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Three Signs to Help You Identify Your Financial Sinkholes

Guest post from Maya of Great Living Now

My family is moving halfway across the continent. So instead of paying ridiculous shipping fees, my husband and I decided to de-clutter our house — we’re getting rid of everything that we don’t use on a regular basis.

We put together huge boxes of books we don’t re-read, toys our son doesn’t play with, and clothes we don’t wear. Then, a crazy idea occurred to me: “Why don’t I estimate how much money we spent on all this stuff?”

I did a quick estimate: about 200 books, each at approximately $15, gives $3000. Three thousand dollars! I was stunned. That’s just for books!

Now, I consider myself very good with finances. I am very careful with large purchases, and I stopped living paycheck-to-paycheck years ago. But here were piles upon pile of small things that nobody uses, and it all adds up fast.

Then I noticed one other thing. My piles of junk had little variety. Books. Dresses. Toys.

That’s when I knew I was onto something. I had discovered my financial sinkholes.

What are financial sinkholes? They are the small stuff we buy, and keep buying, that nobody really uses.

I am not here to tell you to stop buying books, dresses, or toys. However, I would like to help you identify your own unique financial sinkholes, so that you can use your money towards things that will actually get used.

Here are three signs to help you identify financial sinkholes:

1. You have a lot of them.

Whether it’s shoes, toys, books, or skincare products, in order to qualify as a financial sinkhole you should already have a lot of it.

Of course, you probably don’t buy exactly the same pair of shoes twice. But if shoes are a sinkhole for you, then you probably have many pairs of shoes just sitting in the back of your closet.

Take a look around your house. What do you see a lot of?

2. Most of them don’t get used.

The primary feature of a sinkhole is that nobody really uses them, except perhaps for very few times right after the purchase.

If shoes are a sinkhole for you, then you don’t wear most of your shoes. You might have 2 or 3, or even 5 pairs of shoes that you wear regularly, but there are 15 more sitting in your closet that never see the light of day. But, if you have 20 pairs of shoes and actually use all of them regularly, then they are not a sinkhole by my definition.

3. You enjoy buying them.

One of the best ways to tell if something is a sinkhole is how much pleasure you derive from buying it. I love trying on dresses. Apparently, I also enjoy buying them. So, I have a couple dozen dresses just sitting in my closet.

The problem is that I like trying them on a lot more than I like wearing them. I’d wear a dress once or twice, and then I go back to the more practical pair of shorts. That’s how dresses became a financial sinkhole for me.

When it comes to financial sinkholes, knowing is more than half the battle. Once you become aware of them, it is a lot easier to put a stop to it.

Now, when I consider buying a book, I first check whether the library has a copy. When I consider buying a dress, I think long and hard how often I will actually wear it. Before buying a new toy for my son, I ask myself, or him if he is with me, whether he will actually play with it.

Putting a stop to financial sinkholes is very effective, as these sinkholes use up hundreds or even thousands of dollars without us realizing it. But more importantly, eliminating financial sinkholes leads to saving without any self-deprivation, because you are cutting out that which does not get used anyways.

What are your financial sinkholes?

Maya Ackerman divides her time between research, writing, teaching, and spending time with her family. To read her other work, check our Maya’s blog, Great Living Now.

photo credit via Bigstock

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  • Laura says:

    Books for sure. Thankfully our library system allows me to request books from libraries all over Western MA and I’ve made great use of that for years now. Still … ask me what I’d like as a gift and … yep. its a book : ) So recently I’ve learned how to sell my gift books on line when I’ve finished reading them – and those that won’t sell I give away or donate (sometimes to the library).

    • Maya says:

      This is the a great idea! If you can sell, or donate your books when you no longer need them, then the problem is solved. I have been very impressed with my local library as well, they often have what I am looking for! But for the odd times that they don’t, selling or donating are great options.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • christie says:

    Fantastic post! I was thinking along similar lines this weekend. I love the term “sink holes”. My weakest point is on Friday nights after I take my kids to their Dad’s house. I’ve decided that I need to have a library book and some good munchies waiting for me at home. Going in to the store is just too tempting. 🙂
    ~ C

    • Maya says:

      You bring up a very important issue. It isn’t only about what we buy, but also when we buy it. I believe that we each have times when we are more inclined to spend, and it’s very helpful to become aware of these patterns.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Alicia says:

    Great article! It used to be books and office supplies for me, now, I just fight the office supplies. I don’t buy anymore office supplies, but can’t seem to get rid of the excess I have now *sigh*. Right now, I have a stack of books I need to pass on to friends but they’re not a huge money sink anymore because I’ve picked them up at the Dollar Tree. For a buck a piece, the small investment has been wonderful, considering I rarely make it to the library anymore.

    Now office supplies…I manage to get away from that because my boss loves them even more than I do and I can bask in them at the office. Shoes were kind of a problem a few years ago but with my last move and moment of clarity (finally realizing I need to budget and stop with the crazy spending) I stick to the stuff I use/need, and rarely purchase extra. Unless I see Tevas at Ross, then, well, there’s never too may Tevas sandals for my sore feet. Hah.

    • Melissa says:

      Check out – You list your books to mail out, and then you can “shop” for books and people mail them to you. They even have the wrapper to print, and shipping is all you pay. At least then, you don’t have books stacking up in your house.

    • Deana says:

      Alicia! We must’ve been separated at’re the only other person I’ve ever met with an office supply addiction 🙂 It’s good to know that I’m no longer alone…lol

    • Angela says:

      Oh I love office supplies. Notebooks especially The blank pages. It’s a big problem for me! Lol.

  • Amy says:

    Awesome post! Good things to think about. Thank you!

  • Rebecca says:

    A financial sinkhole some might overlook? Starbucks coffee. You buy them once a day for like $5 a pop, then they’re gone so you can’t even tell how much you’ve spent. Cut that coffee out and you’ll save thousands each year.

    • Kristine says:

      I don’t think comsumables are really financial sinkholes. Because you can say the same thing about any food not cooked from scratch and eaten at home, or any foods not strictly necessary for nutrition – potato chips, chocolate, ice cream, soda, goldfish crackers, fruit snacks, baby food, etc.

      • Rebecca says:

        Yes, I see your point. But, I think consumables can become a financial sinkhole. Like if you go out to dinner every night and you’re like where is all my money going? You would save a lot of money just by eating at home even just a few nights a week. I think in that sense, it would be a financial sinkhole. Of course you have to eat, but you have to wear clothes or shoes as well. It’s when you go overboard on these things when they become financial sinkholes.

      • chelsea schmalzried says:

        I’d have to agree with starbucks, it really is my biggest sinkhole! So I looked up the recipes online, a friend gave me an espresso machine and now if I want one I make it myself (except special occasions). And for those special occasions, I set a monthly budget of $10 a month, get a gift card at the beginning of the month and once it’s gone then it’s gone for the month!

    • Andrea says:

      I totally agree that consumables are a sink hole, Rebecca! It’s one that can easily get out of control if you’re not careful.

    • Theresa says:

      I agree about Starbucks too! I dont drink it, but have friends who do and they get a 5.00 drink everyday on their way to work. Adds up really quick when you actually think about it. $5.00 a day, at least 5 days a week equals $25.00 equals $100.00 a month!

    • Maya says:

      This is a very interesting discussion! I very much like the idea of an “invisible sinkhole.” It’s a little different from the type of sinkhole that I defined in the article, of which you would have many laying around the house, but in a very real way, invisible sinkholes are even more dangerous. If you are spending $5/day on coffee, and the benefit you get from it isn’t worth to you the $100/month you are spending, then it sure is a type of sinkhole! Becoming aware of the cumulative costs of consumable items can help us decide whether they are really worth it, and as always, whether something is a sinkhole is a personal decision because it depends on how much we each personally gain from it.

      Thanks everyone for the insightful comments.

  • Amy F;) says:

    Yes! She’s definitely on to something here! It has been a full time job to clear out so much of my accumulated sinkholes this past year. Its been so much work, in fact. that I can’t help but super-think through each new purchase now because I don’t want to go through this difficult de-cluttering ever again!

    oh, and for books, i’ve saved tons bychecking library first, paperbackswap second, and amazon last.

  • J.B. says:

    Thank you for this advise. It is very wise and a new way of looking at things.

  • Could food be a sink hole? Not the regular day to day stuff but those ingredients that catch your eye cause they are on sale for a great price and you have been wanting to try them, but then they get pushed to the back of your cupboard and you never get around to finding a recipe to use them up. If so then I think that is one of our families sink holes.

    • Maya says:

      Defiantly! Sales items are a very common sinkhole. It’s amazing how much we can end up spending in an effort to save.

      Thanks for the great comment!

    • Flo says:

      My freezer is definitely a sinkhole. I managed to empty one of them because the gasket failed!! On the sad side, we still had quite a bit of the locker beef and pork left when we discovered we were going to have to go vegan due to a health issue, On the good side, I was able to bless someone with a lot of meat and since it had been so carefully wrapped by the butcher it was still without freezer burn after several years. It made me feel much better, as I had given it to him to supplement his dog food bill!!

  • Jessica H says:

    I love this! Years ago when I had a yard sale, I realized how many things I was getting rid of and tried to estimate how much I had paid for the things that I had barely used. That has always helped me to say no, but I still have a weakness for kitchen gadgets and cookbooks that I rarely use!

    • Maya says:

      It’s interesting that you’ve had a similar experience! A yard sale is a great opportunity to observe how much we spend on stuff that we rarely use.

  • Emily says:

    great post! I’m opening up boxes now after 4 months of storage (which, thankfully was free in my in-laws basement). I’m planning to have a huge bin of give-away right next to me as I open each box. Obviously we didn’t use these things for four months… we need it at all?

    • Sandi says:

      What a good, and timely, article! I’m at home alone on the computer, buying books and toddler girls clothes. I have both a granddaughter and daughter the same age, so I’m always justifying, “maybe this would make a great gift?” Just a few days ago, I said I finally have my daughter’s wardrobe taken care of for a year, but then I thought, what if she grows, so I’m picking up clothes here and there. I’m going to post your three questions as a digital post-it note on my computer screen.

      • Maya says:

        I completely understand you, gifts are such a common sinkhole. That’s how toys become my largest one!! 🙂
        I am fluttered that you’d post my three question as a digital post-it! 🙂

        • Sandi says:

          The digital post-it is working! I just saw a sale from one of my favorite stores, and just took a look at my storage to make sure I didn’t need anything rather than absent-mindedly make the “good” purchase. (I also created a worksheet to use as a checklist for future purchases.)

    • Maya says:

      You are good! Most people keep things they don’t use for years before they even consider getting rid of them. Four months is great! Well done.

  • L says:

    What a timely post for me! We are going thru everything stashed in our basement since we had a couple of mice and need to make sure everything is purged and in plastic bins. We spent $300 on bins this morning so I want to make sure I only keep what we use/need or will for sure use (kids clothes in larger sizes). I am ashamed by what I have been finding, it is eye opening and I won’t be purchasing much of anything for a LONG while. I would say back to school art supplies for my kids or gifts, kids books and kids shoes might be some of my sink holes-I am REALLY going to try and reign this in for future!

    Thanks so much for the article.

    • Maya says:

      I am so happy that you found my article useful!

      I also LOVE buying things for my son. For some reason, it is a lot harder to stay reasonable when it comes to buying stuff for other people. It is interesting to hear that others have the same problem. It is only seeing our basements overflowing with children’s stuff that helps us regain some balance 🙂 This was precisely my experience as well.

  • Jessica B. says:

    What a great article!!! Thanks for the insights. 🙂

  • Danielle B says:

    I feel your pain on moving.

    On July 25, one week after his three year anniversary, my husband lost his job. Our world feel apart rapidly. But God used that week to show us He had been working on something much bigger for our family.
    12 days later my husband, myself and our three small children ages 6, 4 and 2 moved from Staunton, Virginia to Helena, Montana. That’s 2,195 miles. It would have cost $2000 just to rent the U Haul to get across the country, nevermind the additional gas money! We sold everything possible and donated to Goodwill or friends and family what was left. We loaded up our van with the basic essentials of survival and that was it.
    Through that entire process we kept asking ourselves, “Why do we have so much STUFF?” And then the more painful question of “How much money have we WASTED on all this STUFF?”

    • chelsea schmalzried says:

      I live in butte, mt! Nice to see a neighbor! lol I go to helena once a month on the first for a big sans kids shopping trip (since the good samaritan thrift store is half off). I’ve turned my love of shopping into a lucrative business. I purchase items on clearance or at thrift stores and ebay them!

      • Danielle B says:

        Very neat! It is nice to “see” a “neighbor” especially since we know so few people around here! 🙂

        Yes, we used the Good Samaritan Thrift Store to get a couch and rocking chair for $25. I’m looking forward to (hopefully) a nice, big shopping trip on October 1st. I MUST stock up on winter clothing and accessories for all of us, plus a few other household things that we’re just doing without right now. I was amazed at how big their movie and book selection is- especially as a homeschooling mom! I saw all kinds of resources that would be great supplements for only $0.25 to $0.75.

    • Maya says:

      I am sorry to hear about your difficult experience, I hope that things are working out well for you now. Indeed, you bring up a very important point – Moving costs! That was one of our main triggers for getting rid of stuff that we don’t use. Moving costs are scary. But by the time we were done, we barely met the minimum weight requirement.

  • Melissa says:

    We just took a trip, and kept it “bare bones”, using points for all the hotels, packing a cooler with food and drinks, and used Groupon for many of our tours, and activities. It was great! I was VERY happy with myself each time we went into a souveneir shop, and I didn’t buy anything. So often, I come home with gifts for people that they didn’t really want, nor will they play with, or use, and it just becomes some junk that they have to sell at a garage sale, and hope I don’t notice…I would say that is my sinkhole, BUT then, I thought about the cookbooks I REALLY wanted to buy, but again, I reasoned it out with the millions of cookbooks I already have. lol Finally, towards the end of the trip, we had to throw out MUCH of the food from the cooler, as I always tend to cook for my family of 5, even when it’s just the 2 of us. That is probably my biggest sinkhole. No one eats the things I want us too, so I buy all these healthy things, and then have to throw it out once it goes bad.. Thanks for helping me recognize this!

    • Maya says:

      Wow! You have helped me identify one of my sinkholes! I, too, tend to have way too many leftovers that often make it… well… to the garbage. I have been trying to work on this for a long time. One thing that helps me is to buy food only one or two days at a time. This helped us reduce the amount leftovers and food that just goes bad in the fridge.

      If anyone has any other ideas, I would love to hear them!

  • Great post! Some of my financial sinkholes in the past have been costume jewelry, handbags and nail polish (which I would buy because I liked the name!). This is a great way to remind us of where are weaknesses are. Thanks!

    • Wendy says:

      Oh my gosh…I was just wondering if I could consider nail polish a sink hole!! I love nail polish…figure it’s a cheap indulgence, but when I organized my bathroom recently & saw how many bottles I have, I was a little surprised. I justify my purchases with coupons, but spending money on something I don’t need is no bargain!! And, yes, I have also bought colors based on funny/cute names (darn OPI & their clever nail polish names 🙂 ).

    • Maya says:

      I am with you! I tend to buy nail polish and use it precisely once – only to buy a similar color a few months later! I realized that where I lived it is cheaper to get a professional manicure than some nail polish. Handbags and Jewelry… I have been trying to cut down on these as well… When I moved I only took two handbags with me and only my favorite Jewelry. I’ll see how it goes!

  • Jen Krausz says:

    Just in the last few months I threw away a garbage bag full of food I had bought on clearance and at deep discounts, but had not used (most was now more than a year past the expiration date). So I need to be more careful about buying food that’s a “good deal” but that I might never use. Other sinkholes for me are craft supplies and buying WAY too many clothes for my supercute 6 year old, even if they are all on clearance and from Goodwill. It adds up, and I know I am spending a good hundred dollars or more a month on stuff I really don’t need to buy and most likely will not use. Thanks for the reminder and inspiration to think about that more.

    • Maya says:

      Hi Jen,

      Your comment made me think of all the food that I throw away… I didn’t see if as a sinkhole before, but this is precisely what it is! Food that doesn’t get eaten, especially when it’s food of the same type, is a very real sinkhole – plus, once it goes bad, no one can ever use it (unlike, say, clothes that don’t get used)!

      I also noticed that many of us buy way too much for our children, to the point that our children have no hope of using everything we buy for them! Perhaps it would be better to put the extra money into a college fund or increase their allowance. These are just some ideas, let me know if you have any others!

      Thanks for the great comments!

  • Angie says:

    This is a clever idea for a post. I really liked the picture too. Books and shoes were sinkholes for me too, until I got married. Now, I really don’t buy a lot of things. I found things don’t really give me as much satisfaction as they used to. But I still like going out to eat, and buying coffee. I only feel guilty about these purchase because our finances are tight. These things are important enough to me that I’m trying to figure out how to make extra money to afford them.

    One thing I don’t feel I should bust my butt to afford is books now that there are free ebooks available. Except I joined a Mom’s book club. I enjoy this book club, but I haven’t been able to find most of the books for free when I need them. There is the library of course, but most of these books are so new that the library doesn’t have them yet or the library just got the book and there is a waiting list to borrow it.

    I would hate to quite the book club just because I’m too cheap to buy the books. And some of the books aren’t even that expensive in ebook format. I can manage 2.99 for a book, but once the books get up to 15.99 and up, buying one of these books a month seems to add up. I have been downloading any free ebook I can find that seems like it could end up on the book club’s list, hoping I get lucky : )

    • Maya says:

      Hi Angie,

      You bring up an important point. Not everything we buy frequently is a sinkhole. Some things we buy frequently we truly enjoy. When I can’t find a book I want in the library, I will still buy it. I only try to ensure that I buy what I will actually end up using.

      In the end of the day, it is our basic right to use our own money towards our happiness!!

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Curriculum and books.
    Oh, and also, cute mugs and plates. Because I see them and they whisper that if I buy them I will be the kind of person who cooks nourishing meals and then washes the ceramic dishes by hand. Maybe in candlelight with snowflakes falling outside.
    But usually they just sit in my cabinet collecting dust.
    And I have banned myself from curriculum sales, used book fairs, and homeschool conventions for next year. If I don’t go, I can’t buy bags of unecessary stuff. 🙂
    Great post!

    • Maya says:

      Thanks so much for the beautiful comment!

      It is interesting how intricate and complex are the reasons we buys stuff. It’s great to see that you have such profound self awareness. Indeed, sometimes the simplest solution is to avoid tempting stores that have our favorite sinkhole items.

  • Amy says:

    Mine are books…but how to pare down? I also know that I am much less frugal with books than I am with other things.

    Actually, we have way too much of most things. I wish I was like you Crystal, and not have so much stuff!

    • Maya says:

      Hi Amy,

      Books were a major sinkhole for me. What really helped was first to donate the books that I don’t regularly use – primary ones that I read ones and never opened again. I really liked the cleared up space and it motivated me to be careful in the future. From then, using the library really helped. It surprised me how often they have what I need. But, of course, I still end up buying books when I can’t find them in the library.

      Thanks for your comment!

  • Sharon says:

    Toys for sure! I cleaned out just my twins’ room this week and filled a black trash bag with toys for a yard sale.
    Maybe books. We have a lot of them. But I’m not so sure they are a financial sink hole bc I rarely buy books new. Mostly I get them at thrift stores or library sales. So I pay less than $1 on each. Sometimes they are 3 for 25 cents at our library.

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