June 17, 2024
How To Use an “Approved Shopping List” To Save Money

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Two months ago, Camila Bronson, a 33-year-old who lives in Queens and works in human resources, decided to do a shopping ban for a full year. Her reasons were simple: She was sick of impulse spending on her phone and wanted to save and invest more money. To start, she wrote down what she wouldn’t buy — takeout food, booze at bars (if she felt like drinking, she would do it at home), beauty products and toiletries (unless she was replacing something she had used up), and most clothes, shoes, and accessories. Then she created her “approved shopping list”: groceries, one to two social outings a month, and two to three pieces of clothing or footwear per season.

So far, her plan is working. Since the beginning of April, she has bought only one thing: a pair of denim shorts, which fit her “approved” criteria. “The list allows for some flexibility,” she says, “but maintains clear boundaries to prevent me from slipping back into old habits.”

The concept of an approved shopping list was popularized by Cait Flanders in her 2018 best seller, The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store, which chronicles her month-to-month progress in cutting out almost all purchases in 2014 (she kept up her shopping ban for another year after that and now writes a popular newsletter, The Mindful Consumer). Since then, her methods have gained a widespread following and are frequently referenced on Reddit threads and other #nospend content, which is having a renaissance lately. Adherents post their approved shopping lists alongside what they’ve banned, how much money they’ve saved, or how much debt they’ve paid off.

To me, Flanders’s book is weirdly comforting. A contained, uncluttered life with straightforward rules around spending has the same appeal as one of those all-white, unwrinkled linen beds I’ve seen on Instagram. It’s peaceful, immaculate, and totally incompatible with the messy tumble of needs that inundate my day-to-day life. Like most people I know — especially other parents — I seem to blow through paychecks like I’m hosing down a fire: Problems arise (my toddler outgrows his shoes, a bill shows up, we run out of snacks, a friend asks me to “wear something colorful” when I give a speech at her upcoming wedding, where the fuck is the sunscreen?) and I spend money to solve them. Plus, at a time when many people can’t afford to buy much at all, choosing to ban shopping seems like an act of outrageous luxury. Hey, look at you! Must be nice!

But an approved spending list is more attainable. No matter how much (or little) money you can spare, making personal rules about where you put it — even if you don’t have much of a choice — is a way to exert some control. The cost of living may have us all by the throat, but we can still have some boundaries.

To create your approved list, Flanders recommends “walking around your home and looking at what you use in each room every day.” Those things comprise your “essentials,” which you are allowed to buy or replace whenever they run out. She also suggests you take inventory of your current possessions. The point, of course, is that these actions will highlight your nonessentials — all the crap you think you need that’s actually gathering dust — and make you reconsider or stop yourself before you acquire more of it.

From there, Flanders encourages you to think specifically about what you might want to buy in the months ahead and to game out what you’ll do when that happens. Buy it, find some other way to get it, or fight the urge? If you plan to buy it — and, most important, you can afford to — put it on the approved shopping list. She takes care to point out that everyone’s list will be different; she’s never prescriptive. Her approved list included supplies to make her own candles, a hobby that has never even crossed my mind. In other words, you do you. (You can find more resources on how to make your list in this excerpt from Flanders’s book.)

“An approved shopping list is essentially how I treat my regular budget,” says Kiersten Saunders, a financial educator, an entrepreneur, and the co-author of Cashing Out: Win the Wealth Game by Walking Away. “With an inconsistent income and a young son to care for, trying to cut spending based on rigid categories feels impractical.” Instead, she focuses her spending on priorities — her family and her business — which makes it easier to skip the other stuff.

Her objective, she says, “is to give ourselves permission to buy what we genuinely need without judgment or self-punishment.” Saunders compares it to intuitive eating — trusting your body’s internal cues instead of being influenced by whatever “clean meal” ads pop up this week or scarfing down office snacks just because they’re in the kitchen.

In my experience, this is a slippery goal. How can I tell whether I’m actually hungry or I just want that barbecue I smell? Where do you draw the line between a “want” and a “need” when those mean different things to different people? When is restriction helpful, and when does it drain your willpower and set you up for one more failure to feel bad about? “One of the challenges of a shopping ban, even with an approved list, is that it’s never fixed. Things break, needs change, and sometimes you have to adapt on the fly,” says Saunders. “It takes lots of practice to get it right.”

It also has limitations. To be clear: An approved shopping list won’t solve the student-loan crisis, make mortgages more affordable, fix all your money problems, or give you job security. But it is an easier, gentler way to move the needle in your favor. A low-hanging hack, if you will.

At the very least, it gives you more agency. “I’ve learned to run potential purchases through a mental rubric, asking myself questions like, Am I completely out of this item? For how long? What’s at risk if I don’t get it immediately? Have I tried to find a secondhand version?” says Saunders. “By separating my ‘general needs’ from my ‘need it right nows,’ I’m able to make more intentional choices about what I buy and when.” It also pushes her to think about where else she could get that thing — could she borrow it? Get it from someone who’s giving it away?

Saunders has discovered some other helpful rules in the meantime. “I’ve found that banning certain habits, rather than specific items, has been more effective,” she says. “For example, I have a rule that if I can get something within 20 minutes and it costs under $20, I have to go to the store and buy it in person. This helps me avoid the temptation of mindless scrolling on Amazon Prime, stuffing my cart with extras to earn free same-day shipping, and losing precious time in the process.”

I think there’s a good reason these self-imposed rules are having a resurgence right now. In an economy of “vibes,” don’t we all want something more concrete, a plan to follow, permission to feel as if we’re doing something right? Lists aren’t going to save us, to be sure. But they’re a place to start.

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