Tracking My Purchases Made Me a More Conscious Consumer

By all accounts, fashion is a waste.
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Street style from London Fashion Week. 

Street style from London Fashion Week. 

The apparel manufacturing process takes a well-documented toll on the environment. Factories use harmful chemicals to treat garments and process excessive amounts of water in washing and dyeing. The dangers extend to the people tasked with sewing, cutting and assembling pieces or attaching hundreds of buttons every single day for startling low wages. There are also people who work in logistics and endure unsafe working conditions or treacherous weather to deliver clothing around the world. At the end of it all, most of the clothing ends up in a landfill.

Then there's us, the consumers. We empty our wallets to buy new clothing on an increasingly regular basis. Weekly drops have made fashion a convenient hobby — and the more convenient it becomes, the worse its impact on our lives and the world around us.

Consumerism is nothing new. But now more than ever, it sits firmly at the center of our identities. In recent years, it became a negative aspect of my life. I shopped online every day. I spent hours Googling to find a specific item and buy it, along with anything else I discovered along the way. I fabricated excuses for almost everything I bought, telling myself I could always resell other pieces and recoup some of the cost.

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Today, that mentality is commonplace. The resale market has been flooded with unloved and unvalued clothing that sells for a fraction of the original cost. I was stuck in this cycle, too — my shoe racks buckling, my clothing rods warped and my dresser drawers overflowing. Whatever I was doing wasn't working. I had to make some changes. 

So I did. 2019 was the year I became a more conscious fashion consumer. Here's how.

Phases in Life — and Fashion
I'm not sentimental about my age. But at the start of the year, my 30th birthday was around the corner. Even though I avoid focusing on such milestones, extra gravity surrounded this one. My wife and I started to discuss moving out of our New York apartment and buying a house in the New Jersey suburbs; then we actually did it. With that would come newfound costs, from property taxes (the worst in the nation, baby!) to trash pickup (yes, you do have to pay for that) and plenty more. If I wanted any chance of surviving life's next step and adulthood in general, I had to get my spending under control.

I told myself that I would log every single clothing or fashion-related purchase I made for the entire year. I'd track the costs along with any extra income I could make by reselling some of what I already owned, typing the price in my iPhone Notes app and tallying up the total balance at the end of each month. I learned quickly how those few seconds of typing could be as powerful as pressing "Place Order."

Each entry provided a moment of reflection and brought with it a different kind of buyer's remorse every time. The two sweaters I got in January for $312? They turned into a mental weight until they arrived (fortunately I love them and wear them regularly). The Chicago Cubs hat I bought in June for $32? I felt nothing and wore it almost every summer afternoon.

In addition to my Notes app budget sheet, I used a system of bookmarks to track anything that piqued my interest. I sorted items into folders and tracked their prices, re-assessing whether I still wanted them upon repeat viewing. These tricks took enough mental energy to deter me from entering my credit card info and forced me to actually weigh what to buy — if anything at all.

Other tools also came in handy. EBay and Twitter accounts helped me find specific designs or past-season items at lower prices. As an extra layer of prevention, I signed up for Acorns, a finance app that automatically withdraws money from my checking account and invests in the stock market. This left me with less disposable income.

This system of small changes paid off: From April through August, I bought a total of five items. Balanced against four pieces I sold, I actually made $132. In that same span, two of those months saw me buy nothing at all. I couldn't remember the last time that happened.

The (Slow) Pace of Progress
The first few months of this exercise were a struggle. I still caught myself shopping online and fought over every agonizing decision. January was barely any different. February brought minor improvements. It wasn't until six months in that I felt like I made any sort of progress.

However, my renewed mentality bled into other areas of life. I wasn't just becoming a more conscious fashion shopper, but a better overall consumer. While our new home took up extra lines on the budget sheet, every potential purchase went through the same filter. We postponed a lot of big furniture expenses and leaned on more home-cooked meals, less frequent happy hours and fewer weekend getaways.

For the first time in years, my attention wasn't focused on clothing. I found outlets in new podcasts, running and cooking. Of course, with those new hobbies came new expenses (I’ll never turn down an excuse to buy luxe running gear). But they weren't near the scale of my fashion habits.

Ultimately, my closet did lose some creativity and expression. It became closer to a capsule wardrobe than I was expecting. But what it's lost in reputation, it's gained in attachment. Every new purchase means a little bit more.

Looking back on these changes forced me to realize how easy it can be to fall into bad habits — and how difficult it can be to break out of them. The Marie Kondo effect has become popular philosophy, but without active changes, we'll end up drowning in a pile of clothes.

Now, the Numbers
The 2019 holiday season has come and gone with a new set of temptations. I treated myself to some new sweaters and a couple of polos. There's a big difference between viewing every purchase as a negative and finding joy in buying something you really love. Striking that balance is another hurdle I'm still working to overcome.

At times, explaining this process feels overly complicated and almost juvenile. Most responses I hear lean toward, "Why don't you just get your shopping habits under control?" Well, that's the point.

I didn't keep close track of my clothing expenses in 2018. Perhaps that was my last gasp of irresponsibility blooming before being weeded out by adulthood. But, looking back, my purchases this past year were more measured and, generally, less expensive. Without exact numbers to compare them to, I'd estimate my spending this past year dropped at least 50% from 2018. Progress! But all of this is pretty worthless without numbers, isn't it?

Before we dive in, let's be clear: I still bought things. For a "normal" person, this still might seem like a lot of stuff. For anyone deeply interested in fashion though, I'd think it feels pretty tame.

My total spending, accounting for income from resold items added up to $1,817 for the entire year. That's an average of just over $151 per month spent on clothing — give or take one new pair of Jordans every four weeks. Going a little bit deeper, I bought 37 items and sold seven, the average price of each one about $60. For a former fashion victim and near compulsive shopper with the ability to talk myself into 30% off four-figure designer clothing, that's something I'm proud of.

The primary takeaway from this entire thing is that I am capable of making changes. They might take time, but with the right system and process, it can and will work.

Maybe fashion isn't as much of a waste as I thought. 

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