What Are You Really Buying?

What Are You Really Buying?

This is a guest post from my friend Sarah. After reading the original post on her blog, I asked if she’d be willing to write a longer version and share more of her story with us. I’m grateful she agreed. :)


I have always wanted to do a shopping ban. Well, maybe not always, but for a long time. I first came across the idea on Cait’s blog several years ago, and I was immediately intrigued. I was already an avid reader of several minimalist blogs. I had pared down my closet and shed excess belongings, and as a college student at the time, I couldn’t fit much in my dorm room even if I’d wanted to. A shopping ban, however, felt like the next level. Intimidated by that kind of focus and intensity, I watched – or more accurately, read – from the sidelines as Cait completed six months, then a year, then two years of the shopping ban. My trepidation was, in large part, due to my lack of a clear reason to participate.

Finding My Why

Fast-forward three years, and today I’m ten weeks into my shopping ban.

I finally did it because, as you may have guessed, I had a good reason. I had my why. My partner and I have decided to quit our jobs this autumn to travel the world like we have always wanted to do. With our late-November departure date looming, I’ve been working hard to save as much as possible, but I still wasn’t meeting my savings goals. Each month, I’d check my bank account and feel guilty and disappointed, setting aside some money – fifty percent of my savings – but not as much as I wanted. Enter the shopping ban.

As a longtime minimalist and new zero-waster, I hadn’t thought that I was buying very much. I hate shopping for clothing, I dislike buying and owning tchotchkes, and I’ve curbed my taste for home decor. A careful review of my spending, however, revealed significantly more shopping than I’d anticipated. Takeaway coffees, restaurant meals, almost-daily kombucha purchases, and the occasional book or miscellaneous item littered my bank statement. I had bought vegan activist stickers, several plants, a makeup brush, and string lights. There were a few too many expensive cocktails and vegan pastries.

Writing all this out, I realize that there is nothing inherently bad about buying any of these things. I enjoy supporting vegan and local businesses, I love keeping plants, and reading is important to me. The key, though, is for my spending to reflect my priorities, and according to my checking account, these purchases ranked higher than saving for travel.

After just one month into the shopping ban, I felt stronger, like I’d been flexing muscles I hadn’t used in a long time. I felt more self-sufficient. I have continued to grow, and as I passed the two-month mark, I felt sharper and more focused. I was not tempted anymore by the storefronts and cafes in the bustling neighborhood where I live and work. My beautiful late-summer lunchtime walks were no longer marred by my former hesitations, as I was no longer a slave to window shopping. Down with capitalism; I have been liberated!

I am only half-joking. There is an undeniable freedom in abstaining from consumption, if you’re someone who has the privilege and the luxury of consuming freely. The abstention makes me more creative, more resourceful. I feel, surprisingly, more punk. Maybe that’s because punk has always been about rejecting the establishment, and that feels very much like what I’m doing in refusing to participate in the capitalist consumer game.

What Am I Really Buying?

I felt like a (punk) rock star until recently, when I suddenly wanted to participate in that consumption cycle very, very badly. After watching the film Okja, which explores the cruelty of a fictional factory farm, I reignited my activist fire for animal rights. I dove deep into vegan social media and was quickly met with temptation. A t-shirt made by one of my favorite vegan brands caught my eye, and I wanted it.

Donations and products made by colleagues are on the approved shopping list, so technically, I reasoned, this shirt could fit under that category. I thought about it all evening. I asked my partner whether he thought buying the shirt would be breaking the rules. I even tweeted the question out, in hopes that someone (read: Cait) would give me permission to buy it. (She didn’t, but she did send me a lovely response.) I decided against it, only to change my mind earlier today. I even added the shirt to my cart, though I felt terribly guilty. Then, while on my run this evening, a realization struck me like a lightning bolt.

The shirt is just a symbolic object, a stand-in for what I actually want. And what I really desire is to engage in animal rights activism. I felt so strongly about a piece of clothing, uncharacteristic for me, because of what the clothing represents. The decision became simple. I’m not going to break my shopping ban when what I really want is intangible. Instead, I’m going straight to the source of my obsession: spreading the vegan message.

Though I’m a tad embarrassed that I was so easily tempted, I learned an important lesson: oftentimes what we’re buying isn’t actually what we’re buying at all. We buy material things in an attempt to satisfy our desires for greater, less tangible pursuits. There might be many reasons we do this, but one is the most important, and that is fear. We fear the thing we want; we find it to be so big, or our own hunger for it so intimidating, that we choose surrogate objects because they’re more attainable. Safer. These proxies will never be enough, however, and the resulting dissatisfaction may even sharpen our need rather than dull it. I’m scared to engage in vegan activism, not least because my veganism remains, among my friends and peers, my least popular conviction. But I want it, and so I am not going to buy my way into complacency. I am going to do it.

So, the next time you buy something that isn’t essential, ask yourself: why am I buying this? Because I want it? Or because I want something else, something bigger, something thrillingly terrifying? If your answer is the latter, I’ll leave you with these parting words from writer Jack Cheng:

“If it excites you and scares the crap out of you at the same time, it probably means you should do it.”


Sarah is the blogger behind The Feminist Vegan, where she writes about feminism, veganism, and everything in between. She’s quitting her day job and traveling around the world starting in November 2017.

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  • This is beautifully written! I recently bought a Ninja Blender on sale for $80, normally $140, back in July. I told myself I’d use it to eat more fruits and veggies by having a smoothie everyday. I’ve used it once, which is embarrassing to admit, but it’s the truth.

    What I really want is to be healthier, which I’m not going to get from the blender, I’m going to get that through my choices I make at the grocery store and what I choose to consume. I’ll be returning the blender this weekend. This article is moving and also a slap in the face for me – just what I needed! :)

    Best & Love,
    Felicia

  • Sarah, it’s good to know that other people being minimalists for years – I’m too :) – have similar observations: we don’t have weird things at home, we think we don’t buy much, but when we look at our monthly spendings… oops! I also buy more than I think, so from time to time I go back to tracking my spendings. We have to review our lifestyles and try to get better at what’s important for us.
    Thank you for the question that I’ll use when considering my future wants, needs, and purchases :)

  • I have done this often, but I think consuming things in an attempt to satisfy desires for less tangible pursuits doesn’t just apply to material things. I devour books, blogs, podcasts, etc that talk about simple living, mindfulness and finding purpose in the desperate hope that if I can just soak up enough information that I, too, will one day be a a mindful minimalist who has rearranged my life and figured it all out so I can spend my days being truly happy. I never spend a penny, but am nevertheless using resources to consume “things” that aren’t actually going to get me where I want to be.

  • This really clicked with me. I spend too money on a sundress because I want to be the girl that wears beautiful sundresses at brunch or the farmers market…but I’m not that girl so it sits in my closet. I buy cookbooks because I think it will make me cook and I like seeing them on the shelf. Shopping for a person that is not the true version of yourself is so easy but its not the right way to face goals. Something I will try to think of more as I consider a full-on shopping ban.

  • This resonates so much! I recently nearly bought a gorgeous blue topaz ring for $130…even though that was not budgeted and was not needed. I’m not on a shopping ban currently, per se, though I definitely don’t buy much that isn’t necessary. So the strong desire with which I wanted the ring was a surprise and very hard to resist. I even went so far as to put it into the online cart one day, and posted on Facebook that I thought the FB ads for that website were mocking me and pushing me to buy, and finally I told my partner about this strange pull for the ring. His response about what was on his mind for jewelry for me made my heart flutter, and also made me realize what I wanted from that ring wasn’t the ring (though it IS gorgeous), it was that I wanted a symbol of my relationship on my hand. I want to feel claimed and cherished in that way. So I didn’t buy the ring and it feels good.