Judith Levine’s book Not Buying It: My year Without Shopping was one of the my earlier influences towards taking frugality to the next obvious step of wasting less money on things that I don’t need. After an overwhelming holiday (a.k.a. shopping) season, she and her husband decided to take a break from shopping in 2004–no new clothes, no processed junk food, not even greeting cards. This book is a journal of her experiences throughout the year–shopping withdrawl, social pressures, political pressures, activities to fill time that was previously spent shopping, Buy Nothing Day, and after many months something approaching non-shopping nirvana.
Their non-shopping year in 2004 was not so far removed from the September 11 attacks and the aftermath of politicians sharing economic concerns, and the politics of shopping runs a strong vein through this book. Levine notes:
“It was impossible to remember a time when shopping was so explicably linked to our fate as a nation. Consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of the U.S. gross domestic product, and if the gross domestic product is what makes America strong, we were told, the marketplace is what makes us free. Consumer choice is democracy. A dollar spent is a vote for the American way of life. Long a perk and pleasure of life in the U.S. of A., after September 11 shopping became a patriotic duty. Buy that flat-screen TV, our leaders commanded, or the terrorists will have won.”
Or while planning out a home improvement project that was already underway and exempt from the no-spend rules:
“After dinner, I take out the paint chips I have been collecting and spread them across the kitchen table. Engrossed in the pure, flat colors, grouping them in twos and threes, placing them in light and in shadow beside fabric swatches and blocks of wood, I forget global warming, the war in Iraq, the egregious George W. Bush and the only slightly less egregious John Kerry. As I make a note to bring home several cooler grays from the hardware store–Benjamin Moore alone must have a hundred–it occurs to me that I have better choices in paint than I do in presidents.”
But non-consumerism results in more for Judith than just asking friends to meet her for a walk or a picnic instead of going to the mall or to a restaurant. There are times where the best alternative to buying something new is to ask to borrow it from someone else. This is something I have trouble with myself but am encouraged by Judith’s experiences.
“Not buying has forced Paul and me to feel vulnerable and to ask for help, an almost un-American behavior. But the ability to ask for help might be a good skill to cultivate. Today I asked, and got service and a smile…. [W]hat I need is some non-consumer confidence.”
Sadly, early in the book I was secretly cheering when Levine gave in to a purchase or allowed someone else to treat her to a restaurant meal because it allowed me to feel self-righteous that I wouldn’t stoop to that level (although that may not be entirely true). At other points I felt guilty about aspects of their project that “beat” my own such as the fact that I rarely make it a full week without going out for lunch with my work friends. But it’s not a competition, and what’s right for each person will be different. I could learn much from Judith’s moment of nirvana the first time she goes into a store without feeling tempted to purchase anything.
“And just as I realize I am free of the desire to shop, I also feel free of the desire to judge others who desire to shop. I can condemn overconsumption and the systems that support it and it supports, but I don’t have to condemn the shopper.”
This is one of those books that gets me excited, and honestly there’s still a bit of an instinct there to go out and immediately buy a Buy-Nothing to satisfy my excitement. 🙂
But it’s okay. I take a breath and realize that not buying it is about giving me more control over my life and freeing up my time for other interests. I might start some veggies for my fall garden, relax with some yoga, or (very likely) curl up with another good book from the library.