The Nerd’s Guide to Thrifting, Part II: Be willing to leave with nothing.

Top: Madewell Courier in Sunset Stripe
Jeans: Lucky Brand, thrifted
Sunglasses: Oakleys

This applies to shopping in general, but it’s especially problematic in thrifting. Often times if we spend a lunch break or a long weekend afternoon of our precious free time sorting through endless racks of less-than-stellar finds, it can be very tempting to convince ourselves that we really should leave with something to show for our efforts. But if you don’t catch yourself before the checkout lane, you’ll end up bringing home something that you don’t end up wearing–which is kind of the point of the whole thing.

This is especially problematic when you have very limited free time (hello to myself just after I had each of my babies and could only leave the house solo for an hour or two every week–at most!). This is such a problem because of the idea of ‘preciousness.’ This is a specific application of the basic idea of limited resources and all the crazy things we do when we feel trapped, controlled, ‘rationed,’ or otherwise locked out of things we love and value, but suddenly find ourselves with a small amount of said limited resource.

I first heard the term ‘preciousness’ in an article years ago by the artist Stephanie Pui-Mun Law where she talks about errors novice artists tend to make with their time and their art materials. She says that when artists find themselves faced with large amounts of time to do their work, especially if this is an infrequent experience for them, they often find themselves paralyzed and unable to work because there’s no way they can ‘make it count’ or live up to their own expectations to paint that masterpiece ‘if only they had the time.’

It sounds ridiculous to apply that level of thought to something so trivial as thrift shopping, but it’s really the same thing: Say you work fifty hours a week and your free time is extremely rare, and you really want to go shopping (this applies to pretty much any type of shopping, or leisure activity in general). You go in so excited about the possibilities, but after a while, it becomes increasingly possible you may not find anything great this time. Maybe you’ve got a few OK items in your cart, but you weren’t that thrilled about them when you first pulled them off the rack and tried them on. But now that it’s getting time to leave, those ‘meh’ items are starting to look better and better, and you’re starting to construct justifications for why they might actually be better than you thought.

That’s a problem.

And on top of that, there’s the whole realm of hormones and neurochemicals and blood sugar levels and cognitive fatigue–basically, if you shop for hours without eating, make a long succession of decisions about what to buy, and are extra vigilant for those unicorn pieces that you could easily miss if you mentally ‘check out’ for two seconds, your brain is just not going to be as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as it was when you walked in.

By the time your stomach is growling and your partner is texting you angry emoticons from home, or–even worse–you’re on the clock and need to hurry to get to your next engagement, you’re ripe to make some less-than-optimal decisions about what to buy. That’s the time when the ‘it’s just $2’ sounds like a really good plan, or when you fall back on the ol’ Thrifter’s Curse of ‘I’m not sure, so I might as well just get it so I don’t regret leaving it behind later.’

How to deal with it:

  • Be willing to live with a few regrets. We generally regret a lot less than we think we will, and the decisions we make to avoid regret tend to not be very high quality. (And take it from me, most of the times I’ve panicked and regretted not getting something, it was still there when I went back the next day. When we really want something, we tend to think everyone else feels the same as we do–and thus someone will surely scoop up our great find before we can make it back there!–but I’d say at least 80% of the time, it’s still there just waiting for me when I’m more sure of my decision, which is a much higher quality decision after I had more time to think about it.)
  • Humans waste a good deal of resources in order to ‘keep our options open.’ You need to be willing to be ruthlessly picky about your own sense of style (once you’ve found it, that is–’exploration phases’ don’t quite follow these same rules) and thus willing to risk regret to fiercely protect all the hard work you put in to decluttering your closet, or building that perfect capsule, or staying within a fixed budget, or whatever it is that motivates you and makes you want to be more principled in your purchases.
  • This is a very important point that pertains to mental health–if you are skimming through all my tedious explanations, you may want to slow down for a second and read this bullet point carefully. If you need that precious free time to be a stress reliever for you, you need to ask yourself a very important question: If I found nothing at the store today, would I still feel I got the de-stressing I needed? Is just perusing and trying things on and daydreaming enough for me to feel joyful or relaxed? Or might I leave empty-handed and feel like I should have spent that time with my family, or that I would have been better off reading or taking a walk in the woods? I will go deeper into this in other posts, but it’s part of a larger picture of what we usually think of as long-term versus short-term happiness. If your time is that precious and you know you might not get what you need for your mental health if you don’t get that wonderful neurochemical reward from finding something really great, don’t go. It’s much easier said than done, but at least take the first step towards healthier habits by being honest with yourself, if you’re starting to rely on that burst of reward that may not come. Shopping is obviously addictive for many reasons, but thrift shopping in particular is very addictive because there’s always that small chance to stumble upon that unicorn find, and the more you show up and shop, the greater those chances are. You can’t control when it happens except to keep showing up. If this feels relevant to you, stay tuned, because I will go into this a lot more soon in a post about shopping addiction, a topic that is near and dear to my heart for many reasons.

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