New clothes won't make you happy...for long

Never buy clothes just for the emotional rush of having something new. Instead, focus on emotional boosts that have better long term outcomes.

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    Kristen Gleason looks through a clothing rack at Target in Framingham, Mass. Hamm argues that new clothing shouldn't be an emotional purchase.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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This is one of those useful general tactics that spreads far beyond shopping for clothes and extends to almost anything you might buy. Never, ever buy items just for the emotional rush of doing so or the “high” of having something new.

There was a period of about two years in my life where I was obsessive about my wardrobe. During that period (from roughly 2003 to 2005), I felt this strong sense that I had to “dress for success” and that good clothing was one of the tickets to a better career.

Over time, I began to slowly realize that the clothes don’t make the man and that you earn respect in other ways, but I had already begun to link dressing well with a strong sense of taking a big positive career step. I’d hit an upscale clothing shop for tall men, buy two or three items, and walk out feeling like I was making positive change in my life.

It was an emotional rush – and a financially damaging rush at that. I certainly didn’t need the new clothes. Eventually, I just came to realize that I craved that rush.

Like any other irrational craving, that desire for an emotional rush introduced risk into my life, particularly in terms of my finances. I was adding false value to what I was getting out of my purchases, and that resulted in far too much money spent for far too little in return.

How do you break that craving for an emotional rush? It was something I struggled with, not just with clothes but also with buying books.

For me, the most successful tactic was to find another source of emotional boosts that resulted in better long-term outcomes. Instead of focusing so heavily on clothes (particularly as a route to career success), I began to focus heavily on my debt level and my net worth. Moves that I made to reduce my debt and improve my net worth began to be infused with that same sense of rush that clothes buying once filled me with. I felt like I was truly making a positive change in my life.

With another source for that rush – particularly one that ran contrary to laying out money for clothes I didn’t need – I no longer felt the desire to spend money needlessly for the emotional rush.

Another tactic I used successfully to break the emotional response to buying clothes was to take an honest inventory of my clothes. I pulled out everything I had, collected all of it in a single space, and did a thorough inventory, only to realize that I had substantially more clothing than I thought I had. In fact, I’ve barely bought any clothes in the intervening years because I’ve simply not needed them.

Simply seeing my entire wardrobe at once made me realize how many clothes I actually had and how little need there was for any additional clothing items. Before that, simply having some clothes in the dirty clothes basket, other clothes in the back of the closet, still other items in the dresser, and other ones stored away for future seasons effectively hid some of my clothes, making it seem like I had less clothing than I actually did.

While this didn’t cut away at the emotional rush from buying clothes, it did cut strongly at the reasons I would have for buying a new shirt or tie in the first place.

If you’re having trouble breaking the emotional rush that comes from buying clothes, try these tactics. You might find more success than you expect.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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