Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sunday Reading: On Shopping Bans, Fasts, and Freezes

via Racked

By now, almost everyone has likely read Ann Patchett's New York Times piece on her "Year of No Shopping". My reaction to the piece was initially more skeptical than I expected, given that it aligns perfectly with my interest in "minimalism-ish", as well as my fondness for lighter, more accessible (and not necessarily comprehensive) introductions to bigger, difficult topics. For instance, I love Marie Kondo's first book, even if, by most standards, it's a "baby steps only" introduction to only a portion of the ideas that fall under the minimalism umbrella. In the personal finance area, I'm fine with beginners' books, and I'm not sure most people, myself included, need much more than that. 

First things first, there's nothing wrong with the piece itself. It's well-written, not at all annoying or preachy, and by introducing a broad audience to the idea that less is more, and that we likely all need  far less than we currently consume, it's doing positive work. At the same time, I was taken aback by just how... easy she made it seem. It wasn't even just a fashion shopping ban! By late January, she had made it broader. As she says, "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." Sensible enough, not the most restrictive, but far more than just a fashion shopping ban. 

I suppose my main reason for skepticism is that I'm not sure a shopping ban or shopping fast, any set of what's likely to be somewhat arbitrary rules for an arbitrary period of time, is going to be the best way to get the benefits that she describes.

First, there were some lessons on "wants" versus "needs", how "If you want something, wait awhile. Chances are the feeling will pass" and "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?" This is where the enthusiastic KonMari fan in me comes in, I suppose, because by early 2015, having gone through a round of KonMari decluttering (which worked for everything but my closet, which I had decluttered many times before, and from which I still haven't let go of everything I don't actually wear, much of which I haven't in fact worn since 2015), I felt like I'd already learned that lesson, as to everything but the things in my closet.

Post-KonMari, I gave away the majority of my furniture and various other non-closet things when moving out after graduating law school. Since then, I've been careful and deliberate about new acquisitions of furniture, kitchen tools, all those sorts of things. Heck, I sometimes go too far. After our wooden cutting boards got permanently warped due to improper maintenance, I agonized over whether to buy replacements, and which replacements to buy, for more than a year and a half before I felt like I knew what the right choice was, and how I'd care for the next set.

Second, she derived a related personal finance lesson from the experience, how, "[t]he things we buy and buy and buy are like a thick coat of Vaseline smeared on glass: We can see some shapes out there, light and dark, but in our constant craving for what we may still want, we miss life’s details. . . . I came to a better understanding of money as something we earn and spend and save for the things we want and need." That sounds like what I experienced when I started budgeting, and tracking every single transaction, around the time I started blogging, using You Need a Budget (software that is now subscription-only, but the approach is simple and could be replicated in Excel). I wasn't always using YNAB properly, but that "better understanding" of money was there.

By tracking every transaction I quickly learned that some of my money was disappearing into a void, being spent on things I didn't want or need, a combination of (a) Sephora purchases as stress relief, often rounded out with an extra add-on item to get to the free shipping threshold, (b) Amazon purchases every time I thought of a new vague thing to try, and (c) Amazon and/or (they had reliably great prices compared to brick and mortar drugstores in NYC) purchases to stock up unnecessary and excessive quantities of cleaning products and other household items, some of which I gave away when I moved out and some of which, in the case of more compact items like dish soap, I only finished using nearly two years later. So I stopped those things almost immediately, and it was easy because the purchases weren't adding real value to my life.

I suppose the other main reason for my skepticism was, in the end, that it sounded too easy. Given how long I've been reading minimalism blogs, it's probably not surprising that I've read tons of posts about shopping bans, fasts, and freezes over the years. Many of them were "no shopping" for months at a time long before KonMari was cool. And actually, over time, it often proves extremely difficult to simply stop shopping for any extended period of time. I've tried no less than twice, just as to my closet, with no success, though I have an occasional month of no shopping, once in a long while, usually because I was busy with something else (at that time, final exams). The most common "success" scenario I've seen is when someone looks back and realizes, several months on, that without even trying, they hadn't shopped for a certain length of time because they hadn't seen anything they liked, or because they were otherwise occupied.

Maybe there are lessons there, though, in how "easy" Patchett's essay made it seem. The way she writes it, she was much more gentle on herself than many of us tend to be, when there are slip-ups or exceptions made, which she describes as happening a few times. She didn't dwell on it, just moved on and continued working on the larger goal for the rest of the year. That's a useful mindset. Also, for the USA-dwellers among us, American society may be more consumerist, at least when compared to the other societies I'm familiar with. We have more in the way of "big box stores" or places like Costco, where we buy in bulk to save and, in the suburbs at least, more in the way of space to store the excess. If one's starting point is an average American consumption habit, then of course it'll be easier to scale down the shopping, and work on the backlog of soap, paper towels, and dental floss that's already in one's pantry or bathroom cabinet.

What did you think about Patchett's piece? When I started this entry quite a few weeks ago, I thought I'd have more to say, but as I kept reworking this draft, I realized I wasn't able to add much that was new to the discussion. Oh well! 

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