Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The long post on Shopping in 2011

After I went off the Great American Apparel Diet last year, I decided to write all of my spending down to get a better idea as to what might be wrong with the way I shop. I've had problems with shopping for several years. I've gone from trendy high street shopping to hoarding second hand, then back to high street, then investing in more expensive items, then back to thrifting. I've tried budgeting, splurging, shopping strikes, moderation, and everything in between. And still, at the back of my mind, I've known that whatever I was trying to do at a given time, things were not making sense. I was a bad shopper. My notebook and I were convinced that keeping track of spending and buying for an entire year would be my best bet to figure out what the underlying problems really were. 2011 is long gone, and here we are - except that posting about this topic is more difficult than you'd think.

I tend to write critically about fashion, personal style and consumerism, and after a year of what was supposed to be conscious buying, the end results are horrendous. I actually thought about not writing this post to save face, but at the end of the day, I thought that perhaps it is a good idea to just face the situation publicly. If I let you guys know what's happened in my end, maybe it could help me consume more carefully in 2012. And perhaps, just maybe, I'm not alone in this. So let's cut to the chase.

Your eco-conscious, critical consumer spent over two and a half thousand dollars on clothes in 2011, $2,520 to be exact. What's way worse, I accumulated 90 pieces of clothing. 90. Nine-zero. How could this be?, you ask in horror. Well, here's the math regarding the money and what it was spent on:

On things I bought brand new, I spent $1,274. This includes three pairs of Fluevog boots, a Diesel bag and a hat (all of these were bought during our January trip to New York City), two pairs of jeans from the Gap, a bunch of jewelry, new underwear, and a top and a hat from Marimekko. That's it; well over a thousand dollars gone, just like that. But the good thing is that this group is a hands-down winner in wearability. Everything I have bought new, I have worn actively. Could it be that I choose more wisely when I have to spend more money?

On things I bought from eBay and Etsy, I spent $455. This includes a couple of pairs of second hand Fluevog shoes/boots (yes, it has been the year I got to know and love Fluevogs), a handful of vintage dresses, a pair of cowboy boots, a sequin suit, jewelry. Apart from the eBay'ed Fluevogs, my online purchases were mostly flukes, or to be fair, just not very wearable. The items may have been nice, and I still like them, but they simply haven't found their way into my value-for-money daily wear. Also, there are issues here with fit. I am more likely to make mistakes if I don't get to try stuff on before buying it.

On things I thrifted on my two trips to Finland, I spent $365. (Sweaters, skirts, jewelry, belts, tops, dresses, trousers, jackets.) The volume that comes from this group is very high. A lot of the items are wearable, but there is just way too much stuff. More on that later.

On things I bought at antique/thrifty shops, auctions and yard sales in the US, I spent $266. (Skirts, jackets, jewelry, purses.) Considering how much money I spent in antique/thrifty shops and yard sales, the value for money is very bad. The winners in this group were two skirts and a pair of Converse, in all of which I spent $3 in total. The rest of that $266... nah. Just not worth it.

On things I bought at the Salvation Army thrift shop, I spent $160. (Flannel shirts, sweaters, skirts, dresses.) This group carries a fair bit of the volume, but I bought practical things. I wear my Salvation Army thrifts all the time.

Now let's talk about the dreaded 90 items. We are talking 3 pairs of jeans, 4 pairs of trousers, +25 tops and sweaters, 5 jackets, 4 belts, 11 dresses, 4 handbags, 8 pairs of shoes, and 12 skirts. Add random tunics, vests and what have you, and we've reached that staggering 90 items of clothing. That's 1.7 pieces of clothing every week.

Clearly, what got me into trouble volume-wise was thrifting, and more specifically, thrifting in Finland. I took two trips to Finland, and on both trips I visited as many flea markets and thrift shops as I could. Thrifting in Helsinki offers a lot more variety compared to my usual day-to-day life. There are lots of shops to visit. When you visit one, you think that it would be a good idea to visit another. Before you know it, you're thinking to yourself "why not visit them all, since you are here anyway?" In addition, clothes in thrift shops in Finland tend to be much nicer than in our little town in New York, and then there's the flea marketing. It's an affordable way to score great things, and we don't have flea markets where I live. There is just an awful lot of temptation around me in Helsinki, and since trips there are "special occasions", I give myself permission to shop more freely.

Well, it is not fair to put the blame on Finland, because thrifting at home in the US is equally problematic when it comes to the sheer amount of the clothes I have bought. The real culprit behind my shopping, I find, is the price tag. It is evident that I will keep buying stuff if it's cheap. The problem: I buy multiples. If I like a certain look, I am more likely to buy 3-4 variations of that look because it feels like a great deal. "3 skirts for 3 bucks! Why not!" I currently live in my thrifted black skinny jeans, and I keep thinking that I should find another pair, because they are so great. But the truth is that I already have the one pair that works, so why would I even need another? The sad thing here is that even if I have multiples, I am more likely to wear the same thing over and over. Among the multiples, a favourite will quickly emerge, and the rest of the items are left unworn. The mistake here, is 1) giving into the idea that I need many of the same, and 2) not knowing beforehand what I will actually end up wearing.

Here's the thing that really gets to me: honest to God, I really didn't think that I had gone all crazy in 2011. I thought that I had mostly bought - dare I say it - rationally, things that seem like basics, things that I really care about. Yes, there were some obvious mistakes: I spent $60 on an ill-fitting vintage army coat, and that still unworn sequin short suit cost me $30. I bought two vintage purses at an auction ($27), and yes, they are pretty, but I doubt if I'll ever use them. I splurged $29 on an on-the-shoulder cat brooch, and I haven't worn it once. Overall though, my feeling is that I've also made some great investments. I've bought great sweaters at Salvation Army for a couple of dollars, all of my Marimekko purchases (some new, some second hand) have been worth every penny I spent on them, and yes, those Fluevogs, too. I've worn my thrifted velvet skirts and dresses, my flannel shirts, and those Salvation Army sweaters on repeat this past fall. So yes, I've bought some great items along the way, and everyone makes mistakes, and learning to shop wisely isn't as easy as it sounds. So why do I feel so awful?

Well, the answer is pretty simple, and it comes in two parts. First, $2,520 is just way too much money to spend on clothes. This is not a universal statement by any means - it is a statement about the way I feel about money, and what clothes are worth to me. As you might guess, I don't belong to that group of people who believe that it is okay to spend 10% of one's income on clothes; heck, even 1% is pushing it for me. So let's put this in perspective: the truth is that my two-and-a-half-grand couldn't even buy me that wonderfully pretty Burberry Prorsum raffia trench coat that I saw in an issue of Vogue recently. (I'd be about $400 short.) The point is not that I could have bought two pairs of Prada pumps with the money - I don't need or want Prada pumps. What I need is the feeling that I've spent my money well. Yes, it could have been worse, and when I worked in clothing retail, I am sure it was much, much worse. But the simple fact is that the clothes I've bought this year don't seem like they were worth the money I spent. Some individual pieces, yes. But as a whole, no. I'd rather have money in the bank than 90 new pieces of clothing.

And that brings me to the second part of the answer: I guess it's no surprise to anyone when I say that no closet can hold 90 new items of clothing a year. It's just crazy. For the first time ever, I've actually had to put some of my summer clothes away for the winter. There simply is no space, even after I've donated some of my old clothes to Salvation Army. No matter how you go about it, there is absolutely no justification for buying 12 new skirts in one year. Buying so much in volume is unsustainable (and by unsustainable in this context I mean something that has no longevity): aside from the question of space, the cost-per-wear gets surprisingly high, even if you've only spent a dollar here, a dollar there on your clothes. It is simply not very smart to buy clothes that are left unworn due to something as weird as "too many clothes, not enough time".

The partial solution here, as many thrifters would say, is to donate or sell the back end of the wardrobe. Some thrifters choose to buy one thing and get rid of another on a constant basis. Others do an annual closet clean-up where you either sell or donate the clothes you no longer wear (I have previously fallen into this category). This works for many thrifters. They are willing and happy to keep their wardrobes in a constant flux. But if are interested in creating a sustainable wardrobe that works, if you are tired of going back and forth between what to keep and what to donate, if you feel uncertain about your shopping habits, if you feel overwhelmed or somewhat uncomfortable with the amount of clothing you are accumulating (even if you do the annual culling or what not), and if you find yourself in the situation where your wardrobe just doesn't make sense, I have a suggestion for you: observe yourself for an entire year. Write everything down: what you buy, how much you spend, when you buy, where you buy, what you donate or sell. First, you'll realize that you are buying a lot more stuff than you'd think you were even capable of, and second, your cost-per-wear is much higher than you think it is. You are most likely buying things and wearing them just a handful of times before you get rid of them. You'll soon notice that it's not just about the money you've spent, but more about the amount of clothes you buy and whether your system of recycling and wardrobe flux is actually working for you or not. It is about cost-per-wear, and it's about your peace of mind.

And I'll say it again: a lot of thrifters are perfectly happy with the way their wardrobes evolve with time, and for some, the culling process is fun and liberating. It used to be that way with me, too. But I think I've just reached a point where that process just doesn't make sense anymore. This doesn't mean that I'll stop shopping altogether, or that I'll stop thrifting - thrifting is, at the end of the day, the only environmentally sustainable way to shop. I'm willing to admit that I've been in this situation plenty of times before: I've decided to spend more wisely, and then I've fallen off the waggon before too long. This time, I hope, things will be a little bit different. You see, I have a plan, and I have new rules for shopping. More on that next time.

Next: Shopping plan for 2012, and Five rules of shopping


Megan said...

Welcome to the cult of Fluevog. =)

I find when I go "thrifting" that I'll buy things that I sort of like just because they are cheap. I think buying second hand is most successful when you find something you truly love, which happens much less frequently.

Teeny said...

Wow. I am an avid thrifter myself, and very strict on myself with new things. I think i only bought three items of clothes and ....several pairs of cheap shoes that broke. I know I have to be smarter with shoes, the landfill effect is not good. None of my new purchases were over $50....and i'd like to think i didn't spend over $800 on clothes, but only keeping a tally would provide me the real amount. Wise words from you Waves.

Anna said...

It's posts like these that have me so excited that you're back. I was already thinking about keeping track of my clothes purchases after your previous mention of it, but after this post, I definitely will. I'm a little afraid of what I'm going to discover, but there's no way for me to change a behavior without examining it first.

Quinn said...

Thanks for this post. It gives a lot of food for thought. I think I'll take up your suggestion about tracking my clothing expenditures.

jesse.anne.o said...

That is a great realization - that you buy more quantity when it's cheaper. I fall victim to the same thing. It's a struggle to only bring home what I love and already fits well. I still struggle with this but I'm getting better about walking out of thrift stores -- even my favorite thrift store -- empty-handed and not feeling badly about it. It just means I saved myself a lot of mental and physical work.

I lean pretty heavily on wardrobe staples and my hope is that I'll be able to identify what those are at the get-go, in the store/at the swap, etc. So I can save myself the misery. But it never quite works that way.

I have the same issue re fit and Etsy. I only venture shoes and bags there now.

Carolyn said...

This is a wonderful post!
Please don't feel too bad. I think the going backwards and forwards between different ways of managing our clothes and defining and refining our tastes is common to most of us who love fashion, definitely to me and my friends! A few years ago I committed to making all my own clothes, and while this is very satisfying and means I really do have to think about each and every item and construct it to fit and suit me, I still have made mistakes that I don't wear very often after the thrill of completing it has gone!
I'm looking forward to your next post!

Sunjo said...

I love thrifting too and I honestly am terrified to count my number of items I bought in a year. Although I know it's under 90 ;) Now you made me really want to go to Finland!!

KWu said...

Thanks so much for getting up the courage to put this together. It's really great advice, I think, and I've decided to try this for myself as well. I had been tracking vintage clothing I'd bought but not really the time of purchase or doing much analysis (other than knowing I probably didn't want to add up any of those figures).

lin said...

I've been slowing writing a post about my shopping in 2011 - wanted some distance between last year and now for some perspective - and although I'm not nearly done, I actually reached many of the same conclusions as you! I also noticed that I thought I had bought very little but a count revealed otherwise. I felt foolish and deluded. It also reveals what poor money management skills I have if I haven't realised what I was doing with my money!

"But as a whole, no. I'd rather have money in the bank than 90 new pieces of clothing." - this in particular resonated with me. I love clothing and I don't apologise for what I spend on clothes but I do feel that in recent months that I should put a cap on things because I have accumulated some lovely things and they haven't fallen a apart and I've wandered into "wasteful" territory.

Terrific post and can't wait to see what your rules are.

alicia said...

Thank you for this. I find it helpful to look at the disconnect between what I think I spend and what something actually costs me. Without judgement, without condemnation, to just watch myself try to turn the faucet. For the past couple of years, I have attempted to remove and replace redundancies and other errors of judgement from my wardrobe. I make very little money and yet, still have these pockets of change that I devote to hats hidden in drawers. And it's less that I am putting together a closet than curating a museum of beautiful fetish objects.

Madeline Quaint said...

I'm so glad you shared this experience with us! I'm definitely starting a list of what I bought this year, it will be really good to look through it next January!

I don't have much money to spend on clothes, so I always wear what I buy, that's not my issue. What I'm really looking forward to changing this year is choosing more wisely when it comes to shopping. I almost never buy full price clothes, only stuff on sale, or second hand. Now, when I go into the dressing room and try the clothes on I will say to myself: "Would you buy this if it wasn't on sale? Yes, it fits you nicely, you would wear it, but is it really you, do you really like it or do you just like the price?" I need to work on this, because I always make style compromises to save money...

Shey said...

Thanks for posting this Waves, I love and admire your honesty and as I read the post I could totally relate to your feelings. I think I'd be very scared if I saw how much I've spent over last year just in clothes. I think I will take up the challenge and write down everything I spend on.
I am one of those who takes out one thing out of my closet as soon as I find something better to replace it. Some ill fitting clothes, or clothes that were just not me made their way back to the thrift store as donations. I've bought maybe clothes to refashion only to realize that I can't think of any way to make them work. I've also bought some pretty great stuff at full price, and it still hanging in my closet and getting worn a lot. I agree that paying full price for something new makes me think twice about where my money is going, but I'm sure I could have saved thousands just from things I've bought at the thrift store. I don't think I'm going to go on any shopping budget any more, however revising the blog posts I've noticed what types of clothes I like to wear more and I feel comfortable in, and so I stick with buying only clothes that fit that style, as much as I might like something else if it does't fit the category of my style then I won't buy it. Just yesterday I was about to buy 2 dresses I saw on a blog, a blogger bought them and they are sooo cute, but she's in her 20's I'm in my 30's and I want to look my age, not like I'm trying too hard to stay a little girl. So I didn't buy them after all. Last month I wanted a pair of suede booties so bad, I went back and forth buying and returning similar booties for less price but not exactly what I wanted or what was comfortable, then I switched them and bought a totally different shoe, then I returned them again, after much thought I decided to wait till the pair I wanted went on sale and it did, it didn't go way down, only 30% off but still it was a more affordable price and they were exactly the shoes I wanted with the heel height I wanted. Sometimes when shopping is better to be patient. Can't wait to read your next post!

Pamela said...

What a great post. Certainly has set me thinking. I have had the problem of too many clothes and not enough time to wear them. I'll certainly be tracking everything from now on, hopefully planning more carefully and keeping to the old saying less = more.

Tara said...

That was a really inspirering post to read, thank you so much for sharing, even though it was hard for you.
I've recently bought an apartment, and therefore I have no money what so ever to spend on lets say clothes I will never wear. I have enough money to live and I'm happy about it, but now I also have some wise words to read whenever I feel sorry for myself when I can't have new clothes. Oh my thank you.
I'll look forward to your next post and the five rules of shopping.
Also I'm so happy your back on writing this blog, I've popped in every now and then to see if you where back and it made me happy to read your words again.
Best wishes

Roobeedoo said...

What a fantastic post! I really applaud your objectivity. I am very good at persuading myself that some purchases can be "ignored", for all sorts of reasons that don't stand up to much scrutiny. I decided that I would give up "the High Street" in 2012, and then realised I had just gone out and bought tights from UK High Street guru Mary Portas - how two-faced can you get?!

eyeliah said...

wow wow! I can't even believe it! thank you so much for sharing. I feel like in past years I had spent just as much as you. I feel like last year was less than 4500 though... I will try to keep track this year, I can tell you so far I have spent zero. Are you going to log again this year?

Roberta said...

Thanks for a really thought-provoking post. I track my clothes spending very closely, but I haven't divided between thrifted and new clothes - what a great idea! I lost 20 pounds last year, and I bought and altered and purged a lot of things. I'm definitely not buying any clothes for a looong while (if at all) this year, though I still feel "entitled" to accessories.

Adrienne said...

It is an anthropological fact that women are hunters and gathers. I think your are fulfilling your genetic predisposition. The act of acquisition is just instinctual. Perhaps you can shift this need to a less costly area of collecting receipies or new plants for a garden. I am really happy you fessed up because it has really given me something to think about. Why do I need to accumulate or acquire more clothing than I can really wear in a year?? When I figure it out I'll post it on your blog...:)

Anat said...

Hi there, first time here.

2011 has probably been the year I've bought the most pieces of clothing ever in my life (I'm 36), because it's the year clothes became much more important to me, and I started documenting my daily outfits.

I realize that the antithesis of getting wear value per piece is the desire to create a unique look every day. 5 years ago I would have been content to have maybe 10-20 "outfits" and alternate between them, but today I am pushing myself to create something unique everyday. I don't blog, I don't get this pressure from my peers, and yet I feel compelled to do it.

I kind of feel like a disapointment to myself if I copy a past look, even if it's a winner.

So I think for me that's the biggest paradigm shift I need to make - ok to repeat outfits. OK to repeat outfits. Even relish being able to take a winner look and enjoy it again.

Audi said...

You are definitely not alone; I've gone through the exact same thing with thrifting, where I've ended up with a closet packed with things that were either so-so or that I didn't wear at all. In the end I came to the conclusion that even $3 spent on something that I have to struggle to style and don't feel fabulous in is a waste of money. Last year I made a conscious effort to limit my purchases only to things I truly love, no matter what the cost, and overall I'm much happier with the stuff I bought than I have been in years past -- and I bought a lot fewer items, too. But it has certainly not been easy. Thanks for sharing your experience, and here's wishing you better shopping success for 2012.

Anonymous said...

This is fascinating to me. As I read over your post, the NYC purchases and the Finland purchases seemed to make the most sense. Perhaps you should limit yourself to shopping when on vacation and call it good the rest of the time.

Anonymous said...

I hate to be the odd person out here, but the things you said were most successful were the purchase of new clothes and out the thrifting, you found a much smaller percent you actually loved and used. I know it might be more sustainable to thrift but the justification does not match the reality. You preferred and used the new stuff more, not the thrifted. Perhaps you should figure out why that is and then adjust your thrifting habits to find those types of things!

Monkey said...

This was an amazing post, thank you so much for being brave enough to post it after all. I'm going to do this myself and see what I find. I disagree a bit with thrifting vs buying new though; the time it takes to find something that I love, will fit, and will work with my lifestyle is simply not worth it to me. I think buying very few new things and wearing them out would be just as sustainable.