Beauty and cosmetics spending, the personal assessment

Last week I wrote a post which has been on my mind for a while about spending on cosmetics and the beauty industry, and how this relates to my financial independence journey.

There are some great bloggers working on the intersection of FIRE and working toward zero waste: I particularly love Tread Lightly, Retire Early. For me, so much of FIRE is about living consciously and thinking always about what matters: and there are a lot of intersections there with low waste or environmental living, where ‘what matters’ includes a bright future for everyone on the planet.

So: having thought about this in general, I completed an inventory nothing that this is the slimmed down version – when we moved to Copenhagen last year I probably got rid of half the total stash. Then I thought about how it applies to me and came to the following conclusions:

  1. Beauty and cosmetics can constitute clutter – just because it’s potentially useful, doesn’t mean it needs to be taking up space. I did an inventory of everything we have in the house, and it’s A LOT. I’ve been on the MumsNet ‘beauty hoarders’ threads and whilst people encourage each other to use up products, there is a definite sense of ‘so we can go and buy more’ (and this isn’t me knocking the lovely people on it, it’s just I find the threads give me more ideas about things I could buy rather than really knuckling down to buy less). As an expat I got into a habit of buying things I might not be able to find, and schlepping them about with me. That’s a lot of extra effort, packing boxes, money spent on shipping and all the rest of it.
  2. I have a lot more than I think. After realising that it can be clutter, the inventory showed me that we have A LOT of stuff. Looking at blogs etc on this issue I realise it’s a lot less than other people might have, but that’s not the point – for my needs and wants, it’s too much (see the EIGHT pictures above – do I seem to have a worry that Dove deodorant will never be available again??)
  3. Telling yourself ‘ah I’ll use it all, no bother’ might be right – but only if you then stop buying stuff. I will use all those 11 deodorants, but in the meantime I surely don’t need any more. My weak spot is travelling and forgetting something, then buying it again (hello both the deodorants which were bought to come in under the 75ml limit for hand luggage). Which reminds me of:
  4. Stupid spending rules are stupid. In the same way that food eaten off someone else’s plate still has calories (sigh), cosmetics bought a) in the airport b) in a country where they are cheaper than where you live, or c) on a three-for-two offer , is STILL spending. And if you don’t need it, you don’t need it. When we lived in DR Congo where paracetamol were $20 a pack it made sense to buy a lot of packs for 40p when I was in the UK. But that approach has become a habit which needs breaking.
  5. There are other ways to treat yourself. I definitely link buying luxury cosmetics to treating myself in such a small way that the spend doesn’t matter. This is obviously nonsense – I would never apply the same logic to a diet and a doughnut. I love this post about the treat yourself culture, and am actively looking for alternatives that really do make me feel better.

Finally, I kept track of everything we used as a family for three months. All the plastic waste is below and it’s so much less than I thought. 1 each of shampoo, conditioner (and a 2in1 which has been on the go for about a year), shower gel plus my son’s shower gel, deodorant, face wash, moisturiser, toothpaste and (plastic free) cotton buds. There are also a couple of minis which have been lying around and got used up because I had in mind to finish them. My conclusion – this represents the stuff that I use. The other millions of things, aren’t really essentials, and are therefore things I could live without.

Not that much? This is about £20 worth of stuff. But the plastic will still live on for decades…

A final word here on beauty advent calendars. A huge box of my stuff is from these advent calendars, where you open a door onto a mini product for every day of advent. I loved the idea of them – a chance to try out new things, and see what else I might enjoy, plus that feeling of ‘treating myself’ every day for what can be a difficult month. But the number of things I have left is a testimony to how little I need this and the most basic analysis tells us that both financially and environmentally these can’t be a good idea. This year my kids are making me a picture advent calendar instead – and if I really miss it, I can just choose something from the existing box of unloved miniatures.

Cosmetics: spending, waste and the ‘lipstick effect’

I’ve always loved cosmetics. Growing up with an older sister, having small budgets so rarely getting new clothes, and always being self-conscious about my weight means that I focused on the tiny things which made me feel better rather than ever really getting into clothes. When I started working at 16 and had enough money coming in to build up a wardrobe, I carried on with cosmetics – make up, perfume, bath stuff, the whole lot.

In my second job, a friend – who often lent me her clothes – pointed out that if I stopped my weekly beauty shop, I could buy a decent outfit every month. Whilst that stayed with me, it converted more into looking at cheaper brands rather than anything meaningful. I must have spend thousands on beauty products over the years, many of which have never worked (or not performed miracles – who knew?!) or were barely used. And this was before Instagram and beauty vloggers – think how much worse it could have been.

Does your bathroom cupboard look like this? You might be a beauty hoarder

When I buy a £5 nail varnish (or, more often, a £2 bubble bath) I barely even think about it. It’s not an essential but it’s not a lot. And it’s a world away from paying for a manicure, or spa day. But a study in 2017 showed that the average British woman will spend £70,000 in her lifetime on her appearance. The study feels a little broad, since it includes gym membership but another study conducted by the industry showed that the value of beauty consumption in the UK in 2018 was £27.2 bn (or £409 per person). Either way – it’s a lot.

And there’s evidence, known as the Lipstick Effect, that small spending on luxury beauty actually rises during a recession. Partly because there isn’t enough money for funding major things like a fancy new coat – but also because when things are bad, we still like to feel special, or the idea of ‘affordable luxury’. There is some argument that the Lipstick Effect won’t survive this recession, not least because the impact of working at home means that people care a bit less about how they look. But it will surely be something else – the tightness of my trousers suggests I have turned to little delicious treats, which in hindsight might have been a mistake…

Aside from the money, cosmetics raise a lot of issues for me in terms of waste and plastics. Farrah Penn’s article in 2019 on trying zero waste beauty sets out some scary statistics:

There are five trillion tons of plastics in the ocean. How can I reduce my spending and reduce turtle misery at the same time?

I’m going to start with a review of my cosmetics stash, and see what I have on hand, how to use it up and learn from what I don’t use and don’t need to replace. Then I’ve started keeping track of how much we use, how much it costs – to me and the planet. More on my findings in the next article.