealReal, says, “It’s not uncommon for people to buy new things because they have so much, they can’t see what they already have.” She recommends weeding out what’s worn, ill-fitting, unmatchable, or a style that no longer suits. That’s not only good advice for over-stuffed wardrobes, but also makes sense for toolboxes, toy chests, hutches, and knick-knack drawers of all sorts. Alice, for example, actually bought the exact same serving platter twice, forgetting that she already owned it. “At least I have consistent taste,” she said with a laugh, “but clearly I have too much stuff.”

2. Buy what you’ll use and use what you have. I’ve found that it’s not uncommon for people to protect and not use the things they love the most and that would give them the most pleasure. That instinct can apply to anything from utensils to jeans. Instead, they buy cheaper imitations for “everyday” use while “special” items languish unused and worse, taking up physical and mental space. The result is not only more clutter, but also less satisfaction with what you have—and that often leads to more buying. In a similar vein, shoppers often spend more money on one special occasion outfit than they spend the entire year on clothing they use every week—like workout wear or jeans. Putting your money where you’ll see it in action the most reduces purchasing cravings.

3. Don’t buy what you won’t use now (with a few exceptions). More homes than not have stashes of unused merchandise—sometimes even with the tags still attached. They’re purchased for a beach vacation that never materialized or a slimmer figure that has yet to be acquired. Part of what makes shopping so alluring is the mental vacation that comes with imagining how a product can be used—“I’ll turn heads in this outfit," or, "We’ll have the wildest parties with this cocktail shaker.” In a sense, shoppers aren’t just purchasing a tangible item; they’re buying an anticipated experience. Our imaginations can divert attention from the cost and reality of the object.

4. Cancel email sale blasts. Imagine being with someone who was constantly asking you if you’d like to buy a sporty new watch (1/2 off!) or to try the new pizzeria in town (free dessert!). You’d be put in the position of frequently considering purchases you might not otherwise have noticed. Worse, you might end up buying something because you felt virtuous about saying “no” so many times or because you’d simply been worn down. That’s the effect of email subscriptions from retailers, particularly those that offer a limited supply of marked-down goodies. If you didn’t know you wanted it before the email arrived, then you don’t really want it—you just want the thrill of the hunt and the win of a bargain.

5. Wait at least 20 minutes before buying. While you’re waiting, consider how and when you’ll use the new product. Truly analyze its role in your life. Instead of simply choosing to have it or not, think for a moment about what you might prefer instead—such as the freedom of having less debt or a bigger purchase that requires saving, such as college tuition, a house, or retirement.

6. Consider alternative ways of owning things, like sharing a purchase or repurposing what you already own. I’m not talking about the explosion of profitable businesses that facilitate things like car-sharing, bike-sharing, and house-sharing; I’m talking about the do-it-yourself method of buying something with a friend or neighbor. I recently watched two young women negotiate sharing rights for a relatively expensive gold necklace they both wanted and ultimately bought together at Nordstrom. And I interviewed a family that purchased backyard play equipment with their neighbors. That family is also ingenious about repurposing. For example, they decorated homemade birthday cards with buttons taken from worn-out shirts (which were themselves cut up and used as dust rags). I’ll admit these practices are time consuming and not commonplace—but they’re inspiring, and perhaps there’s an opportunity to share or repurpose that will eliminate a new purchase in your life.

7. There really is no such thing as a free lunch, so don’t be tempted. The free gift with purchase, the free water while you’re shopping, and all those free samples can cost you. For one thing, getting something for free creates a sense of obligation that makes it harder to say “no” to a persuasive salesperson. Shoppers also often use free gifts with purchases to rationalize buying something beyond their budget. I’ve seen otherwise rational people spend a lot of money to get something for free. And the irony is completely lost on them.

8. Don’t use credit cards or mobile pay and don’t store your credit card numbers on retail websites. Tess says she went “ubercrazy” in the few months after she’d signed up for the service. “I felt like I was just hopping into a car for a free ride; I’d even agree to pay three times as much during peak demand periods without thinking twice. I’m still paying off those rides on my credit card.” Fast, effortless payment means you have less time to reconsider impulse purchases, plus credit cards and mobile payments put a buffer between you and your money. If we could clearly see how much of our time, effort, and work it takes to have a product or service, or the percentage of our savings required to buy something, we would spend less. Imagine thinking, “I worked 2.5 hours for this meal,” or, “those new tires represent 1% of the money I’ve saved.” Of course, that’s too cumbersome for our busy daily lives, but spending cash brings you a step closer to the reality of what products are costing you.

9. Know the real reasons you’re shopping. Research shows that we can think we’re hungry when we’re thirsty, think we’re tired when we’re bored, think we’re thirsty when we’re tired, and so forth. In other words, we’re good at identifying when we need something, but not so good at identifying what it is we need. The same is true for shopping and buying. People often buy stuff—when what they’re really craving is human contact, relief from boredom, the chance to feel totally competent and in control, the mental stimulation of something unique or beautiful, or for any of dozens of other psychological reasons.

10. Be prepared to leave empty-handed. Shopping takes time—which can feel wasted if a purchase isn’t made. That’s why outlet malls, which typically require a significant drive, are particularly dangerous places for people trying to reduce their spending and consumption. It’s not uncommon for people to purchase something they don’t really need, rather than to leave empty handed after they’ve taken a long drive to an outlet mall. The same phenomenon occurs in upscale boutiques and online shopping.

11. Don’t be a sale shopper. Another psychological reason many people over-shop and buy is to get a burst of feel-good dopamine that often accompanies sale shopping. Snagging a coveted item on sale can feel like winning a prize. But easily 3/4 of the unsuccessful purchases I find in shoppers’ homes were purchased on sale. It’s often not quite the right size, color, shape—but the price was right. I’ve also found that sale-focused shoppers usually spend more money than others. For sure, try to get it for less, but don’t be a bargain stalker.

12. Practice gratitude, not just for products, but also for the people, places, and simple pleasures in life. An "attitude of gratitude" is a proven antidote to impulse purchasing. It creates a sense of abundance and fills emotional pockets that are otherwise often satiated with new products.

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