There’s a story my mom likes to tell about me from when I was a kid. It was one of my first summers away at sleepaway camp upstate and she was coming up for visiting day. While my bunkmates dragged their parents to the lake to show off their water skiing skills or see their ceramics at arts and crafts, I had but one simple request.
“I want to smell the mall.”
For my family, the mall was more of a religious temple than, well, a temple. I was raised within their Cinnabon-scented walls, wheeling around department stores in my stroller with my mom and nana on a Saturday afternoon. Sitting atop a table in the food court. The first word I ever read out loud, according to another favorite tale of my mother’s, was Macy’s.
This deep, foundational love of fashion and clothing was instilled in me on both sides of the family. My dad’s mom had a store in her basement in Brooklyn, where she’d sell high-end pieces to women in the neighborhood. She and my mom’s mom met while shopping wholesale in the garment district—one for her store, one for herself—where they cooked a scheme to set my parents up on a date.
It’s no surprise, then, that the appreciation followed me into adulthood, influencing my career aspirations. I started my blog, The Real Girl Project, when the fashion blogosphere was already pretty well saturated with content, just not necessarily the inclusive content I wanted to see. So I started one myself. That blog may not have had a robust readership (hi, mom), but it landed me my dream role: On the style team at a real-life website. Someone wanted to pay me to write about fashion? I couldn’t believe it.
Contrary to what you might think based on my background, my shopping habits were not the sole culprit that landed me in debt over the course of my seven years working as a fashion and lifestyle editor. Living outside of my means in New York City and an aversion for saying the word “no” were what really got me. But, I admit, when I attended one of my first fashion weeks on behalf of the team in a pair of Old Navy overalls and an oversized vintage Gap button-front shirt that belonged to my mom (both of which I still own and love, by the way), I felt less than.
And—to quote a podcast I listened to recently—when you feel less than, you spend more than.
I was lucky. I worked on a team of supportive, fabulous women who each had their own unique style and celebrated my vintage-loving, sometimes quirky closet. But still, between living in New York and having the job that I did, I’ve ended up accumulating a lot of stuff. Stuff that lives in the Carrie Bradshaw walk-through closet of my dreams with built-ins installed by the previous occupant, the one that I walked into eight years ago and said I must have this.
I can’t remember the amount of times I’ve done a Marie Kondo-style clean out only to end up with drawers that don’t shut and a hanger shortage. The situation only escalated during COVID. I was not much of an online shopper in the before times (while I no longer crave the scent of a suburban shopping center, I do still prefer the thrill of finding a perfect piece IRL), but that quickly changed in March 2020. I collected and bought and browsed and tried to fill the time and quell my pandemic anxiety with beautiful clothes.
And then, I got laid off. The lightbulb should have gone off then, in March 2021. But it would be more than a year before I finally, for the first time ever, would admit to someone other than my computer screen that I was in trouble. About $18,000 worth of credit card debt with mounting interest.
As part of a plan created under advisement of a friend who knows better than me about managing finances, I did an audit of my spending from the previous three months using the budgeting software Tiller. Over and over again I saw the same pattern: Restaurants and shopping made up an overwhelming majority of my spending habits.
Just one month earlier, I’d spent more than $600 I don’t have on two bathing suits, arguing that they make me feel good and therefore, I need to own them in three colors. I do believe that when you find something like that rare great bathing suit, and it’s in your budget, it’s worth a splurge. But I had ignored the whole ‘can I actually afford this?’ aspect for far too long. Plus, I already had a perfectly good one sitting in my closet.
I made a decision right then: I would attempt to abstain from eating in restaurants and shopping for non-necessities during the entire month of July. Cue panic.
What I expected was to have a little more money in the bank at the end of the month. What I didn’t expect was what I learned about myself, my self-esteem, and my style.
For starters, it became abundantly clear that for the most part, and especially during the summer, I basically wear a variation of the same thing every single day. I’d recently stocked up on a few bodysuits from the Aritzia contour collection and two pairs of denim shorts, one blue and one black. I also had recently acquired a pair of Tevas and a new pair of Birkenstocks.
If my entire closet disappeared tomorrow save for those few items, it would not look very different from what I looked like every day in July. It helps that the bodysuits are comfortable, just a little sexy and—my ultimate criteria as a person with big boobs who hates bras—fitted enough to go braless.
On the occasions that I did wear something other than a bodysuit/short combination, I found myself looking forward to working with what I’ve got by trying new outfit combinations and being more creative with my style. Much like not eating in restaurants forced me to think of new and more interesting ways to spend time with friends, not shopping helped me get a little crafty from inside my closet.
In a month devoid of “needing” the next new thing that pops up in my (creepily curated) Instagram ads, I spent that time really taking care of myself and my mental health. When I shifted my focus to the things I already had, and found gratitude in those things, I realized that I don’t actually need the hit of dopamine that comes from swiping a credit card or clicking “buy now.” Being thoughtful about my expenses and my belongings has given me a much longer lasting, sustainable self-esteem boost than another new pair of shoes ever could.
Of course, that’s not to say I’ve kicked the habit completely, or that loving fashion is something I’ll ever stop doing. Last month I saw the movie Official Competition and have been lusting over a pair of sunglasses Penélope Cruz wears in the film ever since. I even went so far as to find the costume designer on LinkedIn and ask her to ID them—a request that has, thus far, gone understandably unanswered. The other day a follower of mine sent a link to what could very well be the pair, but by then I had found myself a dupe at the Brooklyn Flea for $20, thank you very much.
There is no denying the power of a good outfit or the thrill of a good sale. Similarly, there is no denying that we live in a time that makes us feel like we have no choice but to try and keep up. But if this experience taught me anything, it’s that I can figure out a way to feel good, both in my closet and in my life, with the things I already have. They’re more than enough.