What I Learned When I Stopped Shopping
Good for her, I thought when I read Ann Patchett’s 2017 article on her “Year of No Shopping,” but no way could I do that. I am not a person drawn to extremes, and besides, at that time in my life, I didn’t have extra money to shop. My second child was not yet a year old and my husband and I were spending most of our “discretionary income” on childcare.
Two years later, I found myself with a full-time desk job. After identifying as “broke” for so long, and as a new parent trying to grow a freelance writing career, I was finally a “real” adult who could afford to replace things that broke or wore out.
This new state of being snuck up on me and soon I found myself not only purchasing replacement items but, dare I say it, making impulse purchases. Can you see the shame dripping from that last clause? I was supposed to be a serious person, a critical thinker who was wise to the tricks of advertising. Instead, whether out of boredom in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon or because a blogger or podcaster I followed personally recommended something, I was buying things I didn’t need.
Did I want them? Maybe, but that wasn’t the point. The fact that I could afford these indiscretions didn’t comfort me either. I remembered the “Year of No Shopping” and decided to try it out with a “Buy Nothing” month last September.
My rules for buy nothing month
Every diet needs rules, including a diet from shopping. I modeled mine after Ann Patchett’s guidelines, which she describes as follows:
“I wanted a plan that was serious but not so draconian that I would bail out in February, so while I couldn’t buy clothing or speakers, I could buy anything in the grocery store, including flowers. I could buy shampoo and printer cartridges and batteries but only after I’d run out of what I had. I could buy plane tickets and eat out in restaurants. I could buy books because I write books and I co-own a bookstore and books are my business.”
For my own month of no shopping, I gave myself the following exceptions:
- If something I use on a frequent basis breaks or runs out, I can replace it.
- I can buy my kids what they need, such as the school supplies on their class lists and any shoes or clothing items they outgrow.
- Like Patchett, I didn’t limit my food purchases (including takeout).
Finally, I dealt with any FOMO by keeping a list of things I wanted to buy in September. I’d review the list in October and, if I still had a burning desire for a particular item, I could buy it then.
What I learned from buying nothing
Any productivity expert can tell you that time and energy are finite resources. Every decision you make, however small, about how to allocate those resources precludes a different choice. So, every minute I spent reading about the best sheet set, or browsing a sales edit in a fashion blog, or putting items in my cart and then ruminating on whether or not to actually buy them, was a minute I wasn’t spending on the activities that actually reflected my values and larger goals.
Decision fatigue is real
Defined as the theory that “a human’s ability to make decisions can get worse after making many decisions” by Medical News Today, decision fatigue can lead to impulse purchases, procrastination, and bad decision-making.
For example, I noticed that my personal inbox was largely a list of decisions that were draining my mental energy and willpower. I started unsubscribing from newsletters and email lists that were just trying to sell me things.
I also had a habit of leaving tabs open in my browser to avoid making decisions. This looks intriguing, I’d think, but I don’t want to decide right now if I’m going to buy it. If I wasn’t waiting to decide, I was waiting for a sale, refreshing my shopping cart as if it was a slot machine to see if the price was different.
Although my strategy of pushing all shopping decisions to October could be construed as “avoidance behavior,” it felt liberating. I wasn’t making individual decisions to delay, but issuing a blanket ultimatum to myself. Once I decided not to decide, to simply make a list and not check it until the following month, I freed up time and energy.
I also felt free from the stress and anxiety that surrounded these individual decisions. Do I really need this? Will it actually make my life better? Am I a bad person for buying stuff? Am I contributing to the eventual environmental destruction of the earth? And so on.
We are surrounded by subtle (and not so subtle) cues to buy things
I work in digital marketing and have good critical thinking and media literacy skills. Before my buy nothing month experiment, I would’ve considered myself savvier than the advertising. Now I see that’s not true. All of us are swimming in advertising and much of it is integrated into the things we enjoy every day (podcasts, anyone?) that it’s difficult to tune out completely.
The average American now sees about 10x more ads per day, upward of 5,000, than in the 1970s, writes Ryan Holmes of Hootsuite. In part because of the Internet’s “everything is free” mentality, content creators rely on advertising and affiliate marketing to make a living off of blogging, podcasting, etc. Even classic institutions like The New York Times have gotten into the affiliate marketing game.
I find myself particularly susceptible to podcast advertising. Although I don’t listen to many shows, I have great admiration for the podcasters I do follow. So when I hear them give a testimonial, in their own voice, for the latest recycled shoe company, the world’s most comfortable bra, etc., I’m more tempted to type their “special link” into my browser and check out the product.
After buy nothing month, a more values-based approach to shopping
I enjoyed my buy nothing month so much I wanted to do it again in January after the excesses of the holiday season. But even when I’m not actively avoiding shopping, I’m shifting my attitude toward purchases to better reflect my values. This is an approach I took from the book Don’t Overthink It by Anne Bogel, who writes that:
“When we harness a values-driven decision-making process, we can proactively allocate our resources for the things that matter most to us.”
Here are some personal examples to help you think through your own buy nothing month or values-based approach:
- I value travel. This is a value I lost sight of after having kids, both for practical reasons (it’s harder and more expensive to travel as a family) as well as general tiredness. But the pandemic has given me a visceral desire to see the world again. From now on, I will set aside money for big trips instead of spending it on smaller things.
- I value small, local businesses. When shutdown orders were first issued in March 2020, I felt fortunate that my husband and I could continue to earn our living working from home. But what about all the small restaurants and retail stores I’d enjoyed visiting in the pre-pandemic world? For a while, I regularly ordered puzzles and craft sets from my local toy store, books from the local bookstore, and takeout dinners. Yes, this was money I didn’t need to spend, and I could’ve gotten many of the same items cheaper online, but I had no regrets or anxiety about living my values in this way.
- I value giving back. On a similar note, I knew that nonprofits would also be hurting while facing increased demand for their services. I set up a recurring monthly donation to the biggest food bank/charity in the region and sent out more checks than usual at year-end to our local animal shelter, library, etc.
- I value books and fashion. In terms of things I buy just because they give me pleasure, I’m making peace with books and fashion. I always dreamt of having a home with built-in bookshelves and now that I do, I love having my library on display and to reference when needed. Even my “to be read” pile gives me a certain pleasure in possibility. As for clothing, I have been working from home for nearly a year and it’s likely to stay that way. I could wear the same sweatsuit every day and no one would really notice or care. But I enjoy fashion as a creative expression, so I’m giving myself permission to add a few new items to my wardrobe each season.
- I value quality over quantity. Finally, my overarching principle for shopping is to buy less but buy better. I’d rather have one nice cashmere sweater than four cheaper ones that add up to the same price. The same thing goes for furniture and just about everything else.
Of course, all of this spending is predicated on having room in our budget to do so. Some people may prefer to simply allocate a certain amount toward their favorite spending categories. I find it more helpful to give myself a rule, such as “one ___ per month” and budget that way.
How to track your spending so you can budget and save for what matters
Before I started tracking my spending, I didn’t have a good sense of where my money actually went. Any negative feelings I had about a purchase, such as guilt or anxiety, were just feelings, not based on fact. After I signed up for You Need a Budget (YNAB), I felt better just by getting clear on how my money was already prioritized. If these choices didn’t reflect my values, it was easier to make adjustments when I had the big picture in front of me.
There are a variety of tools available to help you budget and save. Other than YNAB, I can recommend:
- Mint. It’s free to use and I enjoy seeing all my accounts and tracking my net worth in the dashboard. You can also use Mint to budget and set goals for your finances.
- MoneyPatrol. The app monitors your accounts and helps you keep an eye on your finances with alerts and insights. Make better financial decisions with features like budgeting, investment tracking, spending trends, and more. After a free 15-day trial, MoneyPatrol costs $59.99 per year.
- PocketSmith. PocketSmith aims to help people from various walks of life manage their finances with tools to reflect on the past, make good decisions in the present, and plan for the future. Instead of presenting your budget in a list format, you’ll see it on a calendar. There is a basic free plan or you can upgrade to get more features.
- CIT Bank Savings Builder. This high-yield savings account from CIT Bank offers compounding interest at a higher rate (0.40% APY) than the national average in exchange for making at least one monthly deposit of $100+ or maintaining a minimum $25,000 balance. Put your savings on autopilot with a recurring monthly deposit and watch your balance grow.
By the time I reviewed my list of possible purchases in October, the initial rush of enthusiasm I’d felt for each had faded. I did buy some records from artists I enjoy; as with small businesses, I wanted to support independent musicians during the pandemic. But just about everything else I’d earmarked no longer seemed important. Clothing items that were on sale had sold out or gone back up in price and I didn’t care.
Interestingly, doing a buy nothing month also helped free me up to enjoy the holiday season. I realized I enjoyed spending money on certain things, such as decorations, holiday cards, family photos, and gifts. On the other hand, I didn’t care about replacing our thrift-store artificial Christmas tree. Even its gap-filled branches have become a sort of tradition.
I think I’ll continue to do the occasional buy nothing month as a kind of deep cleaning for my finances. The rest of the time, I’ll make sure my spending reflects my values—and doesn’t bust my budget. As for those moments of boredom at my desk? Now I get up and walk around or do a quick chore instead of turning to online shopping for distraction.
Will you try a buy nothing month or even a whole year like Ann Patchett? I’d love to know what rules you set for your own anti-shopping experiment and what you get out of it.