In late September 2017, my mother-in-law took me to the house across the street: her neighbors had moved into a bigger house a few minutes away, and their old house was still full of stuff they didn’t want to take. They’d had a “house sale” earlier that day, and the street had been buzzing full of cars of people who’d come to see what used things they could buy. After the sale, the neighbor told my mother-in-law that we could come by and take whatever we wanted.
After the sun went down our children were in bed, the three of us—my mother-in-law, husband, and I—walked across the street and stepped inside a home that still very much looked inhabited. There were couches bookended by matching tables, and lamps sat atop those tables. The built-in bookshelves were crammed full of board games, coffee mugs, and Christmas decorations. Upstairs, there were beds in the bedrooms, with piles of sheet sets on top. The closets were filled with clothes and shoes. The bathroom cabinets overflowed with unused make-up and hair products.
Most of the stuff, though, was scattered across the floors of the entire house—toys, books, baby paraphernalia, unopened gift sets, and clothes clothes clothes clothes clothes, most with tags will attached.
The sheer volume of stuff in the house was certainly enough to overwhelm me, but what really struck me speechless was the knowledge that this was just the stuff that both the family and the people who’d been to the sale that day didn’t want. To me, it was the perfect aesthetic for crass consumerism, and it turned my stomach.
My face never lets me get away with hiding my feelings, so when my mother-in-law saw my expression, she insisted that her neighbors weren’t entitled or wasteful; they were good people. They may have gotten carried away, but underneath their made-in-China piles, they were good people.
And I totally believe that. I think the reason it bothered me so much was that it magnified a problem within myself that I don’t like to acknowledge; I like to buy things—or think about buying things, especially if they’re on sale—to place a temporary balm on my deeper problems. Don’t we all? And if it isn’t shopping, it’s eating, drinking, gossiping, or working solely to amass money or praise.
A few months later, when the holiday season rolled around, I still couldn’t get that house out of my head. I love making New Year’s resolutions—I’m proud (and more than a little astonished) to admit that I’ve kept every one since 2012. For me, the New Year is a great time to build new habits to keep for a lifetime, not just for a year. So I was a little worried about the new idea that began to form in my head.
I bounced the idea off my husband: “How about we stop buying things for a year?” He was not on board.
Shortly after succumbing to his practical concerns, I read this piece by Anne Patchett. She’d done the same thing—she hadn’t shopped for a year! As I read through the rules she created for herself, I went back to my husband and we teased out our own ground rules:
- We can buy anything at the grocery store, including flowers (thank you for the wonderful idea, Anne).
- We can buy gifts for others
- “Presents” for each other (him for me, me for him) are allowed, even with heavy input of the other spouse.
- If we really need something, we can reach out to three friends to see if they have something that we can borrow. If no one can spare it, we can buy it from Goodwill. If we can’t find it there, we can buy it from a shop.
- We can eat out.
We called it our “Treasures in Heaven” plan. And we were off.
The first few months were easy. I didn’t even notice until early spring, when we were to a concert and I had a terrible craving to buy a new outfit to wear there. Following Anne’s advice, I waited for the feeling to pass. It didn’t. I reached out to my friend, Chelsea, who, as it happens, lives directly across the street from our new house. After my children were asleep, I crossed my street, just like I’d done six months before, only this time, I sat with her as she held up her favorite outfits as options. I picked one, and instead of simply leaving, as I would have done if I’d been shopping, I talked to her about the actual reason I wanted a new outfit in the first place: my husband and I weren’t going to that concert alone. We’d be meeting a group of friends, which included his ex-girlfriend.
It wasn’t like my problems were all solved when I walked away, but talking my feelings out with a friend calmed me in a way shopping never could. She was sympathetic, told me things I already knew but needed to hear, and encouraged me to just have a good time and not worry so much.
As the months rolled on, I learned some more lessons: people talk about buying things a lot. Friends and family talked to us about which electronics we needed, websites touted cheap jewelry that I’d “be crazy not to buy,” and my inbox wouldn’t stop screaming about the sale ending tomorrow—whoops, no, they’ve extended it another day. In addition to learning about ourselves, we were learning about the human condition in a way we recognized but weren’t able to dwell on before. We humans are simply never happy. There’s never a point where we stop, look around, and say, “Yep, my electronics are all up-to-date, I have the perfect accessories for every occasion, and I’m satisfied that I got the best price for everything. I’m good!”
I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t quite cracked the happiness code yet, but this year has really helped me get closer. I don’t catch myself thinking “If only I had this, I’d be happy” so much anymore. I realize that I’m as happy as I’ll ever be, in every moment, including this one.
“Giving up” shopping has given me so much that it feels much more like gaining than losing: Not shopping helps me focus on my goals. It makes me more grateful for gifts (that awesome friend I borrowed an outfit from gave me a blouse for my birthday and I was so grateful I cried). It makes me more discerning, from choosing which book to check out of the library to choosing people in my life to hang out with.
So though I may relax the rules a little, I’ll probably stick with the habit. And if you’re feeling inspired to try your own year of no shopping, remember you can always come borrow something from me; I’ve got plenty.