On Conscious Shopping, Powerful Questions, and Avoiding Returns

As I mentioned in my “Friends, Shopping, and Telling the Truth” post last week, I recently went shopping with a friend.  While I wrote about my hesitancy in telling this particular friend – a fellow shopaholic – about my blog, I didn’t share anything else about that shopping experience.

Today’s post covers how I shopped, what I bought, and my process for deciding whether to keep or return one particular item.  My hope is that my process will help you when wrestling with a similar decision.

Confession Time – I Bought Four Things

How to Avoid Returns

Do you feel anxiety after you’ve bought something?

In truth, I did buy a few things (four) when I shopped with my friend.  While I felt good about three of these purchases (two short cardigans and a moto-style jacket – photos in my accountability post next week), I experienced quite a bit of anxiety and indecision regarding the fourth.   I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’d like to share my shopping process, as it was different than what I’ve done in the past.

Following My Own Advice

I followed much of the advice I gave in “Avoiding the 3 Most Common August Shopping Mistakes,” including the following:

  • I spent some time in my closet before shopping and created a list of priority items to either fill in wardrobe gaps or satisfy deep sartorial wants (it’s okay to want things and to buy some items simply because you love them; not everything has to be ultra-practical!).
  • I didn’t just make a beeline for the sales racks.  While I did peruse them a bit, I kept my list at the forefront of my mind and didn’t allow myself to become sidetracked by “good deals.”
  • I only tried on items from my list.  So many times in the past, I’d try things on just because they caught my eye or were on sale.  That led to a lot of misguided purchases and more than a few “wardrobe benchwarmers.”  I now know it’s better to leave non-list items on the rack and not tempt myself by trying them on.
  • I used the “power pause.”  At two stores, I put items on hold to allow myself time to ponder whether or not I should buy them.  I ended up buying only half of the garments I had asked the sales associates to hold.
  • I bought items to wear nowInstead of “stocking up” for next year, I only purchased items I could see myself wearing during the current season.

One Big Buying Faux Pas

Although it seems like I did everything right, I did commit one big buying faux pas.  I bought a dress that was on my priority list yet put me over my August budget.  When I bought it, I knew I’d either have to return some unworn garments or go against my word and land in the proverbial shopping “doghouse.”  I allowed myself to be seduced by the “love factor” and threw reason and practicality out the window.

Allow me to elaborate…  For at least two years now, I’ve wanted a striped dress. While I’m a bit of a “stripe-aholic,” I do not own a striped dress despite a long and difficult search to find one. I seem to see such dresses on others every time I turn around, yet I’ve unable to find one that fits both my body and my budget.  Being tall, dresses are not an easy fit for me.  They are often too short in both the waist and length and I end up looking like a child who has outgrown her clothes.  Not the best look!

A Dress Sighting Leads to a Dilemma

After such a long a fruitless search, when I saw a cobalt and white striped maxi-dress on a mannequin outside Tommy Bahama, I gasped.  I just had to take a closer look and try it on.  Even the price tag, which was about double what I normally pay for a dress, didn’t stop me from marching into the fitting room.  As I pulled the dress over my head, I half hoped it wouldn’t fit or that it would look horrible on me. But instead, it looked fabulous.  It looked like it was made for me and I loved it.

My friend echoed my enthusiasm for the dress, but actually cautioned me against buying it.  She correctly stated that the dress “screams summer” and isn’t all that versatile.   Even though summer weather lasts through October where I live, how often would I really wear the dress before it would be relegated to my closet until next summer?  In addition, I didn’t have a cardigan or jacket to wear with the dress, so I would need to make another purchase in order to create an outfit (I get cold easily and it’s a sleeveless dress).

Faulty Reasoning and My Inner Shopaholic

I placed the dress on hold until later in the day, but ultimately went back to buy it after my friend and I parted ways. I reasoned that I’d show the dress to my husband and we’d decide together whether to keep that dress or the one he had bought me when we shopped together on my birthday.   Deep down, I knew that was the wrong thing to do and I felt anxious as I drove home that evening.

After I got home, I tried on both dresses for my husband. While he liked the new dress, he felt I should return it, as the “birthday dress” is far more versatile (it’s solid blue, short-sleeved, and knee-length).  During my conversation with my husband, my inner shopaholic fully reared her ugly head. I wanted to keep both dresses and came up with all sorts of reasons to support my “case.”   I sounded like a bratty child, although I stopped short of actually kicking and screaming.  It makes my stomach crawl to recall the way I behaved during the dress debate.

How I Made the Right Decision

Fortunately, I came to my senses and was able to use my rational mind to make the right decision.  My wise husband, who has been around the shopaholic block with me more than a time or two, used some of my own logic to snap me out of my bratty haze.   I always read my blog posts to him before I post them and it seems a lot of my words have stuck with him!

Ultimately, it was “cost per wear” that got to me.   I just wasn’t going to wear both new dresses enough to justify keeping them, even if my budget would allow for it (and that’s a big if).   I primarily wear skirts and dresses during the warmer months and I typically only wear a dress (instead of a skirt) once or twice per week.  I also have six other dresses in my closet that I’d like to wear on a regular basis.  Logically, I would only wear the new dresses probably three times each before the cooler weather begins.

Since the dresses were pricey, keeping both would not be the best use of my money.  What’s more, my husband was right in that the birthday dress is far more versatile.  The striped dress is highly recognizable and couldn’t be worn as often for that reason.

A Hard Lesson Learned

I ultimately returned the Tommy Bahama dress and I know I did the right thing.  However, I can’t help but wish I’d never bought it in the first place.  I felt embarrassed when I returned it and guilty for potentially docking a sales associate’s commission (I say potentially since I don’t know if Tommy Bahama salespeople are paid commission).  I wasted a lot of time and energy – both mine and my husband’s – by letting my emotions run the show.  Another hard lesson learned.

Use the 6 Key Questions Before Buying

I probably could have saved myself a lot of trouble if I’d asked myself Dr. Benson’s six key questions (my answers in retrospect are in parentheses):

  1. Why am I here?  (I was seduced by a mannequin display and ignored a price outside my budget.)
  2. How do I feel?  (Anxious because I know I shouldn’t even try on a dress that doesn’t fit into my budget.)
  3. Do I need this?  (No. I already have a new dress that I haven’t worn and six other dresses that aren’t worn all that frequently).
  4. What if I wait?  (The dress would likely still be available in September and I may decide it’s not really a good choice for me anyway.  There will be other dresses I will love, even with the fit issues.  I’ll also feel better about myself for honoring my commitment to my budget and personal shopping rules).
  5. How will I pay for it?  (I would ultimately need to return at least one other purchase.  It’s mean to consider returning a birthday gift from my husband.)
  6. Where will I put it?   (I have space for it, as my closet is not as packed as it used to be, but I also want to be mindful not to let it get out of hand again!)

A Few Questions I’d Add…

Dr. Benson gives a laminated card with these questions to all of her clients.  I’m thinking of creating my own laminated card and using these questions every time I shop.  I would also add a few new questions of my own to the mix:

  1. When and where will I wear it?
  2. Does it fit my body, lifestyle, and personality?
  3. Will I wear it often enough to justify its cost per wear?

I know those are a lot of questions to ponder while standing in a fitting room, but that’s where the “power pause” can be very useful.  Yes, it’s an extra step and takes some time, but I’m tired of buying things I shouldn’t have bought.  I’m tired of playing the serial returner game.  I’m tired of wasting my own time and the time of others because of my misguided purchases.  It’s time to stop the insanity and follow my own advice!

Your Thoughts?

What do you think?  How do you decide whether or not to buy something? After you’ve purchased an item, how do you determine whether to keep it or return it?  Are there any questions you’d add to the ones above?

I’d love your feedback on conscious shopping, powerful questions, and avoiding returns.  Feel free to leave a comment on this post or connect with me to share your input.

25 thoughts on “On Conscious Shopping, Powerful Questions, and Avoiding Returns

  1. So far this month I have not had a new item enter my closet. Sounds good right? Not so much. My husband and I went to Kansas City in the beginning of this month. There were a couple of items that I had seen online that I really wanted and I decided to wait until we went there to try them on instead of ordering them. I tried on the tunic at Anthropologie, but the fit wasn’t good. The shirt I wanted at Lucky Brand wasn’t in the store. After that I spent the rest of my time enjoying other things that the city had to offer besides shopping and I felt pretty good about myself. On day two I noticed that my most comfortable jeans had holes starting in places that it’s never fashionable to have holes. I decided to go to Gap and get the same jeans because I have worn them quite often in the last couple of years. They do not carry the style I like in the stores anymore. I decided to order them when I got home instead of settling. The jeans arrived and while they fit, the “medium” wash was a bit…off. They were quite dark except across the thighs, hips, and seat of the pants where they had helpfully highlighted them in a very light wash. When I tried them on it looked like those areas were glowing. Um, I don’t want my ass to glow. Back they went. Durning the Loft family and friends sale I ordered two camisoles. My thoughts were they would give a different look to some cardigans that I currently own. All of the reviews said to size down. I did and I ordered both petite and regular because I didn’t want them to be too low cut. When I recieved them they were…too small. If I had gone with my regular size they would have fit. That whole lot went back. I had a couple of nonshopping weeks. I cleaned out my closet some more and decided to return a few of the items that I bought last month. Drove 1hour and 40 minutes to Nashville. I made my returns and decided to try on some Lucky Brand jeans. They are more expensive, but they tend to fit me well and it would probably be a better buy. They are supposed to have a 30″inseam but they were too short. Hmmm, I am fairly certain that I have not grown. I leave the mall without buying anything and decided to order my regular style and the shirt I had wanted that wasn’t in the stores. Okay now step away from the computer….nooooo didn’t do it. Went to Macys.com. They also have Lucky Brand jeans and these have holes in the knees. It’s okay to have holes there and look! I also threw in a shirt that I don’t need. Clearly I still have some work to do.

    I haven’t recieved these 4 new items yet. I don’t know what I’ll keep, if anything. I’m still not where I want to be. I don’t want to invest the time with returns or buying things that I don’t really have a need for. However, this was three days of my month. I used to spend so much more time than that before. I’ll bet that a year ago you would have bought both dresses, a cardigan, and a couple of pairs of shoes to go with them and kept it all. I have found in my personal experience that it has been a process of small changes. With each one I am inspired to do more. With the help of Dr. Benson’s book I am trying to be more gentle with myself and know that it will take time and that I probably won’t be perfect at it.

    • It sounds like you went through a lot of shopping frustration recently, Tonya! I can definitely relate, but I agree that we are both making good progress. While there are some ups and downs, we are moving in the right direction. Being gentle with ourselves is very important during the process. Thanks for the reminder! Here’s to fewer days dedicated to shopping and more days devoted to new hobbies, interests, and passions!

      • It’s all good. The Lucky Brand jeans that I ordered came today and they fit great and are very comfortable. I am glad that I didn’t settle. I have been trying to branch out lately and try new things. I started a painting, a new exercise routine=hard, made an apple pie including crust from scratch, and on Saturday I agreed to go canoeing with a friend and her two kids. If you knew me you would giggle. I am pretty uncoordinated. Oh well, you only live once!

      • Congrats on the jeans! My husband only wears Lucky but they seem to be carrying fewer long inseams these days. It’s so great that you’re trying so many new things! I hope you have fun with the canoeing. If you don’t try, you’ll never know, and maybe you’ll be better at it than you think!

  2. Sounds like you’re managing your inner shopping demons. I mentioned before the downside of returns for sales associates (something I never knew before working for a major retailer), so I have stopped buying-then-returning as a wardrobe and budget control strategy. After a while, the urge to shop just goes away…. (P.S. I used to use similar rationalizations — the dress fits like a dream, this blouse is a flattering color that’s hard to find, etc. I decided once I had a quality, attractive, and serviceable wardrobe, there was no need to keep looking for more “stuff” except as replacement pieces.)

    • It’s wonderful that your urge to shop has gone away, Dottie! I hope to be able to say the same thing before too long, but for now I can say the urge has lessened (progress!). I’m feeling happier with my wardrobe as I pare it down and I’m doing better at managing my new purchases to help me get the quality, attractive, and serviceable wardrobe you mention. Soon!

  3. I think I tried on that same striped dress! I eventually found one I liked better at Soma — at one-third the price. I think your pre-buying questions are excellent, and I will bear them in mind as I head to Chicago this weekend. I’m also considering several fall/winter pieces in the Talbots catalog, but want to make sure I only buy wardrobe workhorses!

    • I’m glad you found the pre-buying questions helpful, Tricia! I’m going to make sure to use them myself moving forward. Congrats on finding a nice striped dress! I’ll have to check out Soma to see if it might work for me AND fit my budget better than Tommy Bahama. Have a great time in Chicago and good luck with getting those wardrobe workhorses!

  4. I was at the (TAX FREE) Rehobeth outlets this weekend, and boy did I shop. I went with my list, and stuck to it extremely well. While I was in the Levi’s outlet trying on a pair of jeggings (on the list, I accidentally purged my favorite pair), I had also tried on a denim jacket (not on my list, but something I had been casually looking for since spring). I had been looking for a denim jacket that fit in the shoulders, and fit properly at the waist, and this jacket fit me perfectly (I cannot button it due to The Ladies, but I wouldn’t have buttoned it anyway). However, I was looking for a denim jacket in the $30-40 price range, and this one rang up at $59.99 (remember, tax free). I put it back on the rack, and told myself that if I didn’t find anything at Old Navy or Banana Republic/J. Crew, I would think about going back for it. The denim jackets at ON fit poorly (the sides flared out so much that I could have gone paragliding with them) and were a super dark denim wash. Since all of my planned purchases rung up under the budgeted amount, I had enough left over to go back and purchase the denim jacket, which I did. While it wasn’t on my list, I feel good about the purchase, even days later, because I did the Power Pause, I looked around, the fit and quality are great, and it came in within my budget, and I finally have a denim jacket! It’s also an excellent spring to summer to fall piece that’s gotten multiple wears since I purchased on Friday, and will continue to do so through October or so.

    As for the other non-undergarments/belt items, they will be worn in my next rotation of Project 333, but are basic classic items, like a white button down to replace the one I have now that is starting to show pit stains (ewwwwww), cardigans, and a chambray button down, where I’m not worried about my tastes or fashions changing. Let’s just be thankful I didn’t buy any new shoes or bags this go-round. We did have a close call with a wallet in Fossil, something that I will be needing in the next 6 months or so. These new purchases, coupled with the fact that all of my clothing is now in my apartment (I had 2 boxes at my parents, which I turned into one box coming home, and purged the 2nd box), I am feeling the urge to go-through and purge more. Like right this second! Unfortunately, I have work and then book club tonight. So tomorrow!

    • Thanks for sharing your successful – and mindful – shopping story with us, Melissa! You did a great job of sticking to your list and using the “power pause” when faced with a want that wasn’t on your list. Congrats on the new denim jacket and good luck with the next round of wardrobe purges. I look forward to reading your new Project 333 update!

  5. Good post on a problem I’ve been tossing around for the last couple of weeks, and it comes down to one thing – I’m going to need to begin searching, shopping to find a few “warm weather” items that don’t “SCREAM SUMMER.”

    After two years of carefully creating a wonderful small wardrobe, staying within my budget, never shopping unless I really have a need for something and loving my really small collection of clothes, it has recently hit me that the majority of my warm weather items scream summer and I have a warm fall ahead that will likely stretch well into November. Back in the old days when I had an overly full closet I have a four season wardrobe, but now I’ve begun to realize that I only want clothes to fit two seasons “warm weather” and “cool weather” and I want the majority of my clothing to be in neutral colors. Ah, the learning never ends! And like Tonya, I’m being gentle with myself, knowing that if I keep my collection small and pay attention, eventually I will figure it out.

    • We are on a similar journey, Terra. We both live in Southern California and want to have two-season wardrobes. I would like more of my clothes to work during the “transitional” times, too. It is definitely a long learning process, but both you and Tonya are right. Being gentle with ourselves is of the utmost importance. We WILL eventually figure it out!

  6. Debbie, its perfectly normal for you to want to buy new things. I also think that buying new things is the right thing to do in some situations. For example, its OK to buy a new garment to replace a similar garment that is past its prime either in wearability or style. I also think its OK to buy a new piece if it particularly resonates with your evolving style.

    The rule I try to follow is if I am replacing a garment with an updated version of itself, then I get rid of the old garment (or more than one, if I find the new garment does the work of several!). If I’m adding a new piece, I usually delete another piece that doesn’t reflect my style as well as the new addition (what you call a “benchwarmer”).

    This year I am pleasantly finding I am not in so much of a frenzy to figure out how I want to dress for fall. I’m taking my time with it–for the first time ever. Taking what I’ve learned over the summer about how to dress for my body type and doing my colors with the David Zyla technique has helped me hone in on what works for me. So the first thing I did was an initial purge of fall/winter and ended up with 110 keeper garments (including the 2 new purchases described below), which surprised me. It took a whole lot longer than a single purge to get my spring/summer down to such a low number, but I seem to developed an ability to cull more efficiently! Now I am facing a guest room full of garments destined for consignment or St. Vincent de Paul’s! Organizing that is my next project, but once its done, I will have a guest room closet that can actually be used by guests!

    I did go to the LOFT 40% off sale and I am proud to say despite being tempted, I only bought 2 items. The first item was a no-brainer for me, because it was love at first sight the minute it hit the store and I waited patiently for the sale:
    http://www.loft.com/polka-dot-print-pencil-skirt-in-bi-stretch/307262?colorExplode=false&skuId=14452994&catid=catl000017&productPageType=fullPriceProducts&defaultColor=7493
    But the coordinating top was problematic. I tried every redwood colored top and sweater in the store with the skirt, and to my surprise– the top with most flattering fit and versatility was the one I liked the least on the hanger!:
    http://www.loft.com/lace-trim-polka-dot-shell/305762?colorExplode=true&skuId=14338847&catid=cat640034&productPageType=fullPriceProducts&defaultColor=7493
    I was surprised at how versatile it is–it turns the skirt into a dress look, can be worn tucked or untucked, slips easily under a jacket or cardigan, and goes with many other combinations in my wardrobe. The lace is beautiful. I’m also pleased because they have a whimsicality that is out of character for me, while keeping in my color palette!

    This is what I mean about choosing to purchase something that speaks to you in the first place. Because I mindfully chose these two I really like, I think now I don’t feel impelled to purchase a lot of lesser things the way I would have in the past–in fact, I don’t feel like purchasing ANYTHING else, which is really out of character for me at this time of year!

    Could it be that I am I starting to become a wee bit minimalistic (gasp!)?

    • You are doing so well, Deby! Congrats on the easy fall/winter wardrobe purge and on only buying two pieces at the big LOFT sale (what you bought is lovely!). Shopping mindfully isn’t always easy, but it’s the type of shopping that works best for all of us. Instead of buying lots of “good deals” that will sit in your closet, you selected two new garments you really love to work with what you already have. Maybe you ARE becoming more of a minimalist! Stranger things have happened… I’m noticing minimalist tendencies in myself, too!

  7. Hi Debbie,

    Your post was music to this shopping therapist’s ears! That you took your own good counsel was no doubt responsible for your satisfaction with three of the four items that you bought. Your detailed inquiry into all aspects of buying the striped dress sounds like it was so useful and serves as a model for your readers to follow when faced with indecision about a particular purchase.

    I think that the fact that you can count on your husband to be such a fabulous shopping support buddy speaks volumes about how much you have held up your end in your relationship with him. Congratulations on what sounds like an exceptional partnership.

    You used the six questions on the reminder card to great advantage and the three you want to add will make it even harder to overshop. One question that I’ve thought about adding is “Might I want to return it?” Regarding your answers to the six questions, I encourage people to answer the first of the six questions on the laminated reminder card in terms of the psychology of “Why am I here?” In this particular instance, the first thing I’d address in that question is why you were shopping on that particular day. Even if it was a planned shopping trip, what was making you feel as though you wanted to shop? The next I might ask is why you waited until your friend left to actually make the purchase of the striped dress.

    I’m sorry that you had to judge yourself so harshly that your stomach was crawling as you remembered the interaction with your husband over the dress. There’s nothing easy about recovering from a shopping addiction, most particularly because temptation is everywhere we turn. Progress, not perfection!

    Warm regards,
    April

    • Thanks so much for commenting on my blog, April! I’m glad you liked the post. Thanks for clarifying how question #1 (“Why am I here?”) is supposed to be used. The shopping I do with this particular friend is mostly done out of habit. We almost always eat at the same restaurant and shop afterwards. I have suggested alternate plans before, but I didn’t this last time because I wanted to shop. I start to “jones” for shopping if I go too long without doing it. This is something else I need to work on…

      I love your suggested question, “Might I want to return it?” Since I return things so often, it’s important for me to consider that part of the equation. Regarding my waiting to buy the dress until after my friend left, there’s not much to it. I didn’t buy the dress earlier because I wanted to use the “power pause” and then my friend had to leave earlier than I expected. She asked if I was going to go back and buy the dress and I told her I probably would (still didn’t know for sure at that point). It would have been MUCH better for me to wait until a day or two later like Jill Chivers suggests, but hindsight is 20/20. I’ll know better next time.

      Your point at the end is well taken. I am especially hard on myself, but I do acknowledge my progress. Still have to work on that perfectionism, though. That is definitely my Achilles’ heel!

  8. Have you ever written about the psychological effects of shopping with a friend? If so, can you please direct me to that post? I have very few female friends, and none live locally. I’ve always envied the twosomes I see shopping on the weekends — having lunch, sipping a coffee, trying on clothes and shoes, and ENCOURAGING each other to buy! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “Oh, you HAVE TO GET IT” wafting out of a TJM dressing room! I’ve always been jealous and wished I had a shopping friend — now, I wonder if I’m not better off?!

    • I did write one previous post about shopping with friends, Elizabeth. I don’t delve too deeply into psychology in the post, but you may find it helpful: https://recoveringshopaholic.com/challenge-of-shopping-with-a-friend/. There are definitely plusses and minuses to shopping with friends. While I’ve enjoyed the companionship, I’ve often made poor buying decisions in those circumstances. It’s also not good if the ONLY thing one does with certain friends is shop! For non-shopaholics, shopping with friends can be fun on occasion, but it can be dangerous for those of us who overshop. It’s definitely a “double-edged sword”!

  9. I need to stop myself from being drawn to the sale racks just hoping to find a great bargain that I dont need. And even when I purchase something for myself that is necessary, I still feel guilt-ridden. I need these questions in my purse where I can really use that time in the dressing room to talk myself off the ledge!

    • I share a lot of your challenges, Beth! Guilt is a huge problem for those of us who overshop. Having the questions as a guide is definitely helpful. We just have to make it a practice to use them. That’s where the “power pause” can really come in handy. Most stores will hold items for at least a few hours, which gives us a chance to review the questions in a neutral territory outside the store.

  10. I really enjoy reading all your posts (been going article by article back through your archives). I wonder, do you regret now not getting the dress? I’m somehow always worried something i love will be the one that got away… I refrained from impractical heels 2 years ago and still regret not getting them! I wonder what we can do/steps we can take to stop this from happeniing and to reduce that fear.

    • Good to see you commenting here again, Meli! I remember that you were one of my earlier commenters. To answer your question, I do NOT regret not buying the dress. I later bought a similar dress at 1/3 the price, but I only wore it ONCE before the weather turned cooler, so I’m glad I didn’t get the more expensive dress. It’s true that sometimes good things DO get away, but more often than not, I end up regretting what I DID buy instead of what I didn’t buy. For me, tracking what I do and don’t wear, as well as what my shopping successes and mistakes are, is helping me to make better decisions and reduce the fear of missing out when I shop. It’s a work in progress, but I’m moving forward. Perhaps I will write a blog post about this!

  11. I’m surprised you remember me 🙂 i actually just did a purge this weekend inspired by you. I did find something that really surprised me. I need 90% of my tops to be dressy/professional. More than half is too casual for my lifestyle!! I’m definetly using your tips to evaluate and strategize future shopping instead of the random impulse buys i have been doing 🙂

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