I’m not poor. Not really. I’ve never been on food stamps or forced from my home. But I know what it’s like to live in fear of poverty.
Although my dad was a corporate lawyer, for several years during the recession in the early 90s, my father was unemployed. I saw him file for bankruptcy and listened as he told us that the bank was taking our home. In order to make ends meet, my family was forced to move into a rental house with another family. Right before we moved, in an effort to save our home, my siblings and I collected our money from our banks and put it in a Tupperware container we decorated with smiley faces, flowers, rainbows and the words “We love you.” When we handed the Tupperware to my parents, they began to sob, their heads in their hands.
Over 20 years later, I’m an entirely different person than the little girl in big purple-framed glasses who handed her parents a Tupperware of change. I have a house, a job, contacts (I rarely wear my glasses) and a child of my own. But deep, down, I still feel like that little girl clutching her grubby pennies, watching her parents struggle. I feel that little girl inside of me when I shop. I’m torn between my desire to save and my fear that I don’t have enough. And this has become a real problem.
My husband and I have a combined bank account. We share the costs of everything and we only have a few budget line items for ourselves. One is for gifts the other is for coffee (I budget out $5 a month for a coffee date with friends, pretty fancy). My third line item is my clothing account. I have $50 a month to buy underwear, socks, purses, shoes and all the various sundries that one needs (or thinks she needs). The idea was that the amount would accumulate so I could spend on bigger purchases (nicer pants or a lovely sweater). But that wasn’t how it worked. Instead, I would spend more than $50 each month buying cheap clothing and accessories -- $10 on a value pack of running socks, $5 for a sports bra, $20 on a set of underwear.
I also used my budget as overflow when I wanted to over spend in other areas. If I bought a scone on my coffee date, exceeding my budget, I’d just categorize it as “Lyz’s clothing.” New book that I just had to read? Throw that purchase in the clothing budget too. It started to add up. I began to joke that I had more deficit than the Federal government.
This January, after my husband and I reassessed our finances and decided to make it priority to pay off the last of my school loans, I decided to give up my clothing budget and all the shopping that went along with it.
That’s right, no clothes shopping for six months. And a few weeks ago, I extended that pledge for the entire year. I call it my “No Pants 2012 Challenge.”
Why would I do that? You see, despite the fact that my husband and I are frugal (we clip coupons, DIY everything, rarely go out to eat), I was spending myself into a hole and I couldn’t stop. And the money was leaking through me like a sieve. I wasn’t hiding purchases of $500 dresses or designer shoes, but the result was the same. I was a little out of control.
I was raised with a poverty mentality. It’s either feast or famine -- you buy what you can when you can and you buy cheap. When it came to buying, I was that little girl again -- afraid that she wasn’t going to have enough. And although I used coupons (Target gives coupons for shoes!) and scoured thrift stores and clearance racks, I was spending more than I needed to.
Did I need that romper (only $15!) with the lurid flower pattern? Or my thrifted broomstick skirt ($2)? No. But somehow, I convinced myself I did. I’d look at my closet and think that I had nothing to wear. And then, I’d be off. Picking up an on-sale blouse here or a pair of clearance jeans there.
And then, I got pregnant. Frustrated by my weight gain and the clunky quality of maternity clothes, I hid in my regular clothes and borrowed pieces from friends. But when I had my daughter and returned to my pre-pregnancy weight, I took one look at my closet and knew that I was in trouble.
I had scores of cheaply constructed T-shirts, shorts and shoddy dresses and I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep, or some newly discovered inner wisdom that comes with motherhood (probably just the lack of sleep), but I knew I had a to make a change. Here I was, almost 30 and most of my clothes came from the Junior’s section. I didn’t want to be the mom at the dance recital, wearing her midriff shirt and look-at-me-I’m-so-hip torn jeans. My attitude and my wardrobe needed to change, and fast. And five months in, I am changing. Slowly.
Because of the ban, I’ve been able to pay off a school loan, three months earlier than I previously thought. And my husband and I think we could be done paying for my loans by December or early January 2013.
The experience has been liberating. I’ve even rid myself of four giant trash bags of clothes and I still feel like I could give more away. Because of my shopping ban, I’ve been forced to dress more intentionally, coordinating and matching outfits, I never would have put together. And all of this has helped me develop a sense of style. Before, I wore whatever I could find cheap. Now, I think about how I want to look and what I want my outfits to say to the world around me. And more importantly, what I want my style to model to my daughter.
Also, I’ve been able to come to terms with that scared little girl. I’ve been able to quell her fears—assure her that she has plenty, that she’s okay and that she can let go of her grubby pennies and age-old fears. The next time I shop, I’ll shop out of a place of confidence.