22 May 2014

Simple Life: Shopping

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My material items consumption has changed a lot since I started my simplification journey. One year ago, I decided to be more mindful about my shopping habits. I probably still have a way to go before shopping in a more frugal way, but here is how I shop in a more simple and mindful way now, if it can help.


Why think about shopping habits? One aspect of a simple life is to be a more conscious consumer. A simple lifesetyle doesn't mean we stop buying things altogether, but it means buying less, and more carefully. When optimizing how I shop, what are my objectives?

  • #1: Spend Less Time on Shopping - Unless you buy everything online, a shopping trip can take some time, going and coming back from the shopping streets, entering shops, queing etc. My main objective here is to shift my focus off shopping to pursue other activities.

  • #2: Enjoy it More - I'm one of those who hates browsing stores, trying things on, queuing to pay etc. One of my objectives is to make the shopping experience more enjoyable in itself, to avoid feeling I have "lost" an afternoon when I do go shopping

  • #3: Shop Smarter - This third objective includes smarter ways to shop - finding quality products for a reasonable price, spending less, more ethically... 

A List of the Possible

The first change I made to my shopping habits is the approach to shopping lists and wishlists. In order to avoid the feeling that a shopping list must be crossed off in order to feel "complete", I have decided to maintain a List of the Possible instead. The items on the list are candidates, options, ideas, and not "to-buy". Thus, the list evolves, matures, some ideas are removed, others are changed.

 Here is how I add items to the List of the Possible:

  • Consumables are about to run out: I know I'll need new candles soon because I'm burning the last one - hop, "Candles" to the list.

  • A daily used item just wore out/broke: Hop, possible replacements on the list

  • A need arises in my daily life, that would make it easier or more enjoyable: I notice, repeatedly, that a garlic crusher would make my cooking much easier. Hop, on the list

  • I read interesting brand or product recommendations: A new book recommended on the radio? A new ethical brand was suggested to me? Hop, on the list

  • A change or special occasion adds a new need: I'm invited to a birthday next month? Hop - "present" to the list.


Concretely, I divide the list per category (home stuff, books...) or per shop (Muji, the Body Shop...). When a new item needs to be added to the list, I just note it down on the little notebook I carry around with me, so it actually takes very little time to maintain.

Shopping Trips, Revised

Instead of rushing off to the shopping street every week-end, or as soon as a need/wish pops up, I now plan a shopping trip depending on these occasions:

  • I need to make a time sensitive purchase: Sometimes, we need to buy something for a specific event or occasion - birthday presents, sports or activity gear, a travel in a different climate... 

  • Emergency: a daily object broke down: There are some items for which you can't have the luxury of waiting before buying a replacement, especially when your possessions are already pared down. For example, if my French Press was to break I'd probably need to replace it within the week. No café, no travailler.

  • There is a specific, non-shopping related occasion and I'll be near the shopping street: It can be street performance planned for one week-end, a friend coming over to visit Paris, an exhibition I bought tickets for, a special flea market... Since I'm there, if I have time, I can pop at a couple of stores and refill a few things.

  • There is a shopping specific occasion I should wait for: Sales, special cleanout, travel that includes airports and local shops I can't find here, a trip to an outlet village... When I know such occasion is going to happen, I gather my needs and plan a sortie.

When one of the occasions above arises, I decide which neighborhood I'll go to, depending on where to find the emergency item or where the special event is. Once I know where I'll go and how much time I'll have, I dig up my List of the Possible and check out what else I can find easily there. 

On Choosing What I Shop For

In a simple life, the idea is to slow down the buy > use > throw consumerist cycle, so, selecting which item to buy is a quite challenging step, especially when you don't want to waste time and energy looking for the perfect item. I think the List of the Possible helps a lot with this, as, instead of planning for a precise purchase, I have ideas under my sleeve and consider an option only when the opportunity or necessity arises.

To further reduce research time, I have preferred stores or brands, where I know I'm likely to find someting without hours of prior consideration. For example, I know Muji will deliver simple and practical solutions for home organization.

Knowing myself better also helps reducing the time spent on material items as it reduces the trial and error, the experimentation, the inspiration research... I have a pretty good idea of what my "adequate" items must be like. I still do some background searches on new brand or product recommendations I get, but knowing yourself make intuitive purchases much more reliable.

Finally, when I plan for a shopping trip and make a selection from my List of the Possible, I always ask myself if this is really what I want to spend my disposable income on right now. I imagine what else I could get with that money. If the item is solid and will really make my life easier and more enjoyable, it stays on the shopping list. But more often than not, it makes me identify a fleeting fancy and I cross it off the list altogether.


Here is how these shopping habits help with my simplicity objectives:


  • #1: Spend Less Time on Shopping - Waiting to have several items on the list before going shopping makes trips fewer and farther apart,  freeing more time for other pursuits. Besides, having a list of "possibilities" allows me to just write ideas down without fiurther research, until it becomes necessary.

  • #2: Enjoy it More - As I love list, maintaining this little List of the Possible makes the whole thing more fun for me. Grouping a shopping trip with another occasion also makes it less boring and more enjoyable. Finally, having fewer shopping trips makes them a bit more special.

  • #3: Shop Smarter  - Since the List of the Possible isn't a shopping list, I don't feel the need to buy everything from it. It gives me time to think about my purchases and wonder if I really need/want this, and if that's really what I want to spend my money on. Planning shopping trips according to specific occasions also helps getting quality items for a reduced price (sales, outlets...)

What about you? Did your shopping habits evolve as you grew older? If you are simplifying your life, how do you approach the "buying" part of the consumption cycle?

28 comments:

  1. I'm currently in the process of paring down my wardrobe (and everything really) as I will be moving overseas but I am hoping to maintain a simplified lifestyle once I am settled as well. I've cut down a lot on buying unnecessary items and I've put a lot more thought into the things I do buy but it's still silly impulse buys that get me the most.

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    1. That's actually a very good headstart to move overseas with an already pared down collection of items, it feels less daunting to pursue a simpler life when you don't have tons of objects to edit in the first place.

      I also find impulse buys to be the most challenging, after all, ads and marketing use human psychology a lot to make us purchase items, so we are all sensitive to that, no matter how well informed. I found that a good way to avoid this was mindfuless. Meaning, stopping before making the purchase and be aware of what I'm currently doing (or about to do). It helps to come down from that "impulse bubble" and be more rational - do I really need or want this? Is this really what I want to spend my money on right now? Very often, these 2 little questions help putting the object back down.

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  2. j'aime beaucoup ton article, tu as de très bonnes habitudes de shopping ! :)
    peux-tu me donner la marque de ta broche à cheveux ? j'en cherche une comme ça !

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    1. Merci! La brosse à cheveux vient tout simplement de la marque de distributeur "Galeries Lafayette". J'ai été assez étonnée qu'ils proposent des brosses en bois d'olivier et poil de sanglier faites en France! Je pense qu'elles se trouvent dans n'importe quelles Galeries Lafayette, ou sur Internet (je crois que la mienne c'est celle-ci: http://www.galerieslafayette.com/p/brosse+lissante+cheveux+fins+a+normaux-lafayette+beaute/12785663/138)

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    2. oh super ! c'est étonnant mais très positif ! merci beaucoup pour le tuyau ! ;)

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  3. Another option I've been exploring lately is to Make it Yourself. Perhaps harder for things like bras or tights, but skirts, scarfs, sweaters aren't impossible. Furniture, ceramics, wooden utensils -- all in the Realm of Possibility of making, rather than buying.

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    1. I definitely agree on this mindset of trying to find ways other than shopping in the first place. Making things can be nice (most of my gloves/scarves for winter are knitted by my grand-mother in law), also, reusing or altering objects - for example I use the "pot" of my candles as glasses once the candle is burned. Besides, making things ourselves is a way to develop creativity, which is fun and fulfilling :)

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    2. My experience has been that by making things myself I can afford to have much higher quality items than I would otherwise. For example, last winter I made myself a large knitted scarf in a silk & alpaca mix yarn. Buying something like that in a store would've cost upwards from about 60€, which I certainly could not afford to spend on it, but making it myself cost me about 20€, the price of the yarn. Had I gone to a shop with 20€ expecting to find a similar sized knit scarf, I don't believe I could've got much else than 100% acrylic...

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  4. I've been enjoying your blog so much! The past few years have been a journey towards having less and loving it more for me. It comes with hard choices along the way, specifically spending more money and less time on my shopping - because it's better to get what you want than what will do. But I'm still challenged by feeling like it's frivolous and self-indulgent sometimes. Imagine, getting just what you want and then going home, saving half a day and all the frustration! Shameless.

    Sometimes I still like to indulge in impulse buying - so I do it at the library. Books, music, and dvds are the most fun anyway, so I pick out a big pile, check them out and bring them home feeling like I've scratched my itch - but without the guilt of having to own it. A couple weeks later, most of it goes back unread, unheard, unseen. Not bad in the world of guilty pleasures!

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    1. Thanks! I agree that I too prefer to spend more money of an object that is exactly adequate to my needs & preferences, rather than buying a lesser quality version that "will do" but has some annoying drawbacks. And it's true that it means spending more money upfront, but I found that over the years it evens out, I even tend to spend less money on items overall, even if each item is more expensive than it used to be.

      The case of impulse buying is very specific - one of my objectives was to avoid feeling guilty about my purchases, as I think impulse purchases are bad for our well-being if we regret them or feel guilty about them. I also like to indulge, once in a while, in what I prefer to call "a little gift to self", which I plan and know I will enjoy so I don't feel guilty about it. I used to buy a lot of books and DVDs but now I rent/borrow much more - that way I can enjoy the object but bring it back once I'm done.

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  5. I have written a post along these lines too (but haven't published it, gah!). I am horrified when I think of how much time I used to spend shopping or browsing. And the money wasted! Since beginning my simplifying journey some 6 years ago, I've now evolved to have a minimal tolerance for shopping for an hour only. I don't browse in shops unless I have someone with me who can scan to see if there's something I'm specifically looking for. Otherwise I do all my browsing online and then walk into the shop with a list of things to try on which the shop assistants help me look for. I bought some things in South Africa last month and in London in October and was given a voucher to use in March. Apart from that, I think the last time I went to the shops for clothes was in September. I can't remember the last time I bought something online and have only done this a few times - the return policies are not as efficient with some stores yet. For gift shopping I prefer to shop at a couple of small, locally owned stores where I'm supporting them and the experience is more pleasant and personal. 10 years ago I would spend time in the shops every week, now I go into them so rarely and love just walking past them on my way to socialising, parks, movies or to spend time with our families. I too keep a working list so that I don't have to remember anything. On the list is my colour schemes for tops and bottoms etc, things I'd like, things I need and also images of inspiration for my "look". It helps to keep me on track for the wardrobe I'm seeking and is indeed most practical.

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    1. It is incredible indeed, when you make the additions and realize how much time and money we can spend on shopping when we don't pay attention. Sometimes, I still feel I'm spending too much money on material items, but it's very much reduced compared to, say, 4 years ago. I prefer to focus on the progress, to give me courage to make additional efforts. I agree with you on the local stores, that's usually what I do for presents and other time sensitive purchases as well. I love going to the market for food. I'm looking forward to reading your own post on the subject :)

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  6. I love the idea of the list of possibles. do that as each season begins, and jot down all the pieces of clothing or shoes I think I need and where I saw them. Every now and then I will try things on, and when they don't fit, cross them off the list. What remains goes through another review: do I really need it? Do I still want it? This way, I end up buying much less, without feeling frustrated.

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    1. That's interesting to make a list of possible seasonal purchases and then cross them off. I tend to make most of my clothing/accessory purchases at the beginning of a new season, because the weather change makes me want new colours, new silhouettes. It is a good idea to actually process these through several reviews before actually adding them to a seasonal purchase list, thanks for your input!

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  7. online purchases are my weakness, I'm better at refusing things in person, but things that were too expensive in person, are a great price online! But I'd like to buy more in-person, because I tend to value those items more, I am aiding my local economy, and it becomes more of an experience. That said, a lot of what I like is not available to me locally. But as I get older, other concerns take priority. We can have it all, just not all at once. ;)

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    1. It's interesting how each of us has different weaknesses as a consumer. I'm the total opposite, I resist online purchases very well because I don't trust items I can see, touch and feel in person. But once I've bothered to come to a store I'm much more tempted to buy something, if only to justify coming all the way here (which is why I tend to limit the number of shopping trips as much as possible). I guess that's where the "personalized" part of a simplification process comes into play - getting to know yourself better to adapt habits to your own weaknesses. I agree though, that buying in store with an actual sales assistant, is more of an experience than online buying. even if I like opening packages I received by post ;) I aslo agree that age teaches patience. I also don't feel like getting it all at once anymore, it feels even better to wait for a good purchase.

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    2. I mean I don't trust items I CAN'T see, touch and feel in person. Bad typo :/

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  8. Ooh, I do something very similar re: the lists. I use an app called "Wunderlist" where I keep my grocery list, my "things I'm waiting for in the mail" list, my books I want to read list and so on. Among them I have a "things I would like to buy" list. It is NOT a shopping lis per se, but a list of items that I know I will probably need in the future or that would like to buy if I should find that I can allow myself a little something extra one month. And - very importantly - I keep it in prioritized order. For example, I know that I will need a pair of flip-flops for my summer vacation, so that is kept above the black oversized wool sweater that I want for winter and the lip gloss and the scented candles. That way I won't find myself with a stash full of candles and no flip flops.. ;)

    I still have my weaknesses though, and they are usually online. eBay bargains and stationery! I don't ever visit shops just to kill time anymore, though.

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    1. Also, because of the non-urgency of the list, it often serves as a sort of firewall for impulse buys. I might find that I didn't really want that lip gloss that much after all...

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    2. Oh, don't get me started on stationery. I still have notebooks and letter paper I bought in Japan in 2007! Not because I don't use them much, but because I really bought a LOT of them there. It's stationery porn there, between cute notebooks, postcards, stickers, letter paper, pens and pencils of all sorts... Anyway.

      I see what you mean with the different lists and the non-urgency part of them. That's exactly what my List of the Possible is about. Unfortunately I can't prioritize items visually, since I write lists down on a physical notebook, but I also prioritize purchases when concretely planning and budgeting. As you say, I'd buy the summer sandals before the cashmere knits for 2014 :) (I just did buy summer sandals, now that we're on the subject, by the way, as the Madewell ones from last year broke on me last week-end and I wanted the high quality replacement before going to LA beginning of June. And I bought airtight storage bags to keep my knits from being eaten by moths, at the same time.)

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  9. My new objective is to modify what I have to make it work. So I had this beautiful long white button-down tunic which hit me exactly at the most unflattering spot on my hips. It hung it in my closet for a year. Yesterday I was about to put it in the donation pile, when I decided to ask a seamstress to take off 6 inches to make it a button-down shirt.

    24 hours and 13 US dollars later, I have a gorgeous button down shirt. Some of my tops were boring (I mostly wear white, black and blue) and I ordered a couple of cotton scarves (6 dollars each) on Amazon to make them pop. I love my new options and they didn't cost much.

    I have a weakness for fountain pens, though. And Japanese teapots. I'm not buying any more. Done.

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    1. Altering what we have is a very good idea as well! That's a way to make do with what we already have instead of buying something new. I've also done this recently - now that I know what my personal details are about, I always see if I can't alter an object to make it adequate, before letting it go. We all have weaknesses, tea pots and cups are one of mine too, ha! I don't buy any more now, but every once in a while, why not, as long as it is a conscious decision to indulge in a little gift to self :)

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  10. I like your method. I think I might move from having a "to buy" list to a "possible" list, as I'm a very action oriented person, so if I say something is "to do", then it bothers me if isn't done as quickly as possible, even if that's because I'm waiting to make the best choice.

    I actually have done a lot to limit the amount I purchase, but not the amount of time shopping, probably because I do actually like it. I'm more happy with my purchases when I take more care looking for the "perfect" thing, but echoing your post on that, I've recently realized that means I'm still spending a lot of time feeling inadequate about my possessions. I imagine it would help to have a short list of preferred brands/stores to go to when a need arises, find something to fulfill it there, or not, and go back to them later when it might be available. After all, most of my needs are really "needs", and I routinely find I can do without them much longer and much more easily than I first imagined. :)

    Something that's really taught me that is having put a moratorium for this year on adding anything to my household that wasn't makeup/skincare or wardrobe related. I've always had other things I tended to buy as much for (cooking gadgets, supplies for artwork, writing materials, organizers, etc.), but not being allowed to made me realize how totally adequate what I already have is.

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    1. Ah yes, putting limits is a very useful thing for me as well! I also keep track of my purchases in the item types I know I'm weak for - clothing, home decoration/kitchen stuff and video games. When you have a list of what you have already bought and how much it has cost, trust me it helps putting the credit card down :)

      And yes, turning the 'shopping list' into a 'list of possible purchases' has dropped my purchase rate a lot, as, like you, if I have a list of things "to do" (to buy in that case), I tend to want to complete it asap too.

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  11. I keep a similar list to your List of the Possible on my Pinterest account.. and it includes clothing, interior decor items, travel ideas, exercise activities (yoga, skiing, road races, etc.) and it's so helpful to peruse when I'm feeling the itch to buy. I also have a second list called Your Money Went Here, where I pin things I recently purchased (clothes, decor, travel, etc.) that I skim through when I am having a bout of FOMO or feeling like my life isn't "enough" compared to others. It's a bit of a gratitude list as well, because I also pin activities that I did with friends or family.. and so having an instant reminder of the fun we had is also very fulfilling and mood-boosting.

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    1. That's a good idea! With pinterest you have a list in pictures, so it can also serve as a moodboard of sorts, and make browsing fun in itself, as you say, to avoid going shopping. I love your concept of "Your Money Went Here"! It's true that it can totally serve as a gratitude list, and a way to keep enjoying what you have instead of shifting focus on the next purchase. Thanks for sharing :)

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  12. I've cut down on meandering shopping trips by writing down a list. From the mundane (shaving cream!) to slightly silly (stonewash cutoff high waisted shorts--where am I ever going to wear this when I get cold so easily??), everything goes into my iPhone's Notes app, and I delete things as I buy them. Like Maja said above, putting it on the list removes the urgency from the buying urge, and sometimes I have items that never get deleted--meaning I didn't really want them at all or something else moved up in the hierarchy to buy.

    In terms of "not wasting" a shopping trip I think someone else here mentioned grouping items by stores. I do that too and it helps me out a lot. If I'm on a mission for bras, I'll only go to one store that I know carries roughly what I need at the price range I'm happy with. No wasted side trips to somewhere too expensive or somewhere that doesn't even have what I need.

    I don't know if this really qualifies as a shopping technique, but on some weekends I'll do survey expeditions where I do a quick look through the mall and get a feel for my size and what items are out. Depending on the season, I'll always look for jackets, cardigans, and basic tees. My personal rule is just to feel fabrics, try on things, but never to buy on the first look-around (especially for new arrivals.) It's more of a survey so that when a need comes up, I know which stores carry what I'm looking for, and I can just go straight there, pick up the size I need, do my shopping/coupon math, and make a decision. I probably won't recommend that for someone who's prone to impulse buys though :)

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    1. Survey expeditions can be a good technique to figure out what stores possibly have items you'd be interested in. I have to admit I don't do that very often anymore, now that I have a better idea of what brands I prefer. First, because I can find new things I didn't even know existed before, and now want to buy. Second, because a lot of store practice a policy of scarcity, and too often, when I came back to buy something I noticed before, it's out of stock in my size...

      But I do the lists per store, definitely! It saves time as you only go to the store you need, and it helps grouping purchases :)

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