On Spending Less and Buying What You Really Want

Men's knitwear in a shop window
Image is my own / All rights reserved

Reader, you find me in the midst of a de facto clothing cleanse. For the last six months or so, I haven’t made any new additions to my closet. Now, while this is a somewhat unusual situation for me — a person who passes off his clothing acquisitions as an occupational hazard when it’s probably closer to a compulsive behaviour or moral failing — I do realise that this is no great achievement. I imagine better-adjusted people do this all the time. For me, though, this forced hiatus (which I’ve taken on for the simple purpose of saving up some money) has proven more of a challenge and got me thinking about my general spending patterns in a way that feels apropos for the introspective mood of early January.

So, on the off chance that you too have been thinking about your own clothes-buying habits and might want to alter them in some way, here is a motley list of the tricks and trade-offs I’ve used over the years. These have helped me cut down on purchases I ended up regretting and in favour of things that felt more worthwhile. Of course, you might find all of this to be bleedingly obvious, in which case: Congratulations, you have ascended to a higher plane than I. On the off chance that it proves of some use, however: Welcome, you’re among friends and will find no judgement here for all the bones you’ve dropped on bricked fits over the years. Goodness knows, we’ve all been there and will certainly go there again. The second I return to spending money on clothes, I’m bound to botch things up again. But for the moment, why not join me here in this contemplative space where all is sanguine sartorially speaking and financial responsibility seems but a few simple steps away…

Keep a list and wait a while

Perhaps the single biggest help for me in terms of sorting the wheat from the chaff — that is to say, buying things I like in a sustained way rather than stuff I’m simply infatuated with in the short term — is keeping a list. Easy as that. I have a note on my phone that I use to write down all the stuff I’m thinking of buying (It is, I’m sad to admit, the largest document in my notes app). I then wait a while and, when an idle moment presents itself, will go back and delete everything that no longer appeals.

Inevitably, I end up buying far less than I write down initially. It’s remarkable what the sober light of retrospection can do to the rosy tint of infatuation. Sometimes it takes a few days, sometimes a few weeks, or even longer, but just sitting on my hands for a while, so to speak, rather than immediately clicking ‘add to cart’ has been a game-changer in terms of regret-minimisation over the last couple of years. So, if you’re in a similar boat, pull up your notes app, set yourself a time limit, and watch your regrets melt away.

Make a plan and (try to) stick to it

Talking about budgeting in this context seems obvious, I know. But I bring it up because setting a budget works well in tandem with the point raised above. One of the main ways in which I stop myself from buying stuff too quickly is by setting a strict limit on the amount of money I’m willing to spend on clothing in a given period. Whatever falls outside it simply has to wait a while. The effect of this is a helpful kind of bottlenecking that means you end up prioritising stuff you’re actually keen on rather than getting caught up in a passing fancy. Saving up your allotted allowance to buy a more expensive item you’ve had your eye on for years, for instance, is a useful way of snuffing out those cheaper impulse purchases that end up stacking up.

I also find that both this budgeting and the above-mentioned list-keeping techniques work particularly well when paired with some sort of plan about exactly what you want to buy in a given period (call it a month, a season, or a year — whatever works best for you). Try writing down a clear and precise sense of what you’d like your upcoming purchases to be — a pair of shoes that need replacing, a new supply of shirts for work, maybe a pricier item like a suit or a watch, etc. I find doing so can go a long way toward helping you make more worthwhile purchasing decisions in the long run.

Now, I’d be lying if I were to suggest I’ve always stayed exactly on budget or that this had perfectly eliminated every silly purchase over the years. We all, of course, go astray from time to time. But this kind of approach is precisely useful as a sort of commercial compass, always keeping you on roughly the right path. 

Will you still be wearing this a few years from now?

This was another straightforward but groundbreaking tool. A well-established tenet of the #menswear era of a decade or so ago, the idea of ‘buying for life’ might now feel somewhat dated and naive but I still find the general shape of the idea to be a helpful lodestone. I’ll readily admit that there aren’t many things you’re likely to buy that will last you your entire life and viewing every transaction through this particularly demanding lens is likely to be a fool’s errand. That said, however, I have personally found a slightly more moderate approach to be a useful mental model.

Whenever I consider buying something, I now instinctively ask myself whether it seems likely that I’ll still want to wear it, say, five or ten years from now and — hey presto — inevitably a bunch of questionable garments end up falling at this first hurdle.

How does it fit into your existing wardrobe? 

Another fashion-based flight of fancy for you: When you’re considering buying something, picture how said item will fit in with the rest of the clothing you already own. What will you wear it with? How often? And for what purpose? Are you going to need to buy a whole bunch of other stuff first before you can put this to any real use? 

If this line of questioning sets off any alarm bells, it’s almost certainly better to hold off, at least for a while. 

Buy better statement pieces and cheaper basics

Now, if you’re essentially starting from scratch, you might not have much of a pre-existing wardrobe to speak of but could still be wondering about effective capital allocation. If you’re needing to build a new wardrobe from the ground up, the glamourous world of menswear — in which everyone perennially appears to buy only the most expensive kit on the market — might not be all that helpful to you. In real life, most of us are working on some sort of budget and, as a result, it makes sense to spend it wisely. 

For this reason, you might not want to go around dropping all of your hard-earned cash on the most expensive socks, T-shirts, and underwear money can buy when it makes better sense to spend more on a good coat or a well-made pair of shoes instead. Not everything needs to be the best of the best, so don’t feel you need to spend a tonne of money on every purchase in order for it to be worthwhile. Trust me, if Simon Crompton can buy his socks from Uniqlo, so can you.

There are endless other bits of advice you could add to this — buy second-hand where you can, don’t get anything on sale you wouldn’t have done at full price, etc. — but hopefully this covers enough territory to get you started. A primer, if you will, to kickstart those new year’s resolutions. 

Also, one final thought: Like all of us, you will inevitably still make some bad decisions along the way. It just goes with the territory. But with that much being certain, the best we can all do is try our best to buy a little better.