One of the things no one told me about being an adult was how much time I would spend buying crap. Maybe someone did tell me, but I was too busy listening to punk rock thinking that I would never be like my parents, to listen.
I need to preface this story by telling you that I’m not a recreational shopper by any means.
I climbed out of the student debt hell hole by going on an almost 3 year shopping moratorium, so I already had some good habits in place. Things such as unsubscribe from sales notifications in my inbox, not going into stores when I’m bored or sad (only with a list!), not trying to buy things for an aspirational fantasy life, etc. were normal for me, yet somehow, I started finding myself roaming Home Depot on a Friday night, or getting too excited to go to Ikea, and that’s when I realized something had gone terribly horribly wrong.
So I did what any self-respecting woman would do in this situation, I was like, God, send me data, and then poof I had a spreadsheet of my spending for that last 12 months, neatly categorized with a bar graph to match. Mint may have helped a little. The results were interesting, to say the least. For someone who claims to value supporting small businesses and spending my money in my community and being a “good citizen” blah blah blah, I spent a lot of money at big box stores. I spent a lot of time there too.
It was also around this time last year, that I was feeling that tinge of nostalgia you feel when you remember what the end of summer was like when you were a kid. You know what I mean? When you are looking back at all you did and let out a sigh because you had so much fun. I didn’t quite have that much fun anymore because I just didn’t have time. I thought that maybe I could make some room in my life if I just consolidated all of the buying and shopping I had to do into one massive haul.
I would buy all of the necessities in one shopping trip on Black Friday. I would beat those imbeciles at their own game muahahahaha….(evil laugh optional, but recommended). I started by compiling a list of all the things my husband and I use on a regular basis and then I started calculating how long each lasted and how much we needed to last us the year.
Let’s just say that the cost of a years supply was a little out of our budget, which also explains where all of money goes, but it also showed me how much little expenses aren’t little at all. Most are “subscriptions” that take your time and attention one refill at a time.
I also got to see how many moving parts there were. No wonder it felt like I was always going in for just one thing and coming out with ten things plus a candy bar. #treatyoself
First, you take inventory
I started to see how I was managing my household like a moron. In order to make this work, I’d have to consolidate and simplify. The more products that can pull double or triple duty, the better. One less item to inventory and manage. Also, I’d have to find a better way to manage the “subscriptions” like napkins, paper towels, ziplock bags, tampons and all the other things that I always had to stock up on. Could I just cancel some of these?
Turns out, for a small investment, you can, just get the reusable version. This investment is easier to justify once you see your yearly cost. Take napkins for instance. I probably buy 10 packs a year for a couple bucks each. Why not just take those $20 bucks and buy cloth napkins and have that item covered for a couple years? I wouldn’t have to buy them, or deal with having to go to the store to get another pack, and I’d get to use nice napkins and feel like I actually it together. Which started to feel like that’s what I was really after.
I made other smart swaps too. I got a safety razor because refills for that are way cheaper than those obscenely expensive Mach 1000 ultimate grand supreme.
The Big Day
Let’s fast forward to the Black Friday throw down. There I was first in line at 3am, with my helmet on, ready to throw some elbows and get my hands on some deals….yeah RIGHT!
If you haven’t figured out that I’m an overachiever trapped in a lazy person’s body, then you’re not paying attention. I did my shopping from the comfort of my own bed and knocked it out in a couple hours, then I took a nap.
I spent about $700 total, not a small number, but considering the line item for household stuff in our budget is usually around $200–250 a month, it was pretty reasonable.
2019 Update: Yea so now that we’re not making the big bucks, this is totally out of our budget. In fact, I didn’t do our yearly haul in 2018. But it was also because we didn’t have to. We’re still living off this same $300 haul from 2017. Crazy right?
When I was done, I was kept having that feeling you get when you’re leaving for a trip and you feel like you’re forgetting something. Surely I was forgetting like $2,000 worth of stuff. (Turns out, that’s about the difference all those “subscriptions” would have taken up. Blows my mind.)
When everything finally arrived, it only took up a tiny amount of space. I already mentally prepared myself to go out and get me a setup like those extreme couponers with all this shelving in my garage and lazy Susans so I could get to the stuff in the back, but it all fit in the trunk of my compact car. Seriously, my Christmas tree takes up more room in my garage, which is disappointing because I was really looking forward to building a mountain of toilet paper.
2020 Update: Having a stockpile of TP and everything important we use for a year came in handy.
Looking back on the whole thing
This all happened a year ago, and let me tell you. This was one of the best ideas I’ve ever had. Better than that time I froze a whole bunch of cookie dough in individual portions so I could have fresh baked cookies whenever I wanted. My husband did need a restock of deodorant last month, but everything else, was spot on. I’ve spent an additional $270 throughout the year on things I forgot or couldn’t foresee. By February, I had paid back what I took out of savings to pay for the haul and it is just the gift that keeps on giving.
Seriously, you would not believe how much time I have now. It was like meal planning for my life.
The thing is, you don’t realize how much time being a dutiful consumer takes until you stop. All that time perusing aisles, running “errands” aka driving around to ten different places to buy 10 different things, pinning stuff I want, waiting in line for the cashier, putting things away when you get home, decluttering because your new stuff doesn’t fit, returning things, writing shopping lists, browsing sales, cutting coupons, figuring out how to pay for something you shouldn’t have bought…all that time is now mine again.
As they say, the proof is in the
pudding credit card statement. I got my summer back and this year, I’ve actually had time to cook, read real books, take naps (sometimes 2 in one day), take some classes, hike, have picnics in the park, hang out with friends, paint, spend time in nature, make spreadsheets, and all the other things I love to do and never had time for.
It was the ultimate productivity and budgeting hack.
I could have signed up for an ongoing subscription refill plan where you can get something delivered every x number of weeks, but that would not have helped me get to the root of the consumption and overspending problem.
I still spend money and shop, but it’s different. Now I put my money where my values are. The year before I did this, I spent $3,500 at local shops and restaurants in my neighborhood throughout the whole year. This past year, I doubled that and came in at $7,000. I spent $900 last year supporting brands that I believed in. This year, I spent almost $4,000 donating to good causes directly. I also spent $3,000 less at national chains whose business practices I think are questionable.
And I did all of this without Amazon because it is destroying our communities and siphoning off the revenue from our state and local governments, and killing off local businesses.
Would I do it again? Uh YAH
Here we are a couple of weeks away from Black Friday and I’m getting ready to do the whole thing over again. I’ve made some more investments in reusables so my spreadsheet said this year’s haul is going to come in around $370, almost half as much as last year. Crazy right? And it’ll take less time because once you create an inventory, you can use it year after year.
My goal for this year is to do the same thing with food. Obviously, I can’t shop for food once a year, but I can shop for food maybe once a month, especially since my produce comes via my local CSA. Hopefully that frees up more time to do other cool stuff.
2019 Update: Now that I buy panty staples in bulk, I do shop for a lot of our food just a couple times a year. I can fill up our pantry with the basics for about $70 bucks.
All I know is that when I started, I did think I would miss Target. Seeing things nicely stacked and well lit makes me happy. How would I get my fix without visiting on a regular basis? Turns out, life can give you the same feeling if you make the time to let it.
2021 Update: So a funny thing happens in 2020 that changes everything plus other things in life has made me reconsider some of the advice in this article. Turn out this method doesn’t work that well for food. A limited shelf life plus life’s unpredictability is a recipe for waste. I saw this play out when we tried it and found a study that reflected our experience. We had to throw out half our stock when we moved to Costa Rica in 2019 when our landlord suddenly canceled our lease but a lot of the canned food came in handy during the early days of the pandemic when shelves were bare so overall it was a mixed bag. I did add some clothing to our yearly haul, things like socks, some shoes and other things that I have to replace yearly and that has worked well. Right now, we’re seeing increasing costs and some things are becoming more difficult to find, so having a cushion and knowing how much we consume has given me a sense of security through the whole ordeal. Overall, I stand by this once-a-year method for items that don’t require a lot of space, have a long shelf life, and that you’re absolutely sure you’ll use. You’ll save time and money on procurement without the risk of having to throw items away that you can’t store or use if life dramatically changes. On the flip side, for expensive items that require a lot of space or that you might not use, buy as you go. Rather than saving time and money, I found that over-optimizing can be wasteful in its own way. Life happens so the best method is to balance flexibility and optimization. No wonder physicists have shown that adaptation to the edge of chaos occurs in almost all systems with feedback.