There's a concept my friends and I love to discuss called the Life You Have versus the Life You Want. Mostly it takes the form of long brunch conversations about who we could really be ... in our wildest dreams.
But sometimes those fantasies bleed into reality, and into our budgets, wreaking financial havoc. And somehow I think we're not alone in these buying habits (in fact, marketing wonks love to call what we do "aspirational" spending.)
Not sure you would recognize your imaginary self if she showed up on your credit card statement? Let's take a brief inventory of all the people I will probably never be—and all the things I've bought for them.
- One plunging one-piece bathing suit with gold hardware, for the woman who spends her days lounging by the pool at an upscale resort somewhere in Italy.
- Ten pieces of cold-weather running gear, for the woman who enjoys training for her half-marathon when it's below 40 degrees outside.
- One white marble pestle and mortar from Williams & Sonoma, for the woman who lovingly grinds pesto and other foodstuffs by hand for her elaborate dinner parties.
- 15 hardcover books on topics like being your own publicist, organic farming and improving your writing, for the woman who's moving to a self-sufficient farm and writing a best-selling book about it. You know, like "Eat, Pray, Love." But with goats.
- Three sets of personalized stationery, plus a monogrammed wax stamp, for the woman who composes thoughtful and witty correspondence to her friends, family and European lover in her ample leisure time.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Obviously, none of these women are me. I don't even remotely resemble them. I spend most of my time in an office without a dress code. But I still own four pencil skirts and white blouses, just in case a women's magazine calls and ask me to be their editor-in-chief. On weekends, I run errands and go to mundane bars where I drink cheap margaritas. And yet I have five cocktail dresses in case I start dating a VIP. I've gone running twice in the last year, when it was a perfect 65 degrees.
In fact, I couldn't fulfill all my fantasy lifestyles if I tried.
Sound familiar? Maybe for you, it's a weight set for your inner go-getter who works out for an hour every day before he heads to work. Or a hardbound leather journal for the do-gooder who sweetly smiles as she jots down what she's grateful for at the end of every day. Puh-lease.
At least wannabe rap stars get to return their fantasy sports cars at the end of recording a music video. Me, I paid for my fantasy life in full—and did it ever do a number on my budget.
Here's what to do if you're buying for the life you want, instead of the one you're currently living.
6 Steps to Breaking the Spending Cycle
I haven't quite brought myself to chuck the mortar and pestle. It makes a very attractive bookend for all the organic cookbooks I don't use. But I have stopped adding to my collection of vanity junk and even purged a lot. How? I started asking myself some hard questions:
1. Will You Use It This Year?
Considering the next ten years of your life is essential when you're buying a home. It's silly when you're buying books, clothing or electronics. Thinking about what I wanted my life to look eventually was what led me to buy a book on farming. Really? Farming? That was three years ago, and the closest I've come to a farm is flirting with the honey guy at the farmer's market.
Now, when a pair of overpriced, white, see-through crocheted shorts calls my name (for my future beach home in the Hamptons, duh), I ask myself, "Will I actually be going to the Hamptons this summer?" No, no I won't. And probably never, if I'm honest.
2. Will You Have Time to Use It?
There are a certain number of hours in the day, and days in the week. This is what I finally realized as I tried to clean out my drawer full of exercise clothes. In no world would I go so long without doing my laundry that I would run through 25 T-shirts and 11 tank tops. So I chucked all but five of each, and have a moratorium on buying more until the elastic gives out.
The same goes for anything that requires a time investment, like deals on classes, at-home spa items and "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." If you can't tell yourself at which point you will find the time to use it, save yourself space, money and guilt.
3. Would You Actually Like Being That Imaginary Self?
I thought I loved black-tie events—yum, men in tuxedos—and then I finally attended one. Boooor-ing. I consigned (most of) my cocktail dresses and haven't bought another one since.
RELATED: 9 Ways to Make Money on the Side
Before you buy an expensive souvenir, think of a situation in the past month in which you would have used it—without feeling like a total dweeb. If you can't, walk out of the store.
Get real with yourself about what things make you happy here, today. Don't buy anything for what supposedly makes other people happy. In my case, it meant ceasing to buy anything with heels higher than two inches and admitting to myself that live acoustic guitar concerts make me want to leave as soon as I arrive.
4. Will You Wear This When You Get Home From Vacation?
I know some people think shopping is a must for vacations, but that's when your imaginary self muscles to the fore in new, colorful forms. When you're in Washington D.C., pastel maxidresses are everyday wear. In Iceland, an itchy wool sweater is so romantic. In Hawaii, a long purple sarong or Hawaiian shirt is just the ticket. Then you get home, put it in the closet, and never use it again.
Before you buy an expensive souvenir, think of a situation in the past month in which you would have used it—without feeling like a total dork. If you can't, Instagram it for the memories, and walk out of the store.
5. Are You Buying It Because the Model Is on a Yacht?
I'm looking at you, Ralph Lauren. All the models are always on boats or riding bareback on a matching set of horses. On the beach. But just buying a long white dress doesn't mean a hot polo player will show up to invite you out on a date that involves galloping toward a distant manor.
What you should really wonder is, How will that dress look at your neighbor's backyard barbecue when you have a ketchup stain down the front?
6. Have You Been Drinking?
I bought something off Cool Hunting one night that makes me so uncomfortable, I've hidden it under my bed. But at the time, after two glasses of wine on an empty stomach, I thought, "I am the kind of edgy and free-thinking person who will totally use this." Nope.
If you have ever been drinking, do not buy anything. That includes tattoos, animals, flash deals on clothing or steeply discounted tickets. When you've had a glass or two, you're more likely to forget to read the fine print, where it says "no refunds." Ouch.
RELATED: 6 Times We Tend to Overspend