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How to Set a Seasonal Shopping Budget — and Stick to It

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Two women shopping in a boutique Photo: EHStock/Getty Images

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A very unpopular opinion of mine is that I think the fall sucks. I’m a summer baby and am the happiest when it’s very hot outside. But the one thing I will admit is that as soon as that god-awful chill arrives in the morning, I do get excited to shop for new clothes — jackets, boots, sweaters, and all that.

But I have to check myself, otherwise I will go overboard. This year, I (slowly) pulled myself out of credit card debt, and my biggest priority now is making sure that I don’t get back there again. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that setting a budget and sticking to it is non-negotiable.

Perhaps you don’t want to take advice from someone who was recently in debt, but, if you’re willing to overlook that, here’s my process for making sure you don’t spend too much money on clothes when you too get a bad case of the shoppies.

Before you set a hard budget, start tracking your spending.

You’ll soon figure out exactly what you need, and (to a lesser degree) what you want. But before you can think about how much you want to spend on it all, you have to know how much you’re spending, period. I’m a big fan of budget apps — I personally like Mint and Clarity equally. Download one of those (or any one of these; the choice is yours!) to get an idea of how your income and expenses look each month, if you’re not super aware of that already. Next: Start a money diary and track your spending for a week or two (or if you really want to do a deep dive, a whole month).

Use this intel for a few things. What are your biggest expense buckets, and are you okay with that? How much do you want to be saving? After all your bills are paid each month, what’s left over?

Figure out how much of that spending money you’re willing to devote to shopping.

A thing I am not afraid to say on the internet is that I am personally comfortable with spending around $300 a month on clothing. That’s kind of a lot! But I enjoy shopping, I love getting dressed in the morning, and it’s also my job to care about both of those things. But maybe for you that amount is much smaller. Tally up whatever it is, and then figure out if you want to spend that all in one fell swoop or parcel it out throughout the season or the year.

Do an audit of everything you have.

What my closet lacks in width it makes up for in deep, cavernous space, which means that things get lost back there — a lot. Every season I (grudgingly) dump everything out on my living room floor and sort through it all. How many sweaters did I buy last fall that I’ve completely forgotten about? How many pairs of jeans do I actually own, and is there any justifiable reason to purchase another pair?

“Looking at what you have” is probably the most basic advice I could give you, but I can’t even begin to count the amount of times I’ve bought something for myself only to find a very similar thing shoved in the back of my drawers a few weeks later. So start here: Empty out all your shit, look at it, organize it into piles — whatever you need to do to really get a grip on what you own.

Make a list of what you actually need.

I said need, not want. Do you only own socks that don’t match? Does all your underwear have holes in it? Are your tights tattered? Begin here. If you honest-to-god need new stuff — and I’m sure you do — start a list of those things and break it out by priority; from there, think about how much you’d be willing to spend per category relative to the original budget you reached.

Now, think about what you want.

This is easy and fun, right? Wrong! If you asked me what I “want” right now, I would tell you these boots and this dress and these jeans and a ton of other things that make absolutely no sense together. So for me, making a mood board is an essential part of budgeting — otherwise I’ll get tempted when I walk by a Zara to pop in and buy a ton of things that aren’t actually right for me, or don’t fit the look I’m going for that season. (How do you think I avoided Those Shirts for this long?)

Perhaps you don’t care about your “look” as much as I do — that’s fine. You can still do this step, but you don’t have to be as intense about it. Maybe the move for you is to just focus on the concrete things you really want and make sure those are the things you’re spending your money on, not impulse purchases.

Put your new stuff where you can see it.

Whenever I buy something new, I usually don’t put it in my closet right away. Sometimes I’ll just keep the shopping bag on my kitchen table, or drape said new thing across my couch, or fold it on top of my hamper — this is partially because I’m lazy, but also because seeing something I bought helps me remember that I just bought something, and maybe I don’t need to buy anything else for a little while.

When new stuff does make it into my closet or drawers, I make sure it gets a prominent placement so that I see it often and actually wear it. It also makes me feel accomplished (in this particular area of my life) to cluster new stuff together so that I can see the breadth of what I own (and quickly ID if it’s getting out of hand).

Stick. To. It.

There’s no point in setting a budget if you don’t stick to it, but hey — sometimes things happens. Be diligent about tracking what you spend on clothing and accessories. If you go over, try to pay yourself back by spending less in another area. For me, this means that every day this week it’s a $5 lunch, because I did indeed buy those jeans that I swear I needed.