Two days before my 29th birthday, I shared a thought I’d been sitting on with my girlfriends: What if I didn’t shop for a year?
I didn’t come up with the idea to do a shopping ban, as I called it, overnight. The seed was planted once a month, at the end of every month, for 12 months in a row. Every time I had to write an update and justify why I was barely able to save any money, I told myself I could do better. I could save more, and I knew it.
My confidence in part comes from my experience in paying down $30,000 of credit card debt.
A couple years ago, after months of ignoring my credit card statements, I finally looked at the numbers and realized I was maxed out with nearly $30,000 of consumer debt. To make things worse, I only had $100 left in my checking account and $100 left on one credit card, all of which had to last for six weeks until I would get my next paycheck.
The weight of the debt on its own was crushing. I cried myself to sleep for weeks, feeling as though I’d lost my chance of having any kind of strong financial future. In the two years that followed, I paid off all my debt, took control of my health, moved to Toronto and then Vancouver, and quit drinking for good (after a few more failed attempts). I documented all the changes I was making on my blog, Blonde on a Budget, which brought in more and more readers with each update. I won’t pretend any of it was easy, and I can’t tell you I followed all the experts’ advice. I just did what worked for me, and I was grateful to have people to stay accountable to.
After those two years, I should have been set up to live a much happier and healthier life. I had done the hard work and proved I could tackle anything I set my mind to. Instead, I went right back to some of my old ways. I did start spending almost every extra penny I had. It seemed harmless, at first. Spending an extra $5 here and $10 there. Walking into stores for one or two items and walking out with five. But the dollar amounts climbed quickly as I began justifying the cost of going out for brunch more often and buying new books whenever I wanted them.
Eventually, I started traveling home more frequently and, from there, going on more weekend getaways with friends. I won’t deny that it felt good. After two years of living on an extremely tight budget, it felt good to have some freedom and flexibility again—to be more spontaneous and able to finally have some fun. What didn’t feel good was never being able to reach my savings goals, and then having to explain to readers why I hadn’t.
I simply wasn’t sure where to begin making changes. It wasn’t until the entire Flanders family was sitting around a table, having one of our usual rants about all things money-related, that I finally had my aha moment.
After we’d given my sister, Alli, a hard time for spending hundreds of her hard-earned dollars on something we didn’t think she needed, she delivered a rebuttal she had seemingly saved just for me. “I save 20 percent of my income, so I can spend the rest of my money on whatever I want.” She was only 20 years old, going to university full time and working part time—and she had figured out the secret before I did. Save first, spend what’s left over. Still, as her big sister, I felt the need to dig deeper. “But you live at home. Do you really need 80 percent of your income, or could you live on less?”
As soon as the words came out of my mouth, I realized how hypocritical I sounded. Then the wheels started churning. I wasn’t sure how the experiment would work, but I never have all the answers when I start one of my experiments. All I knew was I still wasn’t happy with my financial situation, and I wanted to start spending less and saving more money.
The rules for the shopping ban seemed simple enough: For the next year, I wouldn’t be allowed to buy new clothes, shoes, accessories, books, magazines, electronics, or anything for around the house. I could buy consumables—things like groceries, toiletries, and gas for my car. I could purchase anything I outlined on my “approved shopping list,” which was a handful of items I could look into the immediate future and know I would need soon. I could also replace something that broke or wore out if I absolutely had to, but only if I got rid of the original item.
And I would still be allowed to go to restaurants on occasion, but I was not allowed to get take- out coffee—my biggest vice and something I was no longer comfortable spending $100 or more on each month.
At the same time I decided I couldn’t buy anything new, I also decided to get rid of everything old I didn’t use. One glance in any corner of my apartment showed me I had more than I needed, and I didn’t appreciate any of it. I wanted to start using what was already in my possession. I wanted to feel like everything had a purpose, and that whatever I brought through my front door in the future would also have a purpose. If I couldn’t do that, it had to go.
My shopping ban ended on July 6, 2015. Throughout the year, I lived on an average of 51% my income ($28,000), saved 31% ($17,000), and spent the other 18% on travel ($10,000). I proved that I could live on less, save more, and do more of what I loved, and learned so many other lessons throughout the process.
I did a number of things as part of my Year Of Less: First, I decluttered and took inventory of all my things. I made 3 lists to determine what I needed and what I didn’t (the essentials, the non-essentials, and the approved shopping list). I unsubscribed from all stores and coupon newsletters. I also set up a shopping ban savings account to see how much I was saving. I took note of what my spending triggers were, and told everyone in my life about the ban so they could hold me accountable and support my experiment — whether it was talking me down from buying something I didn’t need, or suggesting a cheap alternative for hanging out. As the experiment went on, I started to feel grateful for all the things I have and how resourceful I could be.
If you’re doing a shopping ban for more than three months, there may be a few times when you’ll want to give up, and the only way to push through them is to live without an item for a while. Unless you really need something, try to live without it for at least 30 days, and see how many times you actually miss it. If it becomes a daily annoyance, go ahead and replace it. Otherwise, let it go.
Now, even after writing an entire book about not shopping for a year, I do know there will come a time during your shopping ban when you will need something that’s not on your approved shopping list. When you find yourself in this situation, ask yourself questions like the ones in the flow chart:
Today I consider myself a former binge consumer turned mindful consumer of everything. I continue to experiment with consuming less of things I feel I’m not getting any value from, including doing a 30-day social media detox and another month without television. Whether it’s these experiments or the shopping ban, I still hear some people’s concerns about how a ban feels too restrictive. While I understand how easy this is to worry about, my advice is always the same: Remember that all you’re committing to is slowing down and asking yourself what you really want, rather than acting on impulse. That’s it. That’s what being a “mindful” consumer is all about.
If you want to start a challenge like this, know that it’s possible to get to the end feeling like you’ve changed your spending habits and figured out what you value most in life. During the experience, you may realize things about yourself that were always present but hid securely behind your spending power. And if you do it for long enough, my guess is you’ll become more resourceful than you knew you could be.
This is an edited excerpt from the book The Year of Less by Cait Flanders. It is published by Hay House and available at bookstores and online on January 16.