FOOL ON THE HILL

Confessions of a Shopaholic

We're all prone to impulse purchases. But some of us can't hide all of them in the junk drawer. Dayana Yochim details her affliction and presents a few rules for fellow sufferers of shopping stupidity.

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By Dayana Yochim (TMF School)
October 21, 2002

Everyone buys stuff on impulse. We go into the store for milk, bread, and Jeno's 2-for-1 extra cheese pizza, and come out with a windshield de-fogging cloth ($3.99) and a package of four brown magic markers that "instantly hides scuffs on your precious wood furniture" ($5.29). For just a moment, everything is right in the world. Then we get home (after streaking the windshield with the useless greasy cloth) and soberly tuck away in the junk drawer our impulsive little divertissements.

Not me. My impulse purchases don't fit in the junk drawer. Mine are big. Huge, in fact. I Super Size my shopping mistakes.

My most recent impulse purchase? A couch: Ninety inches of sleek, mid-century modern seating in its original nubby fabric (light wear). By my calculations, eight albatrosses of average girth could sit comfortably on it (though they -- like the dog -- are banned lest their toenails snag the upholstery).

You might be thinking that this column is merely a 1,000-word advertisement to sell my couch, to which I reply, "Is it that obvious?" and add: "Interested buyers can reach me via email." Because the editors do read this stuff before it's posted, I've thrown in a few tips on dealing with similar bouts of shopping stupidity. (For those who care not to revel in my suffering, scroll down. They are listed in handy bullet-pointed form.)

Back to the couch. On a lazy Sunday at the flea market, I encountered the rare gem in the heap of grandma hand-me-down eyesores and curbside cast-offs. Competition was fierce, but I was sitting on my prey (marking my territory), and had already made eye contact with the dealer. Plus, I had a secret weapon: My friend Pam -- a complicit style maven, quick with affirmations and willing with checkbook to loan me the extra dough that was above my daily ATM withdrawal limit.

The couch is mine! The couch is mine!

Fellow shopaholics can identify with my glee -- the euphoric "buyer's high." Author Sophie Kinsella dissects our affliction in Confessions of a Shopaholic ($10.95), which follows a fictional financial writer's shopping addiction and schemes to pay back her debts. She spends 310 pages dodging lenders and patching her sorrows with swirly new coats, pointy-toed boots, cashmere sweater sets, and monogrammed luggage. And what did I learn from our heroine's travails? Feh. What an amateur. I could teach her a thing or two (though I must check out this Denny and George store she coos about).

Retailers thrive on our kind. In Influence: Science and Practice, Arizona State University psychology professor Robert Cialdini examines the science of selling, and counsels marketers on "triggers" that make us buy strawberries in bulk and dreadful sweaters that we never wear. Scarcity, demand, and the momentum of the shopping experience were on their side that fateful couch-purchasing day.

From identification to acquisition, my couch-buying high lasted exactly 52 minutes and 34 seconds, ending abruptly when the couch was delivered to my apartment. There it was. My couch. My green couch. Wait... green? Okay, it's not green green, but a pale celadon. This couch wasn't green at the flea market. This couch was off-white. Just a little dirty, but definitely off-white.

The couch is mine! The couch is mine! This green couch is mine!?

Let me do the math for you: At $650, that's $12.41 per minute of glee. No amount of fancy accounting can justify this one, though it has served me well for past shopping blunders, including 13 chairs (no lie), six lamps (despite the self-imposed No More Lamps rule), four lampshades (two were free from the curb!) countless throw pillows, and various artifacts of Chinoiserie design (new one for the list: the Stay Out of Asian Markets rule).

In searching for a fix for my affliction, I discovered an entirely new and thriving retail sector: clutter control products! How did I manage before owning a wrapping paper organizer ($12.99), shoe caddy ($9.99), saran/tin foil/sandwich bag door-mounted holder ($7.89), and yet another large shallow bowl ($34 -- great color, worth a splurge) for incoming mail?

Unfortunately, they don't make a door-mounted caddy to help organize your growing collection of couches. So to bring meaning to my suffering, I've decided to host a shopaholics support group at my place. I've got plenty of seating, good lighting, and even some lovely parting gifts for all.

Here are a few talking points for our first gathering:

  • Consider the opportunity cost of your purchase. Calculate what that money would amount to if you invested it for the long term, or even socked away half of it to save for a bigger treat in the near future.

  • Leave the credit cards, debit cards, cash and checkbook at home. Time has a way of curing a bad case of "the wants."

  • Just because it's on sale doesn't mean it's a bargain. Ask yourself if you would buy the item at full price. In fact, double the price of the object of your desire, and ask yourself if you'd pay that much to call it yours. This may seem unrealistic, but it will give you a good idea of how much you value the object.

  • Deal with your mistake immediately. Don't dwell on it. Return it. Sell it. Donate it. Just get rid of it.

  • Don't make a big mistake bigger. They call this "throwing bad money after bad." Trust me, or else you'll spend weeks shopping for the perfect shade of green throw pillows, accent rugs, and shoes, or throw away a grand on reupholstering costs.

  • Write about your bone-headed purchase in the most public forum available to you. The shame and angry email about your shallowness will keep you from making any major purchases for at least 12 days.

  • And finally, just don't buy it. And by that, I really mean don't bring my friend Pam with you to the flea market.

If you live in the Washington, D.C., metro area and are interested in purchasing a pristine mid-century modern couch, please contact Dayana Yochim. As if this column weren't revealing enough, you can read her full Fool disclosure here.