By Nina Semczuk
October 15, 2019

This summer, I issued myself a restraining order.

I forced myself to stay as far away as possible — from Trader Joe’s.

Why would I willingly cut myself off from the ultimate snack haven, this palace of $3 gnocchi and $2 candy corn popcorn? One receipt was all the evidence I needed.

A quick stop to pick up eggs, bacon, and arugula instead turned into a supermarket sweep. Instead of spending my estimated $20 on essentials, my blitz set me back almost $150. I trudged home on my supermarket walk of shame, carrying two bags filled with things I didn’t need, but couldn’t resist: chocolate trail mix, those addictive poofy sour cream and onion cheese puffs, pink and white animal cookies, jerky, and not one but three kinds of toffee (pistachio, almond, and chocolate coated).

Each item, which seemed so cheap individually, added up to a triple-digit bill at the register.

Illustration by Jade Schulz

I realized Trader Joe’s wasn’t helping me save — it was enticing me to spend. It was one of my money pits.

In the past, I’ve also put T.J. Maxx, Marshall’s, and Homegoods on my “do not enter” list. These are my money pit places. When I walk through the doors, my tiny “to-buy” list flies out the window as the bargain prices — on stuff I don’t even need — bewitch me. Piles of stuff materialize in my cart, and I spend triple my planned budget.

This happens because I am what habits writer Gretchen Rubin calls an “abstainer.” Her theory is that some of us are better at stopping something cold turkey, rather than letting ourselves indulge infrequently. For abstainers, it’s easier to give up something altogether than to try to moderate the behavior, because then we get trapped in the mindset of “So, when can I do it next?”

In Rubin’s case, she completely cut out sugar; in my case, I needed to abstain from shopping at money pit places. Quick test: If you can eat one Tate’s cookie at a time, you’re probably the alternate type of person, called a moderator. Another tell: If you avoid Target because you know you fall prey to the so-called “Target Effect,” where you can’t just buy one thing, you’re probably an abstainer, too. But if you’re the type of person who can keep a pint of ice cream in your freezer and take a spoonful here and there (rather than consume it in one sitting), then you’re likely a moderator.

A money pit place is anywhere you find yourself buying more than you intended, and spending more than you wanted.

So what does this mean for our wallets? If you’re more comfortable going cold turkey — and want to stick to your budget — my best advice is to avoid money pit places completely. And if you’re not sure what yours are, you’re either a moderator or you might need to do a spending audit. Check your credit card statements or receipts and identify which places, if any, you end up buying way more than intended. Maybe for you it’s the big box hardware stores; you walk in for a pack of lightbulbs, and emerge two hours later with a pressure washer, gutter guards, and new closet system. Bingo. You’ve found one of your high-risk money pits.

Instead, you can replace your money pits with boring, but sufficient stores.

My local grocery store, Key Foods, has none of the fun, seemingly affordable items you’ll find at Trader Joe’s. (Earlier today, my Twitter feed was full of announcements of TJ’s fall seasonal snacks and I felt an intense need to go and buy everything.) While it’s less exciting, it does provide the provisions I actually need, at slightly higher prices.

So while I’m no longer getting the absolute lowest price on bagged spinach, I’m saving much more money overall — around $100 per grocery run — because I walk out with two bags, not five stuffed with unnecessary extras.

Online shopping is another way to avoid the temptations of a money pit place. Now I buy my sulfate- and paraben-free body wash from Amazon instead of going to Marshall’s. It’s the same price, and I’m not able to throw in some cheap nail polish or candles in my cart on the way out of the store. Note: This only works if you take care not to surf around the online shop — I go directly to the products I need and buy as quickly as possible. Temptation is everywhere.

Pssst, restaurants are secret money pits, too.

If you can’t go near a mall without popping in to see what new styles landed at Banana Republic, perhaps the entire shopping center is a money pit for you. Certain restaurants and bars can be money drains, too. I had one friend who loved going to Applebee’s for the affordable appetizer and drink specials, but because it was so darn well-priced, he always over-ate and over-spent, and regretted it later.

Our brains love hunting for a bargain. Thinking of a future reward releases dopamine, and getting that reward makes you want it all over again. My friend had to stop his Applebee’s habit because he wasn’t able to change his relationship to the restaurant — this would always be the place with cheap drinks and apps. You can substitute these places with alternatives that may cost more per item (or drink), but which encourage you to buy fewer items in total.

Finally, consider new possibilities for your money pit cash.

After my last Trader Joe’s trip, I got a sign from, well, something. A mouse broke into our pantry (an unfortunately common occurrence in Brooklyn), and went straight for that bargain jerky and chocolate trail mix. I guess I’m not the only one who goes wild for well-priced snacks, but you won’t find me restocking that drawer anytime soon.

For now, I remain on sabbatical from my favorite, money-sucking stores. Not only do I have more pantry space, but keeping my money holes plugged means more funds for fun experiences, instead of just more stuff. Because at the end of the day, I don’t need another jar of apple butter, or yet another vanilla candle. I’d rather stash away those dollars for future travel plans (or maybe a better mousetrap).

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