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How I stick to my budget

  • March 14, 2022
The Book of Boundaries by Melissa Urban

Last weekend, I was catching up with my sister. She mentioned browsing in a new store downtown when a gorgeous, super soft-looking sweater caught her eye. “It was heaven in a shirt. I would have snuggled in that sweater every damn day,” she told me. “Well did you buy it?” I asked her. “Um, no,” she said. “It was way too expensive. Yes, it was cashmere, but it was $400! I did not $400 like that sweater. I maybe $60 liked that sweater.”

This is a phrase that we’ve been using for as long as I can remember to help us make good decisions around purchases, specifically impulse buys or things that are wants, not needs. It’s kind of like asking yourself, “Is it worth it?” when evaluating a Food Freedom choice, but it puts the decision in concrete terms, using a language we can all understand—money.

Do I $100 like it?

Here’s how it works: Imagine I’m out shopping at my local mall. (Note, it’s not as easy to do this online, but it can still work with practice; I’ll explain.) I’m at the store and see a sweater I like. I’ll pick it up, look it over, and then say out loud, “I $50 like this sweater.”

THEN I look at the price tag.

If it’s $30, BOOM, that’s a steal! This doesn’t automatically mean I buy it, but it does mean it meets my expectations as to value, and reaffirms that I’m not throwing money at something just because I’m emotional about it or want instant gratification. I then try it on, figure out where or how I’d wear it, and decide whether or not I want to buy it.

If it’s $100, though, it’s an automatic pass—do not hesitate, do not doubt your own expert assessment. Listen, I’ve already set my expectations! I know how much the value I’ve assigned to this sweater, and just seeing that someone else values it a great deal more doesn’t change how I feel about it. This sweater is not worth $100. It’s worth $50 (to me). Therefore, this is not a good deal and I’m walking out sweater-less.

But Melissa, what if it’s $60? Then I have some thinking to do. Am I willing to cough up an extra $10? Do I like it THAT much? At this point, I’d try it on and see where I landed. And if I did buy it, I will always remember that in my head, I overpaid a bit… so I’d better get my money’s worth and wear that thing a LOT.

This works with a lot of things, not just clothes or shoes. When I was working on my new house, my designer submitted a number of throw pillows for my assessment. I found a set of pillows I really liked, and casually stuck a price tag to them in my head. “These pillows are maybe $40 apiece? They can’t be that much.” Imagine my shock when they turned out to be over $200 each! (Yeah no.) I immediately searched Homegoods and World Market for close-enough versions, and scored them for under $40 apiece.

Tricks for this budget hack

The strategy works because the price tag isn’t telling you how much it’s worth to you… you are. It’s a great way to keep yourself from overspending or buying things on impulse because you grow emotionally attached. However, there are a few things to watch out for:

1. Online shopping. It’s harder to practice this shopping online, because the price tag is RIGHT there, and you can’t handle the item to check for quality or fit. In the case of online shopping, I’ll buy something that I think will be worth the price, then play the “do I $50 like it?” game when I get it home. If I spend $50, but try it on and feel like I only $20 like it, it goes back, no questions asked. I also employ help with online purchases from a trusted eye, even long-distance. I’ll order jeans online, then try the item on. If I’m on the fence about whether or not I $90 like them, I’ll send her a photo. “Do you $90 like these jeans?” I’ll ask her. She’ll usually send some clarifying follow-up questions about the fit, comfort, and whether or not I really need another pair of jeans—then make her proclamation. Since I trust her judgment, her word usually stands. (And if I fight her hard on it, that tells me I really DO $90 like the jeans!)

2. Unrealistic expectations with infrequent purchases. I experienced this with my curtains when I was designing my new house. I figured, “How much could drapes for a huge sliding glass door cost?” Turns out, a lot, and there was no way I was going to find the drapes I wanted for the price I had in mind. For items you don’t buy regularly, this practice may not be the best way to vet your purchases, but you can still price-compare or ask yourself, “Can I get something really close to ideal for less money?” like I did for my pillows. With my drapes, I ended up splitting the difference, buying a less expensive version at West Elm. I spent more than I originally imagined, but far less than my designer budgeted.

3. Accountability and self-awareness. If you have a habit of negotiating with yourself in the name of instant gratification, you’re going to have to hold yourself to this practice. If you tell yourself, “I $40 like this sweater,” and find out it’s $100, you cannot spend the next three minutes trying to talk yourself into finding $60 more value in the thing. YOU determine the value, not the price tag. This is an excellent opportunity practice sitting in whatever emotion is coming up for you when your brain pitches a tantrum right there in Target: “But I waaaaant it.” Why do you want to spend more money than you decided this thing is worth? What emotion or feeling is underneath this transaction, which suddenly feels like an immediate need? How can you hold your boundary around this purchase and practice in a way that feels like self-care and not punishment? (Am I even still talking about sweaters?)

Beyond budgeting…

Stretching yourself by holding yourself accountable here is an important exercise, for a number of reasons. First, it’s great practice for those Food Freedom decisions, which happen far more often than buying a sweater. Anything you can do to shore up your “is it worth it” practice will prove invaluable in making your Food Freedom plan work for you long-term. More important, however, every time you employ this “Do I $100 love it?” practice, you remind yourself that YOU are the ultimate authority on you, and that you CAN trust yourself to know what’s best for you.

Don’t underestimate the power of that last sentence. Much like many things I talk about here, this isn’t really about the sweater, it’s about empowering yourself, holding your boundaries, and more than anything, trusting yourself. (But your wallet and your budget will benefit from the practice too, which is a pretty sweet bonus.)

XO Melissa

Pre-Order The Book of Boundaries now. Coming October 2022.