Work & Money

Strategy is key if you want your buying ban to really help you save

“It takes willpower and control, and control is not easy… it often leads to failure.”
(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Cait Flanders put herself on a shopping ban and saved $17,000 in one year.

"I could look around at my place and see, for whatever reason, I had four bottles of shower gel or three bottles of lotion," said Flanders, a personal finance blogger based in Squamish, B.C. "We continue to add to those piles when we don't actually need anything."

For Flanders, her self-imposed shopping ban was motivated by a desire to save more money and cut back on clutter. But for other people, bans are a way to stop bad spending habits or get out of debt. They can range from small-scale and short-term, such as no take-out coffee for month, to the extreme – no makeup, clothes, shoes and books for years — which Flanders did.

Human behaviour experts say drastic bans can work, but they're not for everyone.

"It's no different than people going on a diet," said Michael Inzlicht, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, whose research focuses on self-control. "It takes willpower and control, and control is not easy – it doesn't feel good, it often leads to failure."

The toughest thing for Flanders, who stopped buying "non-consumable items" for two years, was halting her impulse book purchases and takeout coffee indulgences – a habit draining $100 a month from her bank account. But she persisted, determined to save money. 

For most people, an outright ban is hard to maintain in the long-term, Inzlicht said. He added that a self-imposed ban could work for someone who is goal-oriented and possesses willpower and self-control, but for others, the restrictions might make them feel frustrated and discouraged.

Jordann Brown was one of those people.

"I would be really, really great for four or five months, not spend any money," said Brown, a personal finance blogger based in Halifax. "And then pretty much like clockwork… I would snap and I would go on a bit of a spending binge."

Brown, 27, cut out purchases of anything she "didn't need to live" in 2012, including furniture, her beloved yoga classes and most clothing. She went all in because she needed to pay off student debt and afford car payments.

To make the ban work, she started drinking beer and wine made by her husband (who was already frugal and following his own shopping ban), doing yoga at home, eating less meat and using makeup sparingly. Her friends and family understood when she passed up vacations and nights out, but ultimately, the ban was too restrictive for her.

"It left me feeling like a failure," Brown said.

After two years, she came up with a new solution: a $25 weekly allowance for herself to spend on "wants". She saved up for three months to afford Hunter rain boots, and four weeks to save for running pants.

Today, she still gives herself an allowance that fluctuates based on pay cheques. She doesn't regret the ban and said it forced her to develop new habits – no more takeout coffee or bi-monthly haircuts and colouring.

As for Flanders, 31, her two-year shopping ban allowed for some flexibility, including exceptions for the occasional meal out and gifts for friends. But her own experiment forced her to confront the root of her spending problems: she bought things thinking they'd change her. "I would buy books I thought the smarter version of myself would read," she said. "I had over 50 books I'd never read."

As for those who'd like to try their own ban, she advises people to focus on one or two bad spending habits. "I think most people know what their vice is… the one or two things they spend too much money on," she said. "It would be a really interesting experiment to just cut those out for 30 to 90 days."

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. Find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.