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If I already have more than enough, why do I keep buying things?
a 4-month experiment in living lightly
Wild Letters is a weekly newsletter about self-exploration and building a right-fit life. Thank you for being here with me!
My dear reader.
First, some housekeeping.
Thank you, hugely, for all of your support and kindness over the past few months while I’ve been recovering my mental health. Writing for a smaller, paid-only audience was one of many steps I took to bolster my own well-being this summer, and it helped immeasurably. Having a more intimate container in which to write about my recent marriage, my decision to take a $30,000 pay cut, my social media jealousy and more, felt exactly right.
Going forward, here is the new flow you can expect from Wild Letters:
Free subscribers will get one essay each month, and paid subscribers will get weekly essays, the ability to comment, access to the full archive, plus my monthly reflections podcast and the monthly curated link roundup.
(I’ll also soon be doing a giveaway of three $40 gift cards to Abacus Corvus Artwork, whose prints I have been delighted to feature alongside each essay this summer!)
For now though, let’s get into today’s topic.
This letter is a bit different than usual — less of an essay and more of tactical, tangible, bullet-point-heavy look at something I am currently experimenting with (a four month shopping ban) as part of my larger exploration into the question of enoughness (which I have previously written about here and here).
Knowing that this was what I wanted to write about this week, yesterday I texted a friend and said, “Why do I feel the compulsion to keep writing about this same topic from one trillion angles??” To which she said, “To be fair, it is a topic I suspect your readers want to read about from one trillion angels. I am one of them. Our culture is literally consumption, which is also our destruction. So essentially you’re writing about rebellion, which is the backbone of fantasy literature.”
That’s me, the Katniss Everdeen of shopping bans, lol.
But, I do know that I am far from the only person (especially in this particular corner of the internet) who is asking themselves similar questions, such as: How much money is enough for me? and Why do I spend the way I spend? and What kind of future (individually, collectively) do I dream of? and How can I right-size my own consumption in service of a world with more equitably shared abundance?
With these questions in mind I’ve just started a four-month shopping ban. I will write to you about this experiment with total honestly, in real time, once a month for the rest of the year. (Accountability!)
Okay, here we go :)
Let’s say that you have a pair of scissors in your home, and you’ve recently noticed that those scissors no longer work very well. The blades are dull, and so it has become harder to cut anything in a straight, crisp line. What would you do?
My immediate thought is that I would drive to Target or click over to Amazon and I would buy new scissors. Raised by voraciously consumer parents in a consumer culture, this is the first (and only) course of action that my brain sees.
My partner, on the other hand, who was raised by a father with an ethos of “we do everything ourselves no matter what” would calmly take the scissors apart, sharpen each of the blades by hand, and put them back together. If that didn’t fix the problem then maybe, maybe, he would consider buying a new pair, but only after confirming that there wasn’t a forgotten pair to be found in any other nook of the house.
That is what I want. I want to become a person whose first thought about any broken or poorly functioning item is: I bet I can fix this.
And so, an earnest question: How do we close the gap between what we say we want and what we actually do?
I am currently four days into a four month shopping ban.
My intention with this experiment is simple: to not buy anything I do not need from September through December. But just because something is simple does not mean that it is easy, and I will tell you right now that there is a (not insignificant) part of me that already wants to squirm and wriggle my way right out of this commitment I have made to myself.
Resisting this urge to bail requires that I frequently touch back in with the “why” of it all, the reasons that this experiment matters to me. So here they are:
I want to practice satisfaction. Remember when you wanted what you currently have? That.
I already have everything I need, and yet I do not act like it. The strong entitlement I often feel (to get exactly what I want, when I want it, in one click, with zero effort and free shipping) is… not cute.
I’m interested in cultivating a sense of appreciation without ownership. I do not expect to be able to buy and own a brilliant sunrise, or my partner’s laugh, or the adorable way the dog sits on the couch as if she is people, so maybe I can train myself to feel the same about a beautiful dress or a charming mug or whatever else I tell myself I must acquire?
Skill building! Those scissors are not going to learn how to sharpen themselves.
I continue to crave a deeper understanding of how much is enough for me — how much money, how much clothing, how much everything. I do not know that this will ever be fully answerable (as our circumstances change so too does our personal definition of enough), and yet I am devoted to being in a loving, honest, and lifelong relationship with the question nonetheless.
So when it comes to this current shopping ban, those are my reasons why.
Okay fine, I lied.
Or rather, there is something important that I left off that list, a feeling I’ve been grappling with that I cannot figure out how to sum up in a single bullet point, especially without sounding dramatic and alarmist. But here, I’ll give it a shot. The feeling is basically: Well, I’m pretty sure we’re headed toward multiple forms of societal collapse, which means that practicing voluntary simplicity by giving things up that I have become accustomed to and trying to live more lightly on the earth feels like both a necessary act of harm reduction and also the only possible way to have even a hope of remaining in integrity with my values in this ever changing landscape of who-the-hell-knows-what-comes-next.
You know, just a casual little topic. Your average Monday morning apocalypse chat.
In all seriousness though, I have been struggling to find the words to discuss this with the necessary nuance, particularly because I am not an expert in anything collapse related. But if regular people are not talking about this imperfectly, will anything ever change?
Which is not to say that I believe a four month shopping ban can prevent climate collapse. I understand that individual actions pale in comparison to larger scale solutions, and I am wholly uninterested in the nitpicky blame and shame that individual people (myself included) often engage in with ourselves and each other in an effort to feel some sense of moral goodness or purity even within a system that was set up to be highly unethical in the first place.
And also: I know that there is a significant difference between choosing not to buy things and being unable to buy things. So, what am I willing to give up (via the former) in order to funnel more resources to folks whose situation is the latter?
Okay, the shopping ban.
For the next four months I am not going to buy anything. That’s the plan, anyway. No shopping for the rest of the year.
The two main rules I’ve set for this experiment are:
Consumable (and necessary) purchases only. Groceries are allowed, clothing is not. Toilet paper is allowed, fancy skincare products I saw on Instagram are not.
Intentional spending on experiences is fine. Not shopping isn’t the same as not spending, and my aim for this challenge isn’t to spend as little money as possible for the next four months. What I want instead is to investigate my consumption habits (why do I buy the things I buy?) while gaining an even deeper understanding of how much money is enough for me (and therefore how much I need to earn next year in order to live my own version of a right-fit life).
Some exemptions and clarifications:
The spending I do on experiences still needs to be mindful and non-impulsive. If there is something I want to spend money on that falls under the category of “experiences” (a weekend away with Gent, an online workshop, a yoga studio membership, etc) I will wait at least 72 hours between wanting it and buying it — preferably even longer.
If a regularly used item (one that greatly contributes to my joy and well-being) breaks and cannot be fixed, then I am allowed to replace it — preferably with a used/secondhand version.
For necessary items that truly do wear out (like the shoes I wear to hike, run, and walk the dog), a newly purchased replacement is fine. But there is a difference between “okay yes the treads are completely gone on these shoes” and “Buuuut I want this sweater in a different color!”
Since reading is sincerely my favorite activity I’m giving myself a monthly budget to spend on books, but those books cannot be bought from Amazon.
Speaking of books, as part of my monthly wealth redistribution practice I regularly buy books for the Prison Book Program, which I will continue to do.
I am allowed to borrow things I want or need from friends, family, or the library (as long as I return them!)
I am allowed to buy necessary supplies for the online herbalism class I am taking, which requires at-home practice with specific herbs and different methods of preparation.
I will not refuse gifts from loved ones, but all gifts I give in the next four months need to be experiential or homemade.
If (when) I am faced with a purchasing decision that’s not covered here, I will stay true to the spirit of this challenge and make my decision based on the deeper “whys” that pushed me to do this in the first place: appreciating what I already own, breaking the habit of instant gratification, stepping outside the cycle of constant consumerism, learning more hands-on skills, lessening my dependence on needing (as much) money, and gaining clarity on the questions of enoughness in my life.
One more story, to close.
At the end of last year a friend reached out to ask my advice on whether or not they should invest in a multi-month business coaching program.
This friend, a fellow tiny biz owner, had recently completed an in-depth marketing course with the hope of being able to grow their income to a point of true sustainability.
“I think the coaching would probably be fun and helpful,” I said. “But what if instead of paying thousands of dollars for this six month program you instead spent the next six months intentionally implementing all of the things you have already learned?”
In other words: What if spending more money is not actually the solution to this problem? What if you already know enough to take the next steps?
I’ve been thinking about this conversation a lot recently, as I come off a month of binging all kinds of simple living content. I enjoyed those books, documentaries, and podcasts immensely; I was exposed to new perspectives; I absorbed useful tips and scribbled down pertinent reflection questions. But none of that learning will matter if I don’t actually do anything with it. When it comes to my consumption habits (and everything else, really): nothing changes if nothing changes.
I do not need to consume any more content on this. I do not need additional tricks or hacks. What I need is to take action — to stop shopping, and to be curious and open to whatever happens next.
More soon —