How to Shop With Purpose — And Save More Money


In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, researchers from the University of Michigan discovered that retail therapy actually works! They found that shopping motivated by a desire to repair mood can be an effective way to temporarily minimize sadness and restore a sense of control.

Please note that the results of this study are not a free pass to go hit the mall and throw cash around in your favorite store. For comparison, there's another thing that has been proven by science to temporarily restore a sense of control and minimize sadness: cocaine.

Shoppers can safely regulate stress via consumer spending, provided they ditch their mindless spending for more intentional buying habits. And everything's better when done with intention — even shopping. So here are some questions I ask myself before I load up the shopping cart.

How Long Does the High Last?

Last night my husband asked me, "Are you going to wear those shoes to bed?"

This was a serious question. Whenever I buy something new, I revert back to my eighth-grade self. I listen to new records on repeat until the neighbors complain. I will try 97 new recipes just so I have an excuse to play with my new digital kitchen thermometer, even though that thermometer is telling me that my house is currently 97º F before I preheat the oven for baking. I have worn my new sandals for seven days straight, going so far as to slip them on in the middle of the night, instead of my house slippers, on my way to feed the cat.

I foster this juvenile behavior because I want to maximize the pleasure of acquisition. I know from years of trial and error, that the euphoria I get from shopping retail lasts only 10 days. I get the same high regardless of whether I buy one pair of shoes or an entire spring wardrobe. So, instead of going on a shopping bender, I purposely try to spread out my purchases. My expanded shopping schedule also gives me the pleasure of anticipation. I always have something to look for.

Will This Purchase Give Me Continual Happiness?

After my childhood dog, my second favorite gift ever was knitting lessons from my grandmother. I am a process knitter. This means I could really care less if I actually finish a project. And 99% of the pleasure that I get from knitting comes from the activity itself. It's meditative. It's cheaper than therapy. I don't feel like I'm wasting my life watching bad television if I am also knitting. I belong to a knitting group that is an important part of my social circle. Most importantly, knitting gives me a way to have a daily connection with my grandmother, who passed away 26 years ago.

Buying yarn is a tactile, fun experience. But the process of knitting a sweater extends my 10-day new purchase high over weeks. Wearing or gifting the finished sweater can add months or years to my happiness schedule.

Will This Purchase Allow Me to Achieve a Life Goal?

This year I have challenged myself to find an additional $31,000. I need this money, in part, to purchase new camera equipment that will allow me to switch careers and work professionally as an architectural photographer. Taking pictures of buildings already makes me ridiculously happy, so the fact that I can get paid for doing what I enjoy is icing on the cake.

Will I Be Grateful for This Purchase Every Day?

I am grateful for small things. Like the pair of shorts I wore for 200 days straight last year because my house lacks air conditioning and it's apocalyptically hot in Los Angeles. I don't love these shorts. In fact, I am sick of wearing them. But this doesn't negate the fact I am grateful that they have kept me cool and held up to near constant wear for three years.

Will This Purchase Give Me a Memorable Experience I Couldn't Get Otherwise?

My husband loves camping. After testing a variety of gear from REI's rental department, my husband decided to buy his own camping equipment. His high-tech tent, backpack, and sleeping quilt cost over $1,000! While these purchases will make financial sense in the long run versus continuing to rent gear, their true value is experiential. His camping kit is so lightweight that he can hike further and longer than he ever could with the heavier rented supplies. He is thrilled that he can now reach campsites that were previously beyond possibility for him.

Will I Have to Use Credit to Make This Purchase?

My great-grandfather had a good rule about money: If you can't pay cash, you can't afford it.

I'm feeling a lot of pressure to buy the $4,000, state-of-the-art camera body I need for my photography work with credit. The argument for buying it now is that, the sooner I have the camera, the sooner I can get cracking on professional gigs. However, I am resisting the temptation to buy the camera now, because buying with a credit card really means I'm just borrowing time from myself in the future. I will have to work that much longer to pay off the additional interest.

Will This Purchase Continue to Cost Me Money?

I go out of my way to buy clothes that can be washed anywhere, with little fuss. I might love a dress at the store, but it's not coming home with me if it's "Dry Clean Only." With so many hand-washable garments available for every occasion, the maintenance cost of dry cleaning just isn't worth it. Most shoppers don't realize that the greatest financial expense and worst environmental cost of their clothes comes not from production, but from cleaning.

Will This Purchase Add to My To-Do List?

Like many handy people, I have a house full of unfinished projects. While I'm proud of my collection of mid-century furniture that I trash-picked, and the designer clothes that I bought at a 90% discount because they needed a minor repair, I have a moratorium on bringing anything into my house that isn't in perfect condition. After all, if I really needed any of these items, I would have fixed them already.

How Will I Dispose of This Purchase?

Most consumers don't consider the full lifecycle of their purchases, which is why our landfills are packed with perfectly usable, recyclable, and occasionally valuable items. Because it's important to me to leave this planet in a better state than when I found it, I make sure that I have an "end of life" plan for each purchase. Do I have a responsible method of disposal for this thing that I want? Can I buy this tool without the additional packaging? Can I check out this book from the library instead buying it? Can this product be recycled or upcycled?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American produces 1,600 lbs of trash each year. We can do better. Buying with intention is something everyone can do to improve the planet!

Do you practice intentional living, but also love to shop? How do your balance your consumer habits with your value system? Share with us!

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