"The Year of Less" (Book Review)

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©. Cait Flanders

Finance blogger Cait Flanders describes the ups and downs of a year-long shopping ban and the unexpected lessons she learned along the way.

Cait Flanders is a Canadian personal finance blogger who was the first person I ever heard of to do a year-long shopping ban. She has published a book about the experience, titled "The Year of Less: How I stopped shopping, gave away my belongings, and discovered life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store." When a copy arrived at my library, I eagerly read it in a day.

The book is a deeply personal story, not a self-help or financial advice book. Flanders recounts the circumstances that led her to the point of needing to put a stop to mindless consumption. When the ban started, she was already an established financial blogger, having paid off $30,000 in consumer debt over two years. She'd sworn off alcohol after fighting addiction for years and lost 30 pounds. In other words, she seemed to be in a pretty good place.

But, as she writes, once that debt was paid off, she fell back into old spending habits. It felt good not to be so tightly constrained, but she struggled to save money, which made her uncomfortable. She asked herself:

If I was only saving up to 10 percent of my income, where was the rest of my money going? Why was I continually making excuses for my spending? Did I really need 90 percent of my income or could I live on less?

That's when the idea for the shopping ban took hold. She formed rules that included what she could and could not buy, as well as an "approved shopping list" of a few specific items that she knew she'd need to replace in the near future. The ban started on July 7, 2014, on the morning of her 29th birthday. From there, the book is divided by month, recounting the various lessons learned throughout the year.

It was a tough year, not least of all because she was unable to shop. Flanders jumped into decluttering her home immediately, which may seem counterintuitive when one is unable to buy anything new, but actually helped her to realize how much she already had -- and how much money she'd wasted on unnecessary purchases over the years.

Several months later, she was hit hard by news of her parents' divorce. It led to depression that, in the past, she would have masked with alcohol, but now found herself having to face head-on. She began wishing she'd spent more time learning useful skills such as sewing, gardening, preserving, and car maintenance from her parents:

"Why hadn't I at least watched what [Dad] was doing? Shown some interest in his interests? Even considered learning a skill that might actually help me? What had I done instead? I knew the answer to that last question, which was that I paid for things. At some point, between growing up in the digital revolution, being part of what I liked to call the 'Pinterest generation' (where everyone likes things to be new and matching), and moving out on my own, I had opted not to learn any of the same skills my parents had, knowing I could pay -- and cheap prices, at that -- for everything instead. I valued convenience over the experience of doing anything for myself."

It's interesting to read her thoughts on how giving up shopping affected relationships. We are friends with people for many different reasons, and often enable behaviors in each other.

"I didn't think anyone would care that I quit shopping, but I also never got mad at my fiends when they started making comments that expressed otherwise, because I knew the truth, which was that I had left them too. I had broken the rules and rituals that had bound our friendship in the shopping world. We would no longer be able to find pleasure in buying things at the same time or talking about the deals we got or sharing tips on how to save."

Over the year, Flanders gains new skills, gets rid of 80 percent of her belongings, lives on roughly 51 percent of her income, and travels more than she even thought possible. She ends up quitting her day job and starting her own full-time writing business -- something that would've been impossible prior to the shopping ban.

The book was a quick read, although the subject matter isn't light. The book is real, raw, and full of the painful experiences and lessons Flanders has to deal with. She doesn't sugarcoat the experience. I think the story is compelling because Flanders represents what so many of us wish we could do -- stop spending money on stuff we don't need. We know it doesn't bring us the satisfaction that advertisers claim, and we hate seeing credit card amounts climbing and savings accounts stagnating.

Flanders proves that there is another way to live, but it requires a level of self-restraint that's uncommon these days. It requires one to take a stand against the consumerism machine that is our culture. The thought is terribly daunting, but seeing what it has done for Flanders' life serves as inspiration.

Order The Year of Less online