It’s almost Black Friday, and you know what that means: It’s time to talk strategy.
No, not the kind that will help you beat out the throngs of crazed shoppers to score the best deals on this year’s hottest gifts.
We're talking about a strategy session to help you kick the not-so-stellar shopping habits you may have built up over the years—and adopt some savvier ones instead.
And although everyone could probably benefit from a smart-spending lesson or two, today, we're talking to you 20-somethings. While you haven't had all that much time as an adult to establish your shopping routines and habits, you've had enough time to start developing some.
To make sure you're setting yourself up for financial success in the decades to come, we rounded up five money experts to share their top shopping tips for reforming the most common bad consumer habits.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Get started with a free financial assessment.
Bad Habit #1: Debt-Financing Your "Wants"
Think back to when you were in high school. You probably couldn’t help but play the comparison game—or run out to blow your allowance on the coolest new gadgets the second that the popular kids bought theirs.
Hey, we're not judging. This mentality is normal, says Michael McCall, an Ithaca College consumer psychology professor and expert on spending patterns and debt. "Historically, people have always wanted what they can't afford," he says.
But this becomes a real problem when you continue to habitually indulge such "keeping up with the Joneses"–style patterns into your 20s, falling into a cycle of debt in the process—a bad habit with big financial consequences.
"At this point in your life, you don't want to take on any more debt or go into a marriage with too much of it," McCall says. "Debt is now preventing people from achieving milestones in their 30s, like becoming homeowners."
So this is precisely why your 20s are prime time to nix this habit in favor of a more future-oriented financial mind-set—before you hit your high-earning years and start dreaming of such major money goals as starting a family.
Which brings us to the cardinal rule of shopping to adopt right now: If you haven't budgeted for a "want" or can't comfortably tap your weekly flexible spending account to pay for it, don't buy it—regardless of who else is sporting it.
Your not-so-distant future self will thank you.
Bad Habit #2: Succumbing to Sales Deals
It doesn’t matter whether you’re scouting out home goods, hardware or food—hitting up the store without a game plan can be a risky move because strategically placed clearance items, buy-one-get-one deals and glittery “extras” can tempt you into purchasing more than you really need.
And in addition to potentially busting that air-tight budget you've defined, stylist Anna Akbari, founder of the Sociology of Style, warns that there's another downside to letting your impulses get the best of you in the sale section, especially when it comes to clothes shopping.
"Often, impulse sale purchases don't become your go-to pieces," she says. "Or, worse yet, you purchase something without it being a proper fit, so you either feel guilty for not wearing it or don't feel confident when you do."
Bottom line: It’s not a deal if you never end up using it.
So before you even hit the stores, come prepared with a list of what you really need to buy—rather than what your eye spots on the racks—and get in the habit of sticking to this practice, says Jon Lal, a spending expert and founder of BeFrugal.com.
In fact, "spending your time planning a purchase means you can search for coupons and sales [on what you want] before you buy," he says. This means you can sniff out just the deals you want, rather than letting the "half off!" tags control your wallet.
Bad Habit #3: The "Buy What I Need Now" Mentality
Most people wait until they run out of a household item—paper towels, cleaning supplies, toothpaste—before restocking their cabinets. But this practice can actually lead you to overpay in the long run, says consumer products expert Kasey Trenum, author of “Couponing for the Rest of Us.”
Before you turn 30, find smarter ways to reward yourself—and handle negative emotions—that don’t involve wasting hard-earned cash, because your troubles won’t disappear as you age.
A better shopping strategy, Trenum suggests, is to plan your shopping list a couple of months out.
"Buy eight to ten weeks' worth of items that your family regularly uses when they are on sale, and with a coupon if possible," she says, noting that the three-month timespan is the typical sale cycle. So by the time you run out of those supplies, you can restock—at a discount.
"By doing this, you can easily save half off retail prices," Trenum adds.
Bad Habit #4: Letting Emotions Dictate Your Choices
People have a tendency to treat themselves by shopping when something good happens in their lives … or when something occurs. Or they’re bored. Or depressed. O.K., for some, almost any emotion is a good reason to shop.
But before you turn 30, it’s time to find smarter ways to reward yourself—and handle negative emotions—that don’t involve wasting your hard-earned cash because your troubles (and stress levels) won’t disappear as you age.
"Treat impulse purchases the same way you would an indulgent snack or dessert when you’re following a healthy eating plan, and give yourself a set amount of time to make sure you really want to indulge," says Lal. "For example, step away from the item for an hour or two, then reconsider if it’s a purchase you are making because you really want it—or if it’s simply a quick fix to better your mood."
This isn't to say you can never indulge—you just have to be smart about it. Lal recommends setting aside a small amount of money each month into a savings account that you can tap guilt-free whenever you want to engage in a little retail therapy. This way, you're not really overspending—you're dipping into savings that you've already budgeted for.
Bad Habit #5: Not Investing in Basics
Here's a motto for you: "When in doubt, invest in staples."
It's one of Akbari's favorite mantras for budget-conscious shopping because while basics aren’t always the most fun to shop for, they will stand the test of time, as opposed to the trendy finds you'll pay to update every year.
For both women and men, Akbari suggests investing in three key staples. The first is nice denim: dark, fitted and not too distressed. "You can wear them nearly every day and no one will notice," she says, adding that you can expect to pay upward of $200, but nice Levi's can run for under $100.
Second, you need sturdy and attractive outerwear, and you should expect to pay at least $300. "It's what people see you in a huge percentage of the time when it's cold," she says. "[Plus], it's worth it to invest in good construction and high-quality fabric."
Finally, invest in black boots. "It's likely you'll wear them more often than not half the year, and if you care for them properly, they can last for years," Akbari says. "Watch for sales, and you may be able to snag an off-season pair for cheap, but prices typically range between $250 and $400."
Can't live without a little flair? Play with your accessories. "Patterned hosiery, a studded belt, glasses with colored frames—these subtle pops are usually more cost-effective than bigger items, especially since you can still use the same neutral base," Akbari says.
And this good shopping habit isn't just reserved for clothes. You can apply it to other purchases, like home décor. For example, you can buy neutral furniture, pillows and bedding, says Akbari, and then incorporate floral arrangements, accent plants or a colorful throw to add a visual point of interest.
Bad Habit #6: Ignoring Seasonality at the Grocery
It can be hard to resist the urge to stock up on goodies like strawberries in the winter—even though they cost twice as much and taste half as good. But such instant gratification isn't worth it for your taste buds, your budget—or even your health.
Fruits and vegetables lose nutrients once they've been picked, giving you another reason to avoid off-season produce that traveled halfway around the world before hitting your store's shelves.
"Produce is always cheapest when you shop in season, especially if you can buy locally grown produce," says Maura White, a deals pro at Savings.com. "If the produce doesn't have to travel far to the store to get into your hands, it cuts the cost."
Bonus: Fruits and vegetables lose nutrients once they've been picked, giving you another reason to avoid off-season produce that traveled halfway around the world before hitting your store's shelves.
There are certain foods you can buy year-round: potatoes, apples, carrots, lettuce and mushrooms, for example. But these produce favorites are better bought seasonally: butternut squash and pears in the fall, kale and pomegranate in winter, corn and green beans in spring, and berries in summer.
Bad Habit #7: Buying Big-Ticket Items Year-Round
Want to save hundreds—maybe thousands—on expensive purchases, like appliances, winterwear and even gym memberships? In the same way that you should scout produce deals by season at the grocery, Trenum says scoring discounts on big-ticket items is as easy as familiarizing yourself with seasonal sale cycles.
For example, winter coats and outerwear typically go on super sale in February, since stores need to make space for lighter spring jackets. And September is an ideal month to buy outdoor furniture—at 50%–75% off regular price!—since colder weather is about to roll in.
Saving up for a particular purchase and want to know the best time to buy? Scope out sales with resources like DealNews, which curates the best deals in various categories year-round and frequently publishes month-by-month buying guides.
Bad Habit #8: Scoffing at Renting
The outdated belief that buying is always better than renting is just that—outdated.
These days, you can opt to rent a number of pricey luxury goods—art, sporting equipment, fancy outfits and even jewelry—for a specific period of time, rather than blowing your budget on a single-use purchase.
"The items we [use] every day are the ones worth investing in—far more so than special-occasion pieces," Akbari says.
So while paying $100 to rent a gown for your cousin's black-tie wedding or skis for your upcoming winter getaway may seem like you're throwing money away, a pricey purchase that sits in your house unused is even more of a waste.
Sites like RenttheRunway and BagBorrowOrSteal offer high-end clothing and accessory rentals for when you need a red-carpet-worthy outfit but don't want to pay the accompanying price tag. Others, like Spinlister, let you rent such items as bikes and surfboards from other people.
For the go-to items you use every day, Lal says it's wise to spring for higher quality—even if it means paying more up front. When you spend a little more on a nicer item—say, a pair of well-crafted winter boots—they'll last longer than a cheaper, lower-quality item that you'll need to replace before next season. “Over time, this will actually save you money because you're shopping smarter," Lal says.
“If you were living without an item before you knew about an online deal for it, you will continue to live without it—and have more money to use for wiser purposes."
Bad Habit #9: Falling for Online Shopping Deals
Fact: It's really easy to spend money online. From daily newsletters that lure you in with coupon codes to flash-sale sites tempting you with today-only deals, scoring an amazing "get" is just a click away.
There's no doubt these digital deals have their advantages—if you're in the market for a particular item.
“But if you were living without an item before you knew about an online deal for it, you will continue to live without it—and have more money to use for perhaps wiser purposes," White says.
Now, we're not suggesting you forgo the convenience of online shopping. But if you just can't combat the allure of instant shopping gratification, it's time to opt out—before the thrill gets the best of your budget.
Start by unsubscribing from newsletters, and removing your payment information from your favorite sites—so you won’t be tempted to mindlessly shop.
While these tiny moves may not feel like they're having a big impact now, kicking these types of habits while you're young will pave the way for smart spending down the road—allowing you to reap the benefits of having more cash for future money goals. Your 40-year-old self will thank you.