Some Reflections on ‘My Year of No Shopping’

This past Sunday, a wonderful essay by Ann Patchett appeared in the New York Times, entitled “My Year of No Shopping.” In it, Patchett describes how she spent most of 2017 without shopping for anything besides essentials. Well, mostly – she made an exception for books, as she’s a writer and reading books is part of her career path, and she excepted a few other things that seemed heavily tied to her career.

Mostly, however, she gave up buying anything she didn’t need. She gave up buying clothing. She gave up buying electronics. She gave up buying lots of little personal care nonessentials, such as new lip balm.

While I haven’t given up shopping for a full year as Patchett did, I have done so for some extended periods in the past – months, in fact – and I found that many of my own conclusions from the experience matched her own. So I thought I’d interlace some of Patchett’s insights with some of the things I’ve learned from my own “no shopping” experiences.

Although I quoted a lot of bits from Patchett’s essay, I really encourage you to read the whole thing, as it’s really a beautiful little piece of writing.

I couldn’t settle down to read or write, and in my anxiety I found myself mindlessly scrolling through two particular shopping websites, numbing my fears with pictures of shoes, clothes, purses and jewelry. I was trying to distract myself, but the distraction left me feeling worse, the way a late night in a bar smoking Winstons and drinking gin leaves you feeling worse. The unspoken question of shopping is “What do I need?” What I needed was less.

The feeling of browsing e-commerce sites when I am bored or anxious is incredibly familiar. For me, the big things that I look at are books and board games, with occasional sojourns into home brewing supplies (though I at least recognize that I have everything that I need in that department… for the most part).

Browsing shopping sites becomes something of a reflexive reaction to not having the right word when I’m writing, or to a bit of anxiety, or to a fleeting thought.

Similarly, while e-commerce browsing helped numb that immediate impulse, I usually ended up feeling worse afterwards. “What did I just waste the last 15 minutes doing?” “Did I really buy that? Can I cancel that order… no?”

I’ve learned a lot of little things that help with this. Blocking lots of websites helps break the reflexive habit. Keeping my phone turned off and put away in another room unless I actually need it helps, too. I also have found that general tactics that reduce anxiety and improve focus, like daily meditation and some exercise and journaling, help as well.

My first few months of no shopping were full of gleeful discoveries. I ran out of lip balm early on and before making a decision about whether lip balm constituted a need, I looked in my desk drawers and coat pockets. I found five lip balms. Once I started digging around under the bathroom sink I realized I could probably run this experiment for three more years before using up all the lotion, soap and dental floss. It turns out I hadn’t thrown away the hair products and face creams I’d bought over the years and didn’t like; I’d just tossed them all under the sink. I’m using them now, and they’re fine.

Those little moments of discovery while trying to be frugal can be amazing.

I recall that for a good month, I kept experimenting with how much toothpaste is the right amount to use. I used to just squirt a whole bunch of toothpaste onto my brush, a big streak like one will often see in toothpaste commercials. It turns out that such a huge amount is overkill. The right amount, it turns out, is basically a perfect little ball – a squeeze from the tube that’s about as long as it is wide. That’s just the perfect amount, as far as I can tell – you don’t have a bunch of extra toothpaste foam in your mouth, but you have enough to keep things clean.

I remember finding a whole bunch of bars of Lever 2000 bought at a sale at some point and stuck in the cupboard for what must have been months and months. I bought those bars before I got a better grip on my spending; finding those bars was like finding money because I realized I didn’t have to buy soap for several months.

I’ve found that “no shopping” periods really cultivate an appreciation of little things like this. They feel good, whereas beforehand they would have been almost completely forgotten moments.

In March I wished I had a Fitbit, the new one that looked like a bracelet and didn’t need to be connected to a smartphone. For four days I really wanted a Fitbit. And then — poof! — I didn’t want one. I remember my parents trying to teach me this lesson when I was a child: If you want something, wait awhile. Chances are the feeling will pass.

This is the old “30-day rule” popping up, as it does again and again.

One really effective principle I’ve used is that if I’m about to make a non-essential purchase, I simply agree to wait 30 days and if I still want the item, I buy it then. To “take action” on the item, I write it down somewhere with the intent of reviewing it in a month or two.

Again and again, I find that desire fading away pretty directly, and I find that if I come across that jotting in a month or two, I wonder why on earth I wanted that item so badly.

Most of our desires are momentary rushes, things that fade away in just a few days. The “30-day rule” is a great test to make sure that the desire is worthwhile. If it manages to last a month or two, it’s probably important enough to you that it’s worth taking action. In truth, very few desires will last that long.

The trick of no shopping isn’t just that you don’t buy things. You don’t shop. That means no trawling the sale section of the J. Crew website in idle moments. It means the catalogs go into the recycle bin unopened on the theory that if I don’t see it, I don’t want it. Halfway through the year I could go to a store with my mother and sister if they asked me. I could tell them if the dress they were trying on looked good without wishing I could try it on myself.

Not shopping saves an astonishing amount of time.

Not only is “no shopping” a money saver, it’s a time saver as well.

Consider the time one invests browsing shopping websites or going to stores that sell non-essentials or every time you go shopping without a specific need-based purpose in mind or the time you spend browsing a catalog. That’s time that you recover by simply saying no to shopping.

Sure, you might misuse that time, too, but it at least gives you the opportunity to do something worthwhile with it. If you shave 15 minutes out of a typical day, that’s 15 minutes of sleep or a load of laundry or a vacuuming session or reading a meaningful article. If you cut an hour out of your weekend… well, that can be anything!

Once I stopped looking for things to buy, I became tremendously grateful for the things I received.

This is something I’ve noticed during the holiday season. During years where I was far more adamant about not shopping, I found that I really appreciated every single gift that I received. During other years, when I was far more open with my spending, my appreciation of gifts was significantly diminished.

Why? When I felt I could spend freely, I knew that I could just go buy everything that I received and I probably would not have selected that exact item that I received. I was critical.

When I had actively chosen not to spend freely, the gift seemed genuinely like a gift. I appreciated it. I hadn’t spent time thinking and stewing over what I might buy because I wasn’t actively shopping, so the item itself seemed like a wonderful thing.

The simple choice of not shopping strongly encourages gratitude and positive feelings when people are kind to you.

The trickier part was living with the startling abundance that had become glaringly obvious when I stopped trying to get more. Once I could see what I already had, and what actually mattered, I was left with a feeling that was somewhere between sickened and humbled. When did I amass so many things, and did someone else need them?

When I look around my own home, I see abundance. In fact, when I reflect on my life, I see abundance at almost every step, except for perhaps a few points in my childhood and a very lean stretch during my college years.

I have tons of things. I have lots and lots of clothes. I have tons of board games and books and other hobby supplies, so much so that I rarely have time to actually enjoy them to the extent that I want to.

Buying something new means not only will I have just a sliver of time to devote to it, but it devours even more time from the other things I care about that I already can’t devote adequate time to. What good is it?

I look around at all of the things I own now and I wonder the same thing to myself. Wouldn’t some of this stuff be better off in the hands of someone else, someone who might have adequate time to use it? When you’re thinking that way, adding more to the pile seems silly.

If you stop thinking about what you might want, it’s a whole lot easier to see what other people don’t have. There’s a reason that just about every religion regards material belongings as an impediment to peace. This is why Siddhartha had to leave his palace to become the Buddha. This is why Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor.”

Focusing on what you don’t have makes it hard to see what other people don’t have. If you stop thinking about it and recognize that you do have enough – that, in fact, you have abundance – the fact that lots of other people are missing out on really important things in their lives that they don’t have access to.

It’s hard to see the world when all you see is you.

For the record, I still have more than plenty. I know there is a vast difference between not buying things and not being able to buy things. Not shopping for a year hardly makes me one with the poor, but it has put me on the path of figuring out what I can do to help.

There is a huge gap between choosing not to buy things and not being able to buy things. One is a personal choice that a person can renew (or not) at any moment. The other might be the outcome of a chain of personal choices, but it also typically involves a lot of bad luck and it isn’t something that can be undone on a whim.

This, to me, is the difference between frugality and poverty. Frugality is a choice. Poverty is not. Frugality is deciding to allocate your resources – time, money, energy – in a way that enables access to different opportunities. Poverty is spending as little as possible because you have to. They’re far from the same thing.

I understand that buying things is the backbone of the economy and job growth. I appreciate all the people who shop in the bookstore. But taking some time off from consumerism isn’t going to make the financial markets collapse.

One very common misconception that I hear is an overriding fear that if everyone became frugal the economy would collapse. What would happen if everyone stopped shopping for nonessentials?

The truth is that 78% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, spending virtually everything they bring in. Even if this became a movement of some kind, it would not have enough disruptive impact on the economy to amount to much. Ideas that involve making a more challenging personal choice in the moment rarely become widespread.

Instead, one should think about choosing not to shop solely in a personal context. What can it do for you? Your choice won’t affect the broad economy.

If you’re looking for a New Year’s resolution, I have to tell you: This one’s great.

A year of no shopping does seem like a pretty good New Year’s resolution, does it not?

“I realized I had too many decisions to make that were actually important,” she said. “There were people to help, things to do. Not shopping frees up a lot of space in your brain.”

In the end, the key to a year of no shopping isn’t that you’re buying less stuff, but that you become more mindful of the multitude of things that you already have and the relatively tiny impact of adding more to it. Most of us live lives so abundantly full of opportunities and things that we’re almost drowning in them; it’s hard to appreciate all that we have, particularly when our mind bounces quickly along to the next thing that we want.

It is never, ever a bad time to consider checking out of that mindset for a while. Simply make a choice not to shop for anything nonessential. You can decide for yourself how long to do it, but a month is definitely a good start. A year is ambitious – you may want to think of some personal limitations to that.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.