It was 2015, and I was browsing Century 21, the former land of discounted designer goods, when I spotted them: Beautiful Dries Van Noten lug-sole oxfords—from the runway, in my size, and half off! At around $300, they certainly weren’t a steal (I was working as a fashion assistant in Manhattan and didn’t have frivolous funds to spend), but in my mind, they were practically free.
The sales associate rang up the spellbinding Dries shoes, and I was euphoric…until I got home that night, new shoes in tow, and realized my internet had been cut off. Then, I got a follow-up text message from Verizon: my cell-phone bill was overdue too. There I was, sitting in my shoebox studio apartment while half of my utilities were screaming out pay me! The next day, I walked back to Century 21, the scene of the crime, and returned the shoes so that I could pay my bills. This wasn’t the first time I did the walk of shame; living outside of my means is a behavior that has continued on well throughout my 20s.
When I entered 2021, however, I decided I needed a change. My New Year’s resolution became clear and sobering: It’s time to transform myself from a shopaholic to a save-aholic. Turns out, this sentiment is a popular one. Smart shopping expert Trae Bodge—who helps consumers rewire their brains, shop smarter, and save money in the process—says January marks a popular time for people to reevaluate their consuming habits, and agrees there’s no better time to start than now. “[The new year] provides us with an opportunity to do things differently, and hopefully, better—and that includes being better shoppers.”
But as a recovering shopaholic, I wondered how can I put my savings plan into action in a way that’s actually realistic. So, I decided to call up two pros for baby-step advice. Below, Bodge spoke to being a smarter shopper overall, giving easy tips to curb frivolous spending habits. Financial expert Alexa Von Tobel—the cofounder and managing partner of Inspired Capital and author of Financially Forward—also touched on how to actually save money when I’m not shopping too. A smarter shopper and saver this year? Now that’s a deal worth investing in.
1. Bodge says if you must online shop, use it to your advantage.
“The main mistake that people make when they shop online is not taking a look for savings opportunities. Thanks to technology, it’s very easy to do so. For instance, if you find an item you want, you should always search for that item online and make sure there’s not a better price elsewhere. I recommend using Google and clicking on the ‘shopping’ tab for the best info.
Another easy way to save online is to install a free browser extension, like the sidekick from CouponCabin.com. Doing so will ensure that as you browse online, you’ll be alerted to available cash-back [deals] and other discounts. You click on them to activate, and shop as you normally would. Another way to save with minimal effort is to set deal alerts for items you’re interested in on Slickdeals.net. This is very helpful, especially for pricey items. By doing this, you’ll automatically be notified when that item goes on sale, so you don’t have to spend your time and energy looking for deals.”
2. Von Tobel says start saving with these three easy objectives:
“One of the best ways to fast-track your savings is to put it on autopilot—as soon as your income hits your account, transfer a set amount to your savings automatically. No matter how big or small that number is to start, it sets your habit in motion and drives positive reinforcement as you see your savings balance grow. Next, if you’re new to saving, you want to start by focusing on building your emergency savings—that’s a foundation of six months to a year’s worth of cash. In other words, if a curveball comes your way, this is the safety net you can rely on without going into credit card debt.
With all of the uncertainty of the current climate, there’s never been a more important time to give yourself as much peace of mind as savings allows! Lastly, I love the idea of setting up sub-accounts tied to specific goals (like a vacation fund, when we’re all able to travel again). Breaking out your savings into sub-accounts lets you assign a specific target to a goal, save toward that over time, and know exactly what you stand to gain on the other end—be it the down payment on a home or a special family vacation.”
3. Bodge says secure the right card for shopping.
“Another big miss is shopping with the wrong credit card. It’s wise to revisit your credit cards periodically to make sure you are using cards that are best suited for the way you shop. Using a free service like Gigapoints will help you determine which credit cards are best for you so you can get the most out of your shopping, including rewards, welcome bonuses, annual fees, and more.”
4. Bodge says to also consider the purchase before buying.
“Buying impulsively can get you into a world of trouble. If you are prone to shopping impulsively, it might also make sense to get into the habit of walking away from your virtual shopping cart for a breather. When you walk away, think about that item—is it something you need? Something you’ll really use? Something that will make life easier, or more comfortable? And most importantly, can you afford it? If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions, it’s probably okay.”
5. Von Tobel says save, but don’t discredit all the fun, either.
“Build fun spending into your financial plan. We all like to indulge in things that bring us joy, and there’s a way to do that without feeling guilty. I love the 50/20/30 framework for budgeting: 50% of your take-home pay goes toward your essentials (housing, food, transportation), 20% goes to your future (savings, retirement), and 30% goes toward your lifestyle—whatever it is that you prioritize. In other words, frivolous spending is okay within the guardrails of your budget and under that 30% mark.”