Keeping Myself Accountable by Writing Down My Clothing Purchases

Photo by Prudence Earl on Unsplash.

I’ve been writing down my clothing purchases since 2015. There are a few reasons why I started. In 2014, I moved from a house to a flat, which forced me to downsize my wardrobe and made me realize just how much stuff I had. I was planning to buy my first home, so I didn’t want to buy a lot of new things which would then have to be packed for the next move.

I also had a sneaking feeling that I was buying far too many clothes, and had been for a long time. Shopping didn’t have a huge impact on my budget because I mainly bought secondhand or in sales. However, the time I spent browsing in charity shops was a little bit out of control. I bought things, wore them a handful of times, and then donated them back — sometimes to the same shop I bought them from, occasionally with the tags still on. I essentially used charity shops as a low-budget version of Rent the Runway.

Or, to put it another way, I devoted far too much time and energy to buying things that didn’t really satisfy me.

Discovering the blog Recovering Shopaholic was a catalyst for change, though it took me a while to put that change into action. Blogger Debbie Roes was extremely honest about the extent of her shopping addiction, writing publicly about the number of items in her wardrobe (272 garments when the blog began in 2013) and posting a monthly “accountability update” detailing what she bought that month and how much it cost. I read the blog for a few years before I could bring myself to start tracking my own spending, which means there is no record of my worst shopping years. I had to get the problem at least somewhat under control before I could begin documenting it.

My tracking system is nothing fancy, just a Word document for each year. In 2015, I listed all my purchases along with the prices, and grouped them into good, bad, and “meh.” In 2016, this expanded into a month-by-month purchase list with quarterly totals for both the number of items and their cost. I don’t track accessories, shoes, or practical clothing like gym gear, because I don’t tend to overspend in those areas; I find them boring, so I only buy what I need. It’s the everyday clothing and the fun purchases that let me down, so that’s what I focus on. Writing it all down makes me feel more accountable, and has undoubtedly influenced me to buy less; if I’ve had a spendy month, I dread making my confession to the Word doc, even though no one sees it but me.

After nearly three-and-a-half years of monitoring my spending, I now have a large bank of information on what I bought, as well as when and why. So, just as I did with my memberships in February, I decided to review the information and draw some conclusions from it.

I’ve chosen not to share too many specific totals here, which no doubt says something about me (and also about the way clothes shopping is regarded by society). What I’m interested in is the psychology behind the spending: the patterns; the reasons; the “why of the buy,” as behavioral economists call it. What have I learned?

I spend more when the seasons change

I never buy much clothing between January and March. Christmas shopping generally leaves me low on funds and completely burned out on all things retail. No one really sees my outfits in winter since, living in the north of England, I am always covered up with a big warm coat until at least the end of March. Between 2016–2018, I averaged three clothing purchases during the first quarter of each year.

April is when my shopping tends to move up a gear. I look in my wardrobe and think, what the hell was I wearing this time last year? Spring and summer weather in the U.K. is unpredictable, which is one reason Brits are so obsessed with the weather. I know what to wear in winter: it’s going to be cold. Spring is a different matter. This year we had snow on 1st April (Prince was right), followed by a heatwave three weeks later. As a pale person who fears the sun, I need my warmer weather outfits to cover me up, keep me cool, and render me prepared for rain at any moment. Since this is impossible, I buy a lot of clothes in spring. My second-quarter average for the past three years is a horrifying 11 purchases, but this is heavily skewed by the 2016 figures, which I will account for below.

I tend to panic-buy before going on a trip

In 2016 I went to a multi-day music festival. This was a bad idea, because I hate camping. Because I hate camping, I didn’t have any useful clothing to wear while camping.

I bought a total of 11 clothing items for this trip, some more useful than others. The waterproof jacket (£28.99) will at least be worn again; the sweatshirt with a ridiculous bunny motif (£7.29) that I panic-bought on eBay, not so much. Because I spent so much time in the shops that month, I also spent additional money on other impulse purchases. Despite all my preparations, it was so cold at night that I ended up having to buy an extra hoodie (£4) and a blanket in the Oxfam tent at the festival.

I think the moral of the story is that I need to learn to decline invitations for events I already know I won’t enjoy. At the time I thought it would be good for me to get out of my comfort zone, but the least I could have done was factor the cost of the extra clothing into the overall cost of the event. I have since learned from this experience; when I went to Bruges this summer, I agonized over what to pack all winter but only bought one piece of additional clothing for the trip. 

Secondhand clothing is still my downfall

I love secondhand clothing. I love the variety, the nostalgia of seeing long-forgotten trends, the low prices, and the fact that proceeds often go to charity. Secondhand shopping also feels more environmentally friendly, although it’s worth noting that the secondhand market depends on people buying far more clothes than they need and donating them before they are worn out, so it’s not a perfect solution.

However. I do not always make great choices when I buy secondhand. In 2017, I bought 10 items from charity shops or eBay. Five of those have already been donated; two haven’t been worn yet because they need alterations. In 2015, trying to find an outfit for a friend’s wedding, I bought two dresses on eBay (total spend £45) and neither of them fit. The sellers did not accept refunds. The dress I actually wore to the wedding was bought on the high street at full price.

On the plus side, recording these purchases has forced me to confront the problem and think about the reasons behind it. I rarely try things on when I buy secondhand, and I make more impulsive decisions because the prices are lower. I also have a compulsion to find the best deal, and worry that if I don’t snap up a bargain right then and there, someone else will beat me to it and I will regret it for the rest of my life. Following eBay auctions only encourages this mentality, which I’m sure is no accident. Since I don’t remember a single one of my missed clothing opportunities from previous years, it’s pretty clear I need to learn to let things go.

I can rein it in when I really make the effort

In 2018 I had a few goals: to buy no clothing for the first three months of the year, to buy fewer clothes and spend less money than in previous years, and to make more ethical purchases. My three-month shopping ban was… almost a success. I did buy one top, but I don’t regret it. It was from an ethical clothing brand and I bought it secondhand on eBay, so it was double ethical (…or it would have been, if eBay wasn’t a huge tax-avoiding corporation).

In terms of buying fewer clothes, I have made it through spring without going on my usual spending binge, and I feel pretty good about my purchases so far. I’ve also committed to doing some work on my existing wardrobe. Those secondhand purchases that needed alterations? I’m picking them up from the tailor next week. It turns out that alterations are expensive, but at least my money is going to an independent local business.

Some of my goals are a bit harder to reconcile. Ethical clothing brands are, for good reason, more expensive, so I need to accept that buying from them might mean spending more money on fewer items. Ethical brands also tend to be based online, which is frustrating because if I’m spending more money, I need to be able to try things on. (I would love recommendations for any U.K. based ethical brands with actual shops I can go into.)

Buying secondhand is more tempting, but is a big source of regrettable purchases. I own a sewing machine and can do some basic alterations, but I’ve found that making clothes is hard and time-consuming. This makes me appreciate how much effort goes into making even the cheapest fast fashion, and increases my determination to buy better and DIY more.

I will probably always be prone to impulsive thoughts when it comes to clothing. Just the other day, I was reading a heart-wrenching essay on grief in which the author mentioned she had recently bought a Point Horror T-shirt. I didn’t even finish reading the essay before opening a new tab and frantically googling to find out where she purchased the T-shirt. It turns out there’s one with my favorite Point Horror on it, Funhouse by Diane Hoh, but I haven’t bought it yet. Impulsive thoughts don’t have to become impulsive actions. I’m not saying I won’t buy the T-shirt, but I’ll think really hard about it before I do.

Rachel Davies is a librarian in the north of England. She does not yet own the Point Horror T-shirt.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Clothing Series.

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