To Buy or Not to Buy
I was an ordinary cosmic-law-abiding citizen with a keen taste for fine things. Not a shopaholic, or addicted to buying. Granted, I would buy something new for every special event like a telephone interview for a radio show, an opening in an art gallery where nobody takes off their coat, the official change of season, a full moon. You know, the big stuff. Never-the-less, the effect consumerism was having on the planet did not escape me. I was convinced I only bought what I needed. I’d read “The Story of Stuff.”
Then about two years ago I was seated in a circle of forty-eight people all of whom were inspired to support noble causes — preventing climate change; saving whales, wolves, and trees; ending world hunger, AIDS, and war — when my words spontaneously erupted like a volcano: “I am not going to shop for a year!” I went home amazed and perplexed. I worried how in the world I could keep such a radical commitment.
“Did I actually commit to not shopping for a year?” I asked Henry, my beloved partner, who would rather clean-up after a dinner party than shop.
He smiled and his eyes twinkled with that you-did-it-again-sweetheart look.
“I must have meant clothing,” I muttered, hopefully.
After all, maybe I could handle not buying any new clothes for a year. I didn’t really need anything and I certainly know the difference between needs and wants. The distinction is an integral part of the Tri-Energetic formula I’ve been using and teaching for years: needs are necessary, wants are desires to satisfy the eternal itch for more.
Though I was never a compulsive shopper, I was a creature of habit. I was in the habit of buying. Like many women (a few men, too), shopping was a social activity — a way of being together. When I visited a female friend in another city she suggested we go shopping together.
“I don’t shop,” I boasted.
She looked aghast and asked, “Then what can we do together?”
Determined to break the habit of shopping, I tried to visualize a year without buying anything new. I couldn’t. Then I came across a slogan Americans used during World War II: We make do with nothing new. “Yes!” I thought. “This is my battle and I’m going to make it through…with nothing new. What’s one year, anyway.”
The first day of my challenge I went to our neighborhood drugstore for toothpaste. A need, for sure. The saleswoman handed me a new powder compact. “It’s on sale,” she smiled.
“Oh, I can’t,” I sighed. “I’m not going to buy anything I don’t need for a year.”
She beamed, “That’s a great idea. In that case, keep it. It’s a present.”
I was off to a very good start!
Sometime during the first week I remember browsing in a high-fashion shop staring at a blouse I could easily have taken home to treasure. I was a kid in a candy shop, forbidden her desert. Drooling a little, head held high, I left. I wanted that blouse…I didn’t need it.
Then there was a case of those boots. Not those ugly shapeless things that make you look like a camel in galoshes. Or the graceless faux-fur-trimmed ones I call Godzilla-goes-bowling boots. No. The boots I fancied were sleek, soft leather, cushy fleece lining — and expensive. I tried them on. They almost fit — but didn’t. They pinched my toes. Leaving the store, I looked down at my ten-year-old, well-worn, deeply-scuffed boots, and rejoiced in how deliciously comfortable they were. I fell in love with them and promised to be nicer to them.
I’m convinced the Universe conspired to help me. For example, in Italy, shoe capital of the world, I was about to buy some super-sexy pumps but…the salesman, so enamored with a girl he was flirting with, forgot to bring me the other shoe. I thanked him, inwardly — and left. Amazingly, each time I tried something on, like those white pants I convinced myself I needed, something went wrong.
After some time, all the clothes looked the same and the classy windows lost their fascination. When you know you’re not going to buy anything, there’s no fun in looking. My habit to buy slowly gave way to the habit of noticing what I saw around me: old street lights, the different colors of bricks, pigeons on rooftops, swans on the canal, mama duck sitting on her chicks, flowers in unlikely places, the variety of dogs and the people who love them. I began obsessing about the wads of gum people tossed on the sidewalk and fantasized an anti-gum-on-sidewalk campaign. I delighted in the number of people I knew well enough to say hello to. I began consciously smiling at strangers and noticed how it feels when a few smiled back.
Eventually I found myself avoiding stores. Instead I’d wander into the park to give myself time to simply sit — and just BE. In that mindful state I got the message: I’d been consuming things with too little attention to what I actually, really really needed. I played dumb to the origin of what I bought, or the environmental consequences of it. I was buying items mass produced by greedy corporations who profit on the labor of the innocent and the young. ‘Twas a rude awakening to see myself as materialistic. What a surprise to realize that my desire for happiness was diminished by my quest to stay in style.
As the months rolled on, I began to use my shopping-free time more creatively. I organized a Woman’s Day. We each brought a nice item that we hadn’t worn in a while or no longer fit. Everyone left with something new. Since I stopped spending, I created a spent money fund. When I’d see something I might have otherwise bought, I put the “spent” money in the box. It was the fastest-growing piggybank ever.
I began painting again, frim-framed old purses and slippers, read more books, cooked better dinners, and spent more time relaxing. I sought more stillness — and found it.
The year ended without fanfare. No awards. Nobody asked if I made it. Henry was gallant. He opened a bottle of champagne, poured us each a glass and toasted, “Here’s to you, sweetheart. Congratulations for radically reducing time spent shopping and for hardly buying anything this year. Brava!”
I flashed on the three sweaters, two pairs of jeans, twelve panties, two bras, some socks, and the brown purse (bought while trapped in the Dallas airport) that had found their way into my closet. His accolades felt great and I took them. But the real success was beyond trophies or praise: I experienced practical changes in my life-style and those changes felt so good that I just kept on not spending. It’s been two years now and I buy what I need, when I’m sure it’s something I really need.
This Christmas, our son David came for a visit. “Let’s go shopping!” I shouted gleefully. “The stores have opened their treasure chests and everything’s on half price. What do you need?”
“I need warm gloves.” David was amused and quickly added, “I thought you hated shopping.”
An unexpected tsunami of enthusiasm engulfed me. I couldn’t explain it but I couldn’t wait to get to the stores. I longed for the fun of shopping, longed to get into the rhythm of gawking at stuff and touching everything I saw. I tingled with excitement.
“Come on,” I coaxed. “Let’s go shopping just for fun. Let’s people-watch. Let’s follow our ancient instincts and go hunting…for bargains.” Then, bewildered by the gravitational pull to shop, and wondering if David really did need warm gloves, I took a few breaths and murmured, “The question is…to shop or not to shop.”
“No,” David responded, “The question is…to buy or not to buy.”
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