I was the second oldest of eight children: My mom sewed our holiday dresses. Back-to-school shopping often consisted of sifting through black trash bags of hand-me-downs.
Given the situation, I learned to do the best I could with what I had.
Growing up, I always took my allowance to the thrift store and came home with armloads of secondhand items I would rip, sew and remake into something all my own. I covered a pink jean skirt in patches, hemmed a long calico dress into a beach cover-up and used Sharpies to cover a ripped pair of jeans with Marxist slogans and excerpts of Yeats poems.
Suffice it to say, my peers’ responses to my jaunty fashions were less than kind. By junior year of high school, I was bouncing checks at The Gap and spending everything I earned on clothing so I could finally fit in.
By the time I graduated from college and landed my first real job, I knew exactly what I was going to do with the money: buy brand new clothes.
Nothing on sale and nothing from the clearance rack, so help me God!
Seven Years Later: My Adult Closet
I soon broke my vow to buy only new things. Years of penny-pinching HAD made me compulsively cheap. When I stepped up to those rows of clean new clothes, I took one look at the prices and my head spun. $50 for a pair of pants? I retreated to the clearance rack.
Over the years, I amassed a large amount of cheaply made clothing. “This coat was only five dollars at Target!” I’d crow to my husband. Never mind that it was a poor-quality, unlined, tan coat with 80s-style puffy shoulders (and this was only about three years ago).
“I’m surprised they didn’t pay you to take it away from them," he'd groan.
Although everything in my closet was inexpensive, it added up. My budget was supposed to be $50 a month, but I was spending anywhere from $100 to $150. I thought I was being frugal by sticking to items that were cheap, but it was almost like eating French fries and never being satisfied--I couldn't escape the feeling that I never had anything to wear. That feeling, paired with deals that seemed "too good to pass up," created the perfect storm. I'd see a jacket I had to buy, even if it wasn't really the ideal jacket for me. I could make it work, I'd tell myself, if I added a belt, or paired it with leggings, or wore it with a sweater (which I'd eventually have to buy, too).
My Turning Point
I hit my turning point after I had a baby. Once my daughter was born and I lost the weight, I joyfully opened up the tubs of my pre-baby clothes … and saw that my once-whimsical sundress (only $7!) and leggings ($5) were coming apart at the seams. As I tried on each outfit, all of my former clothes seemed desperate and ridiculous.
Although I was back in my old size, the clothes fit me differently and looked cheaper than I remembered. I had taken a break from clothing obsession for over a year, during which I just wore what I had or the maternity clothes people loaned me. When I finally returned to my old threads, I saw them with new eyes. There are only so many jeggings you can wear to play dates before you look like you're refusing to give up on your youth. I didn't want to be the mom in a cheap halter top at the choir concert.
Something had to change.
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This Year's 'How Poor Are We?' Summit
The next big shift happened when my husband and I sat down to talk about our finances. Every year, he holds what I call our annual "How Poor Are We?" summit. And I'm only half joking about the name.
I started calling it that to lighten the mood, because he's so frugal and matter-of-fact about where we've gone wrong with our finances that he seems emotionless when it comes to money, and I've got plenty of emotion to go around. Sometime in January, he sits down with our budget and breaks out our income, expenses, goals and future outlook. I suppose if I had a more lucrative career, I’d relish these talks. But I’m a writer, so it's painful (he's an electrical engineer). On more than one occasion I’ve run sobbing from the room.
This year, our outlook was more promising than last because we're so close to finally paying off my school debt, but it was also more daunting--in addition to finishing off that debt and saving for a vacation, we want to start saving for Kid Number Two.
According to our spreadsheet, we might as well have been trying to finance a moon colony.
“Dave,” I announced, “I am going to give up my clothing budget for six months.”
For three nights, we negotiated our appliances and entertainment budgets, and put saving for a new car on hold. But the most glaring sinkhole was my clothing budget. Most of our expenses are shared, like groceries or home expenses, so this is the only line item in our budget (aside from my coffee) that's for me and me alone. In addition to using it for clothes, I frequently used it as a catchall when I overspent in other areas. For example, we had a set budget to buy things like books, but if I went over on books, I'd let my personal "clothing budget" pick up the slack.
Ideally, my catchall "clothing budget" should have been only 5% of our total monthly spending (excluding our mortgage), but in reality it was turning into 10-15%.
“Dave,” I announced on our final night of the "How Poor Are We?" summit, “I am going to give up my clothing budget for six months.”
He laughed. I commanded him to be supportive. He pulled himself together and said, “How are you going to make that happen?”
I stood up straight and declared what every naval-gazey writer has declared to an unimpressed universe since 1998: “I’ll blog it!”
The 'No-Pants Challenge' Is Born
For six months, I vowed not to buy one item of clothing, or any of the other items I grouped into my “clothing budget.” Right now, I’m in the middle of month four.
The first two months were hard. I was still going into stores and browsing because I needed to shop for my daughter. When I saw stuff I liked, I'd ask myself, Is there anywhere in the budget I could hide this purchase? But then I'd think, No, wait, that's really sneaky and indicates a serious problem! It's just a few months, suck it up, Lenz!
I didn't break my vow, but I came close.
But by month three, I wasn't doing that anymore. Now I just avoid places that will make me want to spend. I shop for my daughter more online, or stay only in the baby section of department stores. Luckily she's an impatient infant, so it's hard to linger, anyway. I reward myself in other ways. At the end of the month, for example, I'll find that I still have $3 left in my coffee budget and treat myself to a soy latte to celebrate not buying a bunch of crappy clothes.
The Big Impact the 'No Pants Challenge' Has Had on Me
Last month, I got a letter declaring one of my school loans to be completely paid off three months sooner than expected. My husband and I are on track to have my loans paid off by the end of the year; if not for the "No Pants Challenge," it probably would have taken until the end of next year. We've saved ourselves 9-12 months of stress ... and interest payments.
Four months in, I’m holding strong. I’ve even given away three bags of clothes because, instead of encouraging me to hoard my clothes, this shopping ban has actually helped me appreciate and reassess what I have.
Before, I thought I didn’t have enough. Now, I think I have too much. I’m considering extending No Pants 2012 for another month, or even perhaps the whole year.
Don’t get me wrong. I still dream about shopping again someday.
But before this challenge, I never thought of myself has having a "personal style." I wore whatever I found on sale and concentrated more on accumulating. Maybe it's embarrassing because I'm almost 30, but only now am I asking myself what I want my clothes to say about me. This challenge also gives me time to really think.
I've whittled my closet down to a quarter of what it was previously. In the future, once I'm allowed to buy clothes again, I plan to be more intentional about the way I dress. I'll build a wardrobe of classics in basic colors, which I can dress up with colorful accessories. (I love red.) And I'll invest in a few high quality items—like a tailored blazer to transition between seasons, a good white button-down shirt and a llittle black dress that isn’t so cheap it loses its shape in the wash.
(By the way, if you're also trying to build a classic style for yourself, check out LearnVest's Priceless Style Bootcamp.)
I want to show my daughter that just because “clothes make the man,” doesn’t mean they should control our spending habits.