My Best No-Buy Tips

Since I’m moving this month and need to limit both my spending and my accumulation of new crap, I’ve put myself on a replacement-only beauty no-buy until the end of August. It’s been pretty easy so far: I’ve been so consumed with other problems that I haven’t had much brain space for makeup. But since there’s no telling what temptations I’ll face in the second half of the month, I thought I’d write up a list of the techniques and mantras that have helped me through previous no- and low-buys. (Disclaimer: I don’t have a shopping addiction, which is a serious disorder, and I’m not qualified to counsel people who do. This advice is designed for those who, like me, occasionally impulse-buy things they can live without.)

1. Know your triggers.

Here are mine:

a. Feeling (even) more broke than usual. I’ve spent my entire adult life as a graduate student and underemployed academic, so money has always been tight. But I’ve noticed that when it’s particularly tight, I feel the near-constant urge to treat myself to a new lipstick or nail polish or enamel pin. Being poor is exhausting, not least because you’re constantly reflecting on all the basic amenities you can’t afford, so it’s tempting to buy yourself a little luxury that you can afford. Which I don’t think is a bad thing in itself (cue Republican outrage that people on welfare dare to buy beer and ice cream, as if saving that $5 will help them afford a house). But it can easily get out of hand.

b. Uncertainty about my future. Like many people who came of age during the recession, I’m getting by on contingent employment and have no idea what my life will look like in the long term. For the past two or three years, I’ve been unable to plan more than a few months ahead, and that’s taken a significant mental toll. Ordering a treat online and using USPS tracking to monitor its progress toward my house is an easy way to ensure that I can look forward to something, even if my long-term prospects feel grim. But the pleasure is fleeting and illusory. (Wow, this post got real pretty quickly. Sorry.)

c. Anxiety from overwork. I’m never so tempted to impulse-order makeup as when I’m completing a bunch of job applications on a tight deadline. It’s like, I’m already doing six things at once, and all six are agonizingly stressful, so why not add a seventh that’s at least somewhat fun? For me, those impulse purchases almost always result in regret.

2. Turn to new techniques and inspirations, not new products.

If you feel like you’re in a makeup rut, and you’re bored and dissatisfied with how your looks are turning out, new products will only do so much. Your skills and your range of inspiration will stay the same, and instead of doing a halo eye with orange, peach, and light gold eyeshadows, you’ll be doing the same old halo eye with red, pink, and champagne eyeshadows. If you own enough makeup to be undertaking a no-buy, there’s no way you’ve exhausted the potential of all that makeup, I promise. Watch old movies or new kpop videos.* Binge Lisa Eldridge tutorials. Take another look at the Pat McGrath editorial photos you saved on your “makeup inspiration” Pinterest board three years ago. Practice your blending skills right before you shower.

*Yes, that link is a shameless attempt to make you fall in love with my precious daughter Song Yuqi and her group, whom I narrowly and tragically missed seeing in NYC two weekends ago. The makeup in that music video is really good, though.

3. Mix and layer colors to create your perfect products.

I’ve watched YouTube videos by professional makeup artists and by social-media influencers, and I’ve noticed a stark difference between the two kinds of videos. Whereas beauty gurus tend to create the same looks over and over with a constantly changing array of trendy products, real makeup artists mix and layer the same products over and over to create a constantly changing array of looks. In other words:

Makeup artists: narrow range of products -> wide variety of looks

Beauty gurus/influencers: wide variety of products -> narrow range of looks

When I realized this, my perspective on my makeup collection changed dramatically. I’m more familiar with my coloring and tastes than any brand is. Who has a better chance of creating the perfect brownish peach lipstick for my skintone: me, or some committee in a boardroom? (For the record, my perfect brownish peach is Wet n Wild Liquid Catsuit in Nudist Peach layered over Milani Color Statement Lip Pencil in Nude.)

4. Look up reviews of products you already own.

This will serve a twofold purpose. Not only will it remind you of the reasons why you bought the products and the excitement you felt when you first used them; it will also lead you to blog posts and tutorials that will give you new ideas for using those items.

5. Keep track of all the shades you own in your favorite makeup category.

For each of the past two years, I’ve maintained a list of all my lipstick shades (current total is 45, plus eight glosses), putting an asterisk next to a shade whenever I wear it and starting the list over at the beginning of the year. I keep the document in my Google Docs so I can view and update it on my phone when I’m out and about. This exercise reminds me just how infrequently I get to wear my favorite lipsticks, even the ones I think I wear often, because my collection is so damned large. It also gives me pause when I contemplate buying another, because that will be just one more lipstick that will prevent me from wearing the others!

6. Don’t beat yourself up if you buy something.

Guilt is counterproductive. First, because it can lead to even more spending: “I’ve already broken my no-buy,” you think, “so what’s one more purchase?” Second, because brands use your guilt as a marketing tool. A glance at the Instagram account of pretty much any social-media-based brand will reveal as much. Brands love posting those “hiding your makeup orders from hubby” and “spending your therapy money on lipstick” memes, because they tap into the undercurrent of guilt we all feel as consumers. And there’s nothing quite like feeling understood…by the very people who are trying to sell you more makeup. Third, because how many things does our society tell women feel guilty about? Eating. Not eating. Being girly. Not being girly. Wearing makeup. Not wearing makeup. Having feelings. Not having feelings. It’s enough. Break the cycle. When you slip up, get right back on the wagon; more importantly, reflect on why you slipped up, what triggers got you there, and how you can resist those triggers in the future. Then move the fuck on.

7. Remember that the feeling of shiny newness always, ALWAYS fades. And soon.

Think about the last few products you bought. How long did your excitement take to wane? A few hours? A day or two? The pleasure of new makeup or skincare is real, and it’s not worthless, but it’s not even close to permanent. During your no-buy, focus on things that can improve your life in the long (or, at least, slightly longer) run.

And that’s it! Wish me luck for the next two weeks, and let me know your own no-buy and low-buy tips!

15 thoughts on “My Best No-Buy Tips

  1. What a great list, it's kind of what I needed at the moment. 1c is especially relevant for me right now, but also the points about allowing myself some luxury in my stressed, poor student life. I'm working on a second uni degree at the moment which has better job prospects than before, and I know that I'll have to move all of my stuff once or even twice next year when I've graduated, so I always ask myself if I really want to lift all those heavy boxes with bubble wrapped makeup and carry them up my future staircase.Following makeup artists instead of gurus is also very helpful to curb the craving for new products for me, and they often don't post product names at all (like Katie Jane Hughes). It helps me to stay creative and to use the \”kit\” I already have, a bit like a painter.Another thing I love is watching project pan videos to see how damn long it takes to finish products (which I'll have to pack and carry in my big move next year, so it's a circle for me).


  2. So, I was actually at your blog already to read your review of Cloud Paint and then I noticed you had a new entry up, and it happens to be exactly what I needed to read right now, so thank you (and thank you for forgiving this run-on sentence that you undoubtedly caught). I am very much in the same boat as you regarding a lot of life circumstances, and the stress-fueled instinct for newness is a phenomenon I understand exactly. So thank you for writing this. I hope to return to it periodically to stay strong. And, it really is all about creativity, truly. I thought that was a very interesting observation about how makeup artists work with what they've got already. Good luck!


  3. I really hate the \”poor people deserve NO LUXURY WHATSOEVER\” strain of thinking on r/makeuprehab. I mean, yeah, if you have $50 to live on for the next week, don't buy an ABH palette for $42. But I don't think there's anything wrong with the fleeting pleasure of a new beauty product, so long as it doesn't become an addiction and isn't your only source of happiness.I've actually never watched anything by Katie Jane Hughes! I'll have to check her out. The video that made me start thinking about the difference between gurus and makeup artists was one that Nikkie Tutorials did with Sir John, Beyonce's makeup artist. I actually wasn't crazy about the look that Sir John did on Nikkie, but the way he talked about his process really brought home the fact that makeup artistry is about the technique, not the products.


  4. I actually wouldn't call your first sentence a run-on! It's long but grammatically correct. (Also, you'd be surprised how sloppy one's writing gets after several years in academia.) More importantly, I'm so happy this post could help you. ❤


  5. Third, because how many things does our society tell women feel guilty about? Eating. Not eating. Being girly. Not being girly. Wearing makeup. Not wearing makeup. Having feelings. Not having feelings. It's enough. Break the cycle.This is excellent and what I needed to hear today. Thanks.


  6. Word. I've been on contingent employment for several years and my income fluctuates quite a bit during the year. So here I am, at the end of summer when my savings have been depleted, and yet super busy from all the unpaid labour I'm doing for the teaching contract that will officially start in September, and what do I get? (after months of not buying any cosmetics) A glitter nail polish, glitter eyeshadow, and… glitter.On another note, I rarely reply here but I'm really excited for you for finishing your phd! Congratulations! Your blog is the only makeup-related blog I've been consistently reading over the years (sorry if I sound like a stalker) and it just felt like a huge change (for me! haha) when you mentioned you were moving somewhere else.


  7. I agree, I used to find the discussions on MUR really interesting maybe two years ago (when Lena/faceonomics posted there, too). But nowadays, the approach there often…rubs me the wrong way. You might like Katie Jane Hughes! She doesn't do those instaglam looks and I've learnt a lot because of her IG stories. I'll watch the video with Sir John, for sure.


  8. You are very welcome! I usually like r/makeuprehab but a lot of posts there are so guilt-ridden it just makes me sad. \”I bought a new lipstick and now I'm going to PUNISH MYSELF by completely panning this eyeshadow I hate.\” Like…be a little kinder to yourself, you know? (And I say this as someone who is often not kind to myself at all.)


  9. You know what, sometimes glitter is necessary as a little extra light in the darkness. No judgment. And thanks for the congratulations! \”Moving somewhere else\” might be a bit of an understatement, though: I'm moving about 15 miles from my university. It was the cheapest and most convenient thing to do, so…sigh. Maybe I'll make it to NYC by the time I'm 50. Best of luck with your own situation!


  10. This resonates with me on so many levels. First, I hear you about the employment struggles and shitty job prospects after the PhD. I've talked with my therapist about this so many times that she's probably extremely tired of it by now. But it's a real problem – not just in an economic sense, but as a self-worth issue. If you are moving out of the area to pursue other job prospects, then I wish you the best of luck and I truly do hope you find something out there that makes you happy. In fact, I know you will! It's just a matter of time. Second, I am also a victim of this kind of thinking that buying stuff will be the answer to all of my hopes and dreams. I did hop on the panning bandwagon a few years ago and in some categories of makeup I'm still going strong. I've realized that my great fondness for eyeshadows (and the crazy amount of time it takes to completely pan them!) means that this category will never be \”minimal.\” So I'm ok with buying a few eyeshadows here and there, when the mood strikes me, but I try to be a bit more conscientious about not buying blush, powder, highlighter, foundation, mascara, eyeliner, etc. unless I have a real need for it. My one and only weakness in this sense is when I travel – it's SO tempting to pick up cute makeup from overseas that's not easily available here. On my most recent trip to Asia, I managed to exercise a little bit of restraint, but not much. A lot of kawaii things came home with me, and I'm kind of not even mad about it. Thanks for being honest in writing this, and for reminding us that we don't need to buy our way to happiness. This is one of the biggest problems that I have with the whole \”self-care industrial complex,\” AKA capitalism, which incites us to buy things instead of actually taking care of ourselves. This post is a fantastic reminder that it's okay to feel those impulses, but that thinking through them with a bit of intention might help ease some of the feelings that we need to act on them.


  11. Ugh, I would go INSANE buying cute makeup if I traveled to Japan or Korea. No judgment on that account! And I'm not moving too far; I got an adjuncting gig in the NYC area, so I'm staying pretty close to my current place. My plan is to do one more year on the job market now that I have PhD in hand, then move on with my life if nothing pans out. It's just infuriating to know that I've done everything \”right\” and it's simply not enough. I try to keep academic complaints off this blog, but makeup doesn't happen in a vacuum, you know? Best of luck to you as well. ❤


  12. Your column really resonates. Women's magazines run ads from makeup companies that spend a fortune on PhDs in marketing, and psychologists to probe our deepest inner wants,and English grads to fine-tune the wordsmithing, and colour photographers paid enormous sums, as well as models who don't get out of bed for less than $10K A DAY! What's a poor defenceless consumer to do? One of my suggestions would be to read the reviews on MakeupAlley and (believe it or not) Amazon. Irate consumers who were disappointed will vent their feelings on these sites, not the tame sites run by the cosmetic companies. MakeupAlley allows you to customize your search based on skin type and color, and eye and hair color, and get objective information from people just like you . Also, never forget that if you are in your 20s and 30s and early 40s, Nature has given you a great power – free of charge, your pheromones are invisibly perfuming the air around you – and you probably need less makeup than you think to attract, well whomever you want to attract. Where makeup comes in handy is at work, where you want to present a certain professional image, and you may want to tone down what comes with the pheromones, in that setting at least.


  13. What you say about makeup and attractiveness is interesting, because I rarely wear makeup to make myself more attractive, but I do wear it to make myself seem more mature and professional. I started my PhD program at 22 and looked like an undergrad for several years after that, and makeup (especially lipstick) was a way to age myself in the eyes of my students, none of whom wore much makeup themselves. I don't look like an undergrad anymore, but I wear makeup to teach for the same reason that I wear nice clothes: to set a professional boundary between my students (very few of whom wear makeup) and myself. I desperately do NOT want my students to find me attractive, and lipstick in particular makes me feel less approachable.


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