February 8, 2016

How Purchase-Tracking Can Help Define Your Style and Save You Money


I'm a firm believer in the importance of budgeting and setting savings goals, and (not to brag) I've gotten pretty good at it. Whenever friends asks what my "secret" is, I give it to them straight.  First: Privilege. I would be remiss not to acknowledge how my family assistance -- particularly my parentally-funded college education -- and my being a socially-competent, symmetrically-faced, white woman has figured into an ability to support myself and live quite comfortably. Second, however, is without a doubt being mindful about how I choose to spend my money.

For a little over three years now, I have been using Mint to track my budgeting and spending habits. From taxes to travel planning, it has proved to be an indispensable tool. 

While bringing awareness to your cashflow may be anxiety-inducing at first, it can ultimately help you feel more at ease and in control of your life. In tandem with Mint, I like to take a yearly inventory of my purchases and, considering them one by one, ask myself two questions: What would I buy again, and what do I regret spending money on? You can apply these questions to anything you like (books, housewares, sportswear, etc.), but for the purposes of this blog, I'm using clothing as an example -- because this process serves double duty to help you shape and define your personal style!

This is where a program like Mint comes in handy. If you are diligent about categorizing your purchases throughout the year, then all you'll need to do is filter by label. For example, according to Mint, here is everything I purchased in 2015 under the "Clothing" label:

Transaction Item(s)
$62.40 (6) underwear (1) bra
$54.99 (1) ankle boots
$67.50 (1) skinny jeans
$33.34
(2) sweaters
$8.35
(2) tights
$8.00   (1) beaded headband
$76.29 (1) oxford flats, (1) tights
$42.63 (2) sweaters, (1) long-sleeve shirt
$16.29 (1) skinny trousers
$5.45 (1) underwear
$50.00
(1) resole old boots
$4.97 (1) nylons
$3.99  (1) pencil skirt
$434.20 (24) total pieces

Once I've compiled my purchase list*, I make notes as to how I'm currently feeling about each item.  This might include what I like about it, its quality state, what feelings or memories it conjures, or why I chose to buy it in the first place. For example, next to my $3.99 Goodwill pencil skirt I wrote: "Would purchase again; quality construction, neutral color, great price, something I considered for a long time." But beside the $8.35 Forever 21 tights: "REGRET; bad quality, ill-fitting and non-returnable, always uncomfortable, cheap price was not worth the risk."

After I've assessed each item like this, I review my notes and look for patterns. This year, for instance, I noticed an increased willingness to invest in durable, quality items, while my appetite for fast fashion fixes was quickly fading. Warm pieces in natural fabrics were long-term favorites, yet I regularly overlooked fit & style flaws in a seductively soft fabric (which of course disappeared after two washes.) Items purchased with enabler friends ("That's such a DEAL! You have to buy it!") were almost always a mistake. I love my loose, relaxed-fit tops. I always end up hating crew necks. It's amazing what weird preferences you discover when you take the time to consider your purchases!

You can probably guess the next step; apply your discoveries to this year's spending. If you notice that many of the pieces you quickly got bored with are brightly-colored, stick to neutrals this year. If you love what you bought in the company of your best friend, make a point to include them in your future shopping trips. Make a list and keep it in your purse or wallet, so you can reference it when you're tempted to make a new purchase. Ask yourself if it fits your style and your budget. You may feel like a bit of a nerd at first. (Yes, even I did!) But as Zora Neale Hurston puts it, "Research is formalized curiosity." Keep researching. Stay curious. It can only lead to fun.

*Note that this table does not include pieces I acquired for free (i.e. clothes swaps or gifts.) For personal style analysis, these items should be taken into consideration as well.

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