Not Buying It: The Allure of the Year-Long Shopping Ban

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Whether it's for emotional or financial reasons, more people are rejecting consumerism by refusing to shop unnecessarily.

It's been one year since American author Ann Patchett embarked on a no-shopping experiment. In an article for the New York Times, she describes her sense of disillusionment at the end of 2016 with the United States' swing "in the direction of gold leaf, an ecstatic celebration of unfeeling billionaire-dom." To get as far away from that as possible, she went to the other extreme, a place of active resistance through non-consumption.

Patchett created her own rules, inspired by a friend's shopping ban. That's the beauty about these self-directed lifestyle resolutions; they can be exactly what you want them to be. She writes:

"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."

But it also meant no more clothes, shoes, purses, electronics, or skin care products as long as she had others left in the cupboard. No more looking at catalogs with longing. She had to train herself to shut out the siren call of advertisers, professionals at creating desire.

Patchett describes an interesting adaptation process. The year started with "gleeful discoveries," mainly because she hadn't realized how much she actually owned that was perfectly usable, i.e. three years' worth of soap and shampoo stashed under the sink. She discovered that giving time to a wish can make it disappear:

"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."

She had to wait for the cravings to subside, but eventually they were replaced with clarity:

"Once I got the hang of giving shopping up, it wasn’t much of a trick. 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 you stop thinking about the stuff you want all the time, you start noticing more what others do not have. Patchett has come to see materialism as something that blurs life's details and robs precious time. In fact, not shopping has been such a positive experience that she doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.

Shopping bans have been popular for a while among the frugality/financial independence crowd. I've written about Michelle McGagh's year-long ban; the personal finance columnist from London realized she was actually terrible at managing her own money and had no control over discretionary spending. Canadian finance blogger Cait Flanders completed a two-year shopping ban in 2016 that was part of her goal for every item entering her home to serve a purpose. Mrs. Frugalwoods broke her three-year clothes shopping ban last winter when she purchased a new pair of muck boots for staying warm and dry around the homestead.

So, you see, it is not impossible to detach oneself from consumption. All of these women describe the experience as profoundly positive, despite the challenges. While I don't think I'm quite yet ready to do a full-on shopping ban, I am definitely eager to slash my discretionary spending significantly in 2018, and these stories are an inspiration.