I buy too much. I never take inventory. I don’t know what I own. I’m not a habitual shopper, but buying random items that catch my eye is a habit of mine. I refer to those purchases as “shopping accidents,” and my life had become way too accidental. So a few days before the end of 2017, I decided to quit shopping for a year.
The idea wasn’t original. I read about a woman (Ann Patchett) who did it in The New York Times and the story seemed to scream “You need this!” It’s not that I spend a lot of money or carry too much debt; it’s more that I accumulate things mindlessly. I’m not a hoarder exactly, but I’d be hard-pressed to find one bare surface at my place. My life is chaotic and, increasingly, that chaos is mirrored in my surroundings.
To be fair, I manage my house, freelance career, youngest child and a tenanted flat on my own. But things are always falling through the cracks, and there are too many of them — things and cracks. I have art and photos that have never been hung, too many clothes, and shoes and boots purchased over decades with no intention or thoughtful desire to justify getting them in the first place. I’m drawn to bright, shiny objects and a sucker for a bargain (anything cheap or cheaper than usual). The idea of not shopping suddenly seemed like the first step to a less-cluttered life. I knew it wouldn’t be the solution to all of my home-related character flaws and wouldn’t make me more organized, but it would give me less to manage.
I set January 1, 2018 as the start date, so there wasn’t time to pre-accumulate anything in advance, and went cold turkey. I made my commitment public by telling my friends to make sure that I’d follow through. Like the writer in The New York Times, I set some ground rules and established categories of what was okay to buy and what wasn’t, so I didn’t have to consider each item separately. Unnecessary goods were out: no clothing, housewares, art, appliances, footwear and tchotchkes (I’m a devoted collector of them). Services and activities were in: massages, pedicures, restaurants, art galleries and movies. Food was obviously okay, even the odd luxury item (like fancy chocolates), but nothing purely decorative — come fall, those seasonal gourds, for instance, didn’t pass the test.
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Books and batteries were allowed. Anything related to health and safety, like a knee brace or new running shoes (one pair, not three), was okay. Cleaning products were fine but just the basics — no cute ceramic dispensers. Stuff for the kids was given the green light (though I admit that I bought my son a T-shirt at a garage sale with the tiniest thought in the back of my mind that I might occasionally wear it). If something critical to the function of my house broke, like a washing machine or window, I’d be allowed to replace it. Money wasn’t my motivation, though it would be cool to know how much I saved But, unlike the smoker who quits and throws the cash for every pack into a jar, the amount is incalculable because the rules applied equally to $150 shoes and $10 tees.
Over time, I’ve become better at articulating why I wanted to do this and it boils down to two irritatingly overused and commercialized buzzwords: mindfulness and gratitude. In a nutshell, I wanted to curb my appetite for mindless buying and appreciate what I already own. Maybe it’s my oldest son being away at university or the fact that I could soon be an empty nester or maybe it’s just middle age that’s compelling me to take stock. Maybe I’ve realized I can no longer see the trees for the forest — so many lovely things (at least, I think they’re lovely) buried under so many others.
At first, I thought I was examining what it means to need something as opposed to want something, but it’s actually all about wanting. And, as it turns out, “want” may be too strong of a word. Once I adjusted to this new way of living, I realized that it was quite easy to not want anything — I haven’t desired anything in almost a year. What happened to all that wanting? It seems like it was simply a fleeting urge or impulse to have something. The combination of a steady income and modest desires had led me to a life of mindlessly gathering momentarily pleasant things.
The last piece of clothing I bought was after Boxing Day in December 2017. I was perusing the racks and found a nice (enough) sweater that was 50 percent off. I wore it a handful of times and am today embarrassed to say that I’m not sure where it is, what it looks like or if I ever liked it that much.
The realization that I had become a knee-jerk shopper started almost the moment that I stopped shopping. A visit to Toronto’s Yorkdale Mall during the first week of January was like a buffet to someone with a food addiction, with sale signs everywhere seeming to scream “You will never, ever again find this great thing for this cheap. Who cares what it is? It’s 70 percent off!” I was there to return something and, with that joy of anticipation (“What else should I get?”) eliminated, I ran my errand and fled. Malls came off my list of 2018 destinations.
I was forced to break with that decision only once, when my iPhone fell in the toilet (a tragic but irrelevant story). I headed to the nearest Apple Store which happened to be in a big mall. The wait was an hour, and the very idea of that made me agitated. Temptation wasn’t the problem; it was wasted time. I opted to climb up and down the stairs to the parking garage while I waited. The phone was dead and I still owed $260 on the contract. I could have bought a new one — it didn’t violate my rules — but having rules made me consider my motivation. I’m making do with an old phone.
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On another day, a quick stop and browse at Value Village (a place I usually love) with a friend felt like cheating — a smoker who quits and inhales second-hand smoke. I encouraged her to try on a cardigan I spotted (for myself). She didn’t love it and told me to try it, which I did.
“I’ll buy it for you,” she said. Was that breaking the rules? I thought about non-Jews who come to the Orthodox synagogue on the Sabbath to turn on the lights or heat the food for the kiddush lunch. I took off the sweater. I didn’t love it. In my shopping days, I would have bought it anyway. That’s not what desire should feel like.
Garage sales and the almost magical element of surprise that they carry are also a weakness of mine. A friend was holding an annual fundraiser around the corner from my house for an organization she sponsors. I dropped by to say hello. We’re the same size and she was selling designer jeans. “Try these on,” she said. “Only $12.” I’d intentionally brought no cash with me. The little voice in my head that shouted “Don’t do it” was drowned out by the liar that screamed, “Trying can’t hurt.” They fit perfectly. I really, really wanted them.
“I can’t buy them.” And yet, I held them in my hand as we chatted so that no one else would take them. In the end, we struck a deal (well, more like found a loophole): an exchange of gifts — the jeans for a donation. But the guilt of circumventing the spirit of my laws ate at me and I donated $150 instead.
I’ve become fully obsessed with not buying anything, even things that pass the no-shopping exemption test. In the freezing cold of winter, I was out in the backyard with my 14-year-old son. He grabbed the handle of the best outdoor broom I’ve ever owned and wrenched it upward. The base was frozen in the ice and the handle snapped off. I started yelling “Why would you do that? I can’t buy a new broom!” (not quite the truth).
If I had a place for things and kept them tidy and organized, the broom wouldn’t have spent the winter lying in wait for a kid to do a kid thing. I didn’t replace it. Instead, I borrowed a crappy one and figured I’d get by.
Same thing with my running shoes, which now have virtually no tread and may be getting dangerous to work out in. They pass the health and safety exemption, so why haven’t I bought a new pair? And then there’s the screen for the kitchen window. One day in June, I heard a crash and came running to find cookies on the floor and a large bite taken out of a loaf of bread on the counter. There was a hole in the screen, through which I’m positive that a squirrel entered. I checked the house, found no frantic animal inside and figured it had left through the same hole. Rather than replacing the screen, I opted for increased vigilance.
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As the year drew to a close, my thoughts drifted more often to the things I might buy when the moratorium was lifted: workout tights, little black boots, a new dishwasher, underwear (surely, underwear is exempt, a friend said, but why should it be?). I felt a bit sad and guilty thinking about the purchases to come. I like not shopping.
It’s not that it made a huge difference in my day-to-day life, but it gave me the unexpected gift of time — a ton of it. Think about the ratio of shopping activities (like contemplating a purchase, getting to the store, perusing, scanning, clicking and window shopping) to actual buying. Mine was likely 97:3. Remove the exciting possibility of acquiring something new and the appeal of the hunt vanishes. I don’t wander into retail outlets. I’m no longer clickbait. No time is spent on websites, looking at the detail on the back pocket of a pair of pants. I’ve unsubscribed to the plethora of stores I’d happily given my email to.
I’m relieved to know that my shopping habit wasn’t an addiction — I didn’t miss it at all. I’ve recognized that, even though I’m a creature of habit, my habits are malleable. I can create new ones. I also realize that I’m hard on myself for things that may never change and perhaps don’t need to, like being disorganized and cluttered.
Sure, I’m afraid that lifting the ban will be a slippery slope, like the numerous times when I quit sugar for days, weeks and even months and found the route back to be swift and cliff-like. Did I learn nothing about how good I felt when I didn’t eat sugar?
I could do another year, but I understand that real transformation doesn’t lie in following or needing rules; it lies in consciously navigating the material world. It lies in making choices, not removing them. How do I commit to a conscious life of less? The answer is in moderation — a concept that has always been difficult for me. Who wants only one square of chocolate?
Many people asked if it was hard to do. But aside from the broom, there was no suffering or self-denial. In fact, it’s been liberating. In July, I took my 18-year-old son to California for 11 days — a last-minute decision. My year of not shopping gave me permission to indulge in time together to accumulate experiences rather than things.
Having a year of no shopping did nothing to increase mindfulness. If anything, it became its own mindlessness. Perhaps that’s the danger of all-or-nothing choices. But I believe I’m now ready to think before I shop. And if I accomplish only that, I will have been successful.