The Shopping Embargo: My Annual, 8-Week Buying Fast

The shopping embargo is about buying only essentials—food, fuel, soap—and leaving out the rest. One of the first things I did was unsubscribe from all retail newsletters. They’re a great way to save money, but they’re also irresistible invitations to buy. I stopped going to the mall, and switched to grocery stores that only sold food.

I also started asking myself a series of questions before I brought something to the register:

  • Can I borrow one?
  • Can I buy it secondhand?
  • Can I reuse something I already have?
  • Will I get a lot of use out of this?
  • Can I wait a month before deciding to buy it?

We’re so used to whipping out our credit cards to buy something immediately–but when I waited a month, I could change my mind, find a better deal or decide I didn’t need it anymore.

It’s amazing how often I found myself with something in my hand, asking myself, “Do I really need this? The usual answer: No.

How the Embargo Changed the Way I Shop

Because of the embargo, I’ve recognized that I shop when I’m depressed or bored. I’d be sitting at home, and say, “I’ll just go to the mall. Oh, wait, I can’t! I’m on a shopping embargo.”

By not spending time at the mall, I’m doing better, healthier things with my family, whether it’s going swimming or just hanging out and reading.

My kids were 5 and 7 when I started doing the embargo–so they were young enough to go along with it because I said so. “You can tell me about stuff that you like,” I’d say, “but we’re not buying it because we’ve made a promise to not go shopping.” It’s amazing how quickly they’d then forget about it!

RELATED: ‘Can I Have That?’ 5 Steps to Curbing Kids’ Impulse Buying

Some critics say that I’m just delaying my purchases. But that’s not really true, especially for impulse purchases–you’re not going to go back and buy that trinket. And I’ve never had a list of things that I run out and buy when the embargo is over.

Most importantly, it’s totally touched my finances through the habits that I’ve developed that are part of my nature now. It helped us pay down our mortgage faster, and put more money aside for our kids’ educations. Now I can’t help but shop more thoughtfully.

The thing about the embargo is that people can interpret it however they want. For some, it’s about taming their dining budget. For others, it’s about only buying locally and sustainably. This is ultimately a personal project, and when other people do it along with me via my blog, we cheer each other on.

If I can plant that seed, and help people become more mindful, my job is done.

Love reading other people’s financial tales? Check out more great LearnVest-exclusive personal stories.

Andrea Tomkins is a writer who lives in Ottawa, Canada. If you want to participate in this year’s embargo, join the Shopping Embargo Facebook group

  • Roberta

    I am going to try this also. I need to rein in my spending and start saving more. I will really make an effort to make this work.Thanks for sharing your idea .

  • Cat Alford

    This is a great post. I’ve always said that my biggest secret weapon when it comes to saving money is simply telling myself “no” as often as possible! Great post Andrea & Alden!

  • Amy Ashcroft Greener

    I purposefully avoid those non-food aisles at the grocery and only go down the aisles where I need something on my list.  Also, I no longer take advantage of getting “cash back” from debit purchases when I’m checking out.  It seems harmless to put $20 or $30 in your wallet for ‘just in case’ cash purchases.  But that’s just more temptation for quickie purchases later on!

  • Michelle

    I’m on a clothing buying fast right now (you can read about that here

    I did fail with this last week, in that I bought some work clothes, but I didn’t spend too too much. I try to avoid stores altogether! Need those student loans completely gone.

  • bajamavourneen

    I’m a single, middle-aged (78) retired person, living in Baja California. The embargo sounds like a good one to implement.  My downfalls are Thrift Shops (that item will never be there again), books (usually from the same source above), music (I know, I know, I’m learning about all the freebies online) and plants.  For the latter I have to make myself a rule that I won’t purchase unless I can (will) plant it/’them the very next day.  But, thrift shops continue their siren calls, as do $stores.  I try to take only cash there.

  • Brandy

    I really like the embargo idea. I think I’ll try it.
    In my wallet, taped on the side that holds debit and credit cards, there’s a little cartoon of a guy with his pocket liners hanging out and it says “Do you need this enough to go broke?”
    It helps. I change the picture &saying every now and then to keep it eye catching.

  • jsingleterry

    I gave up shopping for Lent two years ago, and am considering doing it again. Not only did I not allow myself to buy non-essential things – I also didn’t allow myself to shop for them and tried not to even think about it. I immediately deleted all sale emails, including Groupon & Living Social. It was a really good experience.

    • gingerlemon

      I gave up online shopping for Lent this year! Definitely needed. And even though I didn’t give up all non-essential shopping, giving up online shopping is helping me look at all my potential purchases differently.

    • nononsense57

      What a great idea! Now I have to wait since Lent is in full swing,,but wow,,how wonderful! I look forward to it!

  • Pat

    Loved this very practical and useful idea of the shopping embargo!  It is so true that we can buy things when bored or depressed.  I will try this for sure, thanks for sharing!

  • Bonni Korcok

    I like the idea of nixing impulse spending, but I also use the sales after the big holidays to purchase next year’s gifts. I love being able to go to my organized gift closet and have something to give for many occasions, and would even use the discounted bath supplies and lotions, for example, to recreate a fresh basket of goodies for showers, hostess gifts, or even “just because” gifts to brighten someone’s day. By buying up “that junk” within limits I can afford, I save my family hundreds per year and still am able to give joy to others. Just a thought…

    • Mara

      this is a great idea! a gift closet.  My parents use to have something similar when I was growing up and everytime we had a gift to give at school I just went to the closet grab something and wrapped it nicely.  I forgot all about it until I saw your post!…I guess I am going to start one to ease off the compulsive christmas shopping and birthday gift shopping considering I am usually procrastinating and spending way more than I should for running out of time..
      Anyway…THANK YOU for the reminder!

  • Vela

    My 2012 resolution was to buy absolutely no new clothing items or accessories that i didn’t need – for the entire year.  Believe it or not, i succeeded!  Of course, i saved a lot of money – but the greatest benefit was the TIME freed up by not looking at mail catalogs, not going to stores, etc., etc.  Plus, it was fun to think up different uses for old items, instead of just habitually acquiring new ones.  All in all, a liberating and empowering exercise! 

    Thanks for the post & good luck to all embarking on the shopping embargo!

  • ziva

    I looked at my year end credit card end of year summary. Spent 97% on groceries and 95% was at Trader Joe’s. I will not buy anything unless I get rid of 3 items in the same category. And I don’t buy into the marketer’s ploy anymore. I can’t afford it anymore anyway. If I could.. it’s just more stuff that my kids will throw away …

  • Rina

    Totally agreeable and very helpful. I did the same thing regarding unsubscribing to newsletters, it is so helpful when you stop seeing them every day and focus more on educational items versus shopping items :)

  • Mara

    I started to do this without meaning to this month since I started budgeting without cheating…the month is about to end and I have stuck to it!! YAY!!!  - I have also been asking myself questions before purchases and it really makes a difference to stop and think rather than just go with it and swap the card

  • Amber

    Great article. Thanks for sharing! My husband and I have made this a way of life where we only buy clothes when we’ve gotten birthday money or gift cards. And then we are very careful about what we buy, making sure we need. 

  • Jenningscaryn82468

    I love the information that I read about the shopping embargo.

  • amp

    great idea–thank you!

  • nononsense57

    What a fantastic idea and totally doable! It’s not permanent, unless I decide to make it so.

    My biggest expense is groceries. I cook for people I love and it’s how I show them they are important. OMG,,this is going to be very interesting!

    Thank you!