How a Short Shopping Ban Helped Me Think Long-Term

How a 30-Day Shopping Ban Helped Me Figure Out What I Want Next in Life

In my upcoming book, The Year of Less, you’re going to read a lot of stories I’ve never shared before. Stories of how and why I got into the habit of using the wrong things to “fix” my problems. Buying stuff. Eating junk food. Drinking and using drugs. I’ve used it all as coping mechanisms and numbed myself with binges.

Over the years, I’ve changed many of these habits, but the urges still take over from time to time. I’ll be sad and want to feel better, so then I do or pay for something that might help. It tends to work for a few minutes or hours, but it never lasts. And the same was always true of binge eating or getting blackout drunk.

Fortunately, I have some experience with hitting pause on my consumption tendencies and asking myself what I really want. I needed to do that this summer. After losing the girls, I started spending impulsively again and I knew that wasn’t a path I wanted to stay on. I needed to sit with my pain and figure out what was next.

So, I decided to do a 30-day shopping ban.

It wasn’t entirely “successful”, if we look at the list of what I purchased that month. There were a few things I really needed: a travel-size toothpaste + a stick of deodorant when I was in Colorado because I forgot mine at home, and a full tube of toothpaste when I later ran out of that at home too.

And then there were the things that potentially could have waited but I bought because I wanted to finish projects I had started: some fabric to repair an old blanket, and the supplies to (finally, finally, finally) make a top for my DIY standup desk. (After living without a desk all year, it feels so good to have one!)

But the measure of whether or not a shopping ban is successful doesn’t actually have anything to do with whether or not you bought stuff during that time. It’s not about spending no money. It’s about learning how to only spend money on the things that add value to your life. Knowing that, this short ban was a success.

During those 30 days, I had a list of other tasks I wanted to complete, including: decluttering and purging some physical objects in my home, as well as decluttering my digital life. Those were also successful. But the two most important tasks on my list were to do some values + goal-setting exercises.

When I wrote that, I actually had no idea which ones I was going to do. I have a one-page worksheet I created myself, but also assumed I could Google it and find some other exercises. It didn’t exactly work out like that. Instead, a few exercises seemed to magically fall into my lap – and I have my friend Brooke to thank for that.

In this season’s finale of Budgets and Cents, Carrie and I talked at length about why knowing your why is so important. To sum it up: when you have a why, it’s a lot easier to make decisions on a daily basis. Everything from how you spend your time to how you spend your money is a lot more clear when you have a purpose.

I didn’t have a purpose, after the girls died – or at least, that’s how it felt. My purpose for the last two years has been to take care of them whenever my dad was away for work (and he’s gone for half the year). Taking care of them was a huge part of my life, and it became an even bigger job in their senior years when they needed a little more love and attention.

After Molly died, my purpose became taking care of Lexie. I spent literally every minute of her final nine days with us at her side. She came with me everywhere I went. Walks, drives, stores, appointments, etc. We spent countless hours laying on a blanket in the backyard together. And then I woke up one morning and she was just gone and I didn’t know what to do next.

Without the girls, I have truly felt lost. I had been looking ahead and figuring out how I would continue to care for them while living in Squamish. That was a huge factor in whether or not I could even move here. So, the whole year was mapped out. I knew what the plans were, and I was planning the rest of my life around those plans. And then they were gone and all the plans were gone and I didn’t know what to do.

That’s when I listened to the episodes on Brooke’s podcast about how to figure out your “why”. I realized I needed to figure out what my new purpose was. If I wasn’t taking care of the dogs, what was I supposed to do? What did I love and value most? What did I want next? Why was I here? And what did I want to leave behind one day?

I’m going to dedicate an entire blog post to some of these answers when I’m ready, but if you want to look into it further yourself, here are some of the resources that have helped me:

It’s still hard for me to write about my new why because I can’t do it without feeling some amount of guilt. I know that’s a normal part of grief: feeling guilty about moving forward without your loved ones who are gone. I would give up everything to have more time with the girls, and I wish all the plans to spend more of this year with them could have been fulfilled. In accepting that can’t happen, I’ve started to make some new plans for myself.

One of those plans is to save up and go to the UK for 4-8 weeks next year. It’s been at the top of my travel list for as long as I can remember, and I’ve made every excuse not to go. Some of those excuses were true: I spent the majority of my 20s in debt and probably could’ve have afforded it. But since being debt-free, I’ve spent a lot of money on a lot of short trips. Next year, I would rather spend that money on one big one.

With this part of my why in place, it’s a lot easier to make decisions about how to spend my money. I don’t want to waste a penny of what I earn. I want to save up an amount that will afford me the trip I’ve always dreamed of. Just thinking about it feels good. And it feels really good to have something to work towards + look forward to.

I’m so glad I can finally share some of this with you! I’ve had writer’s block for a couple weeks because I knew I was going to cry while talking about the girls (and I did). So, thank you for continuing to come back here and holding space for some of my sadness and just being part of this journey with me. I truly appreciate it.

And I’m grateful that something like a 30-day shopping ban could help me get excited about life again. Like I said in an earlier post, the overall action required of a shopping ban is to simply hit pause and check in with yourself. It’s a timeout from consuming so you can figure out what you actually want in your life. That’s it.

I want to see more of the world. I can’t do it today, but I can save for it and do it soon.

“Don’t sacrifice what you want most for what you want now.” – via No Sidebar’s Instagram

What do you want most

PS – For September’s slow living experiment, I’m doing a 30-day nature challenge where I’m spending at least 30 minutes outside every day and writing about it on Instagram.

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  • I completed Brooke’s eulogy exercise and it was quite a cathartic experience. I wrote about it on the blog and cried basically the whole time. I haven’t managed to go the next step and figure out how to make my Why a reality. I suspect I’ve been putting it off because it’s so freaking scary. Thank you for sharing your struggle and progress, Cait. I know I’m not the only reader who appreciates it.

    • Oh gosh, I still haven’t finished that exercise… I’ve written bullet points but nothing further because I know I will be right there with you: crying the whole time!

  • “But the measure of whether or not a shopping ban is successful doesn’t actually have anything to do with whether or not you bought stuff during that time. It’s not about spending no money. It’s about learning how to only spend money on the things that add value to your life.” This is so true Cait and I see it as a success because you were consciously buying things you required. The desk is something you wanted for a long time and I’m sure your back will be happy with you in the long run :). Also, I think thinking otherwise plays into the ‘all or nothing’ mindset and places a lot of strain on us to either do it perfectly or feel like we fail. It’s one I am well aware I can fall into the trap of.

    I love the question of knowing your why. It’s a hard one to answer at times – is it truly your ‘why’ or what you think your ‘why’ should be. I can’t wait to dive into the resources. The thing is I can’t figure out what tops the list of what I want most because there are a few ideas swirling around my head. Some are more long term… I was listening to a podcast by Micheal Gervais and he had some good points about setting out a long term vision for ourselves.

    Grief can bring up such a barrage of emotions – some that you will go through time and time again. So go gently with yourself.

    It’s great you have a plan to work towards next year and you will be heading over to my side of the pond (well the country next store :)). Looking forward to hearing more about it.

    • Your second paragraph reminded me of something I heard once and will never forget: your values are not your aspirations. Don’t confuse the two. When thinking of your values (and your why) think of the people and things that ACTUALLY matter to you.

      Also, you better believe I’ll be flying to Ireland while I’m over there!

  • I’m struggling with finding my why right now. After 5 years in the corporate world, I’ve yet to discover a place where I like to go every morning. I’m currently seeking help with a counsellor for this and I have a feeling this is going to help me a lot. You inspire me so much on your blog and instagram. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.

    • So wonderful to hear you’re working with a counsellor, Emilie! I’ll just be over here sending you best wishes for your journey together. :)

  • I really want a house (or more specifically, the stability of not renting and being able to actually feel like somewhere is a home) and we are so close, but it is scary (money, legal stuff, so many what ifs etc.) that I have definitely been shying away and part of that is notable in frittering and small purchases. So a 30 day shopping ban is definitely on the cards.

    If you find yourself near Brighton, I’d love to meet up. London is only a short train ride away. :)

    • Yeah, lets do a reader meet up in Brighton. I’m in Kent, an hour away and Brighton would definitely be worth a visit when you are over this way.

      • Yay! Also, depending on when you find yourself in Brighton, I would love to take you on one of my favourite walks in the Sussex countryside. :) It has ponies and many, many sheeps.

  • I’m not sure what lead me to your blog the past few days, but I’ve read quite a bit in that short time. I really enjoy your perspective. I will have to check out these resources… I have no idea what I want, let alone “most”. I feel like a ghost of a person most of the time, just skimming surfaces. Not really connected to anyone or anything though I own a home, have a job, family and pets. Thank you for all you do here.

    • I just want to let you know that you’re not alone in those thoughts, Kate. It’s so easy for us to go through the motions of life and start feeling disconnected from it all. But it’s ok to start asking yourself these questions. :)

  • I know you still hurt from losing Molly and Lexie, but I also know from experience that when time passes the good, fun memories flood in and kind of wash away the sting of the loss.

    I’m looking forward to your reflections of your 30-day nature challenge. Nature is a big reason why I exercise outside nowadays. (Plus it’s cheap; let’s be practical.) Even on a bad day, I ALWAYS feel better after I’ve been outside.

  • There’s something so freeing about sharing big goals, and it’s exciting you’re coming to the UK! Come up and see Newcastle and Northumberland, there’s some lovely hikes you can take up north :)

  • Cait, thank you for continuing to share your struggles, it really does help to know I’m not the only one out there. And if you come to Edinburgh next year on your UK trip (and you really must!) then look me up, I’m buying you a drink girl, even if its a non alcoholic one in the capital of Whiskey, for helping me on my path to being debt free, embracing the simple and loving my life. See you next year :)

    • Haha! Yes, I had wondered if I might be the only sober traveller over there. ;) All teasing aside, that would be lovely, Vivienne! And trust me, it’s on the list.

  • Cait, another wonderful piece and I so thank you for being so open and honest. This piece really hit home. Many years ago, I lost my 2 cats for many years they needed a lot of medical care and medicines and fluid treatments. I gladly did all of this for them because they were my world. When the last one passed in Dec, 2005 I remember standing in my living room, looking around and wondering what was my purpose. THey were my purpose and I was wildly lost. I totally get your feelings and am sorry for this pain. For me, I waited a grand total of 6 weeks and adopted 2 new kitties, sisters, Faith and Virginia. I did some soul searching also, made some changes and felt at peace but I will tell you, these 2 ladies also need medical care at the age of 12 and I again, am gladly giving them all they need. I know my purpose and my purpose on a day to day basis is them and i am really proud of that. No regrets, lots of pain but so much joy that I know they are my focus. I also have a job I adore and lots of good friends and family but on a day to day basis FAith and Virginia fill my heart. Peace, Nancy

    • Your story made me smile, Nancy. Thank you so much for sharing it here! In part of my soul-searching this month, I did tell my friend Carrie that one of my “whys” is to make enough money one day that I can afford to adopt the dogs who have medical issues. Ones who need extra medical care or even surgery. I want to be able to give them a home and pay for this without having to worry about money. So, while I’m not there yet… that’s one of the new goals. :)

  • Love that you used a photo of Durdle Door on the Jurassic coast in Dorset where I live. I hope you get to visit it, as it really is that beautiful… when it’s not raining ;-)
    What I want now is for the renovations to our tired bungalow to be finished so I can take time to enjoy where I live, Spending more time with my boys outdoors and away from electronic devices xx

  • As ever you are very thought provoking. Glad to hear your journey to why is progressing. And delighted to hear you are coming to the UK! If you make it to Edinburgh, Scotland I’d love to show you my neck of the woods!

    • I would love that, Amanda! Let’s please stay in touch as I’m getting closer to it. Plan is to leave here at the end of April/early May. :)

  • I’m confused about why you need to come up with some grand, new purpose. Shelters are full of homeless dogs who would LOVE nothing more than to be adopted by you and loved by you, and in return, they’ll love you unconditionally forever. Go get more dogs! Become a dog guardian. And save a life or two while you’re at it! A win for everyone!

    • I know grief looks different for everyone, but losing both dogs nine days apart was really traumatic and I want some time to heal. I don’t want to get another dog in the hopes it might replace Molly or Lexie. I did meet a dog in the summer and thought about taking her home, but she reminded me so much of Lexie that I spent the next 24 hours in tears, heartbroken all over again. I have my eye on a few adoption/rescue sites, and have donated $$$ to help with one old girl’s surgeries. I will definitely adopt a dog when the time is right. And then another dog, and another dog, and another dog… They will always be part of my life.

  • Shopping ban helped me to understand my priorities,like new mattress, before budget and shopping ban I always thought to buy a new one but then I was faschinated from other stuff and then no money so with a budget to respect I started to save and put my healt first (mattress can be considered an investment on healt), now my back is really happy:D

    • My first shopping ban came with the same reward, Giulia! My other bed was 13 years old and desperately needed to be replaced. Just three months into the shopping ban, I was finally able to afford a new one! Enjoy :)

  • London based here, will happily give you ideas of places to go! Also the permanent collections of most museums are free (but would like donations from travellers) and there’s so much to see.

  • I like this post. “What is my WHY”. Is KNOW what is my WHY, but I tend to “forget it” from time to time. My “what I want” is to stop overeating and lose weight. My “WHY” is to be healthy and to live a long life to see my kids grow up and see my grandchildren. It’s to have a happy long life with my husband. My dad died of a heart attack in his forties. I don’t want to end up like him. It’s a pretty powerfull WHY, yet I side track very often… Thanks for the reminder!

  • This really struck a chord with me. My partner of 7 years just recently broke off our engagement, and it’s left me feeling purposeless. My purpose had been preparing for marriage, and now I have to find a new place to live (we live together) and split all our belongings (and pets). It has me rethinking everything, and in a place of financial instability which has made me feel really ashamed. There’s so much to sift through, and it makes it hard to continue to blog/make videos/post to Instagram. Thanks for always sharing your struggles & words of wisdom. It helps to know we’re all in this together.

  • Cait, I was reading your post on my bus ride home from work tonight. Tears were sliding down my face so I had to put it away and finish it when I got home. I lost both my elderly cats last year and your story is so similar to mine. I had spent so much time and effort caring for them as they aged that without them, I was lost. I considered quitting my job to travel. Instead, I took a one week trip to Mexico with friends and then another two week trip to Costa Rica to learn to surf. Happpily, when I got home (8 months after I lost the last guy) I knew that it was time to adopt again. I got a friendly orange tabby and a very shy grey cat who has spent most of his life at the shelter because he will not allow people to touch him. They are both amazing and exactly what I needed but I still miss my old guys everyday. Thanks for your story and your thoughts on finding your why. I am going to work on discovering my why so maybe next time, I won’t feel so lost. Travel always provides me with the time, space and rest I need to make changes in my life.

  • This is an interesting post for me because my “why” is always animals for the most part. Animals and building a slower, healthy, more-connected and not-entirely-work life (which is currently animal welfare) that incorporates growth. But you know, mostly animals. I find it a real challenge to focus my actions on that balance — saving for a home, making the time to connect, etc. I almost involuntarily caretake my own pets and focus on work. I try to focus on impact at work and trying to see the big picture and not get mired down by details — but that’s a work in progress. So I do need to focus my resources more on the stuff I don’t naturally focus on.

    I’ve lost 4 cats over the last 5 or so years (3 long term illnesses, 1 acute trauma) plus two grandparents. Loss seriously sucks. I’m so sorry.