Smart Moves: How to save for a house

Here are a few pointers for would-be homebuyers with a weakness for impulsive shopping.
by Ellen James Martin Published: April 19, 2014
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A couple in their mid-40s have lived in a cramped city apartment their whole married life. Yet in their dreams, they own a cottage in the suburbs with blooming flowers and a fenced yard where their young daughter could romp.

Despite a combined salary of more than $150,000, this pair has found it nearly impossible to save for such a home. To understand why, they went to see Sally Palaian, a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping people with money issues. She identified the primary problem as their impulsive shopping habits.

“The woman is an IT professional who can’t resist spending more than $500 a month on clothes. And her husband, who works for a health care company, feels compelled to buy the latest and greatest electronic gadgets,” said Palaian, who’s helping the couple devise a plan to curb spending and save for a modest house.

Palaian, the author of “Spent: Break the Buying Obsession and Discover Your Truth Worth,” has worked for more than a decade to help such couples as the above rein in spending.

As Palaian notes, overspending isn’t a moral issue. However, when short-term gratification becomes a barrier to financial progress, it can become a significant personal problem.

Here are a few pointers for would-be homebuyers with a weakness for impulsive shopping:

•  Identify the triggers that cause you to make unwise purchases.

Palaian said one of the first steps toward management of shopping impulses is to recognize what prompts you to overspend.

For instance, she said that when tired or sad, many people turn to online shopping as a mood enhancer. Others seek immediate gratification from the momentary thrill of a good sale at a brick-and-mortar store.

Once you’ve identified the situations and items that make you susceptible, it’s time to find other coping strategies, such as finding substitute activities that feel gratifying without breaking the bank. She recommends compulsive shoppers seek to identify other, non-monetary “pick-me-ups.”

“Instead of going out to shop for entertainment, maybe you’d enjoy listening to music, taking a walk in the park or dropping by to see friends,” Palaian said.

•  Create and follow a spending plan until you get on track.

Many people think that keeping a budget is a laborious and needless task. But for those who must control spending to reach a big financial goal, it’s an essential step to managing outflows.

“People who control their expenses have set aside funds for such intermittent costs as dental care and car repairs,” Palaian said.

There are several free or reasonably priced programs to help you track and plan spending, including Mint (www.mint.com) and You Need a Budget (www.youneedabudget.com). But personal finance specialists say a pencil-and-paper system is often your best starting point, especially if you’re new to the budgeting process.