What It’s Like to Shop After Not Shopping for Two Years

Originally published on April 9, 2018.

In the first quarter of this year, I did 85 interviews about The Year of Less. By the end of April, that number will have crossed the 100-mark. More than 100 interviews in four months about one book. First, let that sink in for a minute. Take a deep breath and imagine talking to more than 100 people (most of them strangers) about your book and your personal life. How do you think that would feel? Strange, right?

Now, imagine if you were asked the same handful of questions in the majority of those interviews. It’s actually not surprising that it happens! People naturally want to know a few things: What was the hardest part of not shopping for a year? (Changing habits.) What did your family/friends think? (Most people didn’t care.) Did you regret getting rid of anything? (Nope.) And I’ve shared all of that stuff here with you before.

But there’s one question that keeps coming up that I don’t think I’ve written about. It’s asked in a few different ways, but essentially comes back to this: What is it like to shop now, after not shopping for two years?

I almost always start by saying that I hate it. I hate shopping. I don’t like any part of it, even when it’s for something I need. The only thing I like about buying stuff I need is how it feels to actually start using that thing once it’s in my possession. But I don’t like having to physically make the purchase. And that’s not because I hate handing over my money (I don’t mind spending money). It’s because I simply don’t find any joy in shopping.

Before going further, let’s break this down a little and discuss what my definition of “shopping” is. And this is actually fun for me to write about finally, because I’ve also found myself saying another thing over and over again in interviews, which is that I wish I had called the shopping ban something else. If I could rebrand it, I would probably call it a “browsing ban,” because that more accurately describes what it was. The goal of the shopping ban wasn’t to buy nothing and spend no money for a year. It was to stop mindlessly buying things I didn’t actually need and become a more mindful consumer. In order to do that, I had to stop browsing.

If you choose to browse, you will almost always find something to buy.

Browsing, as an activity, can be done in person or online. It’s easy to describe why I hate in-person browsing so much now: it is physically exhausting. When I enter shopping malls and/or most stores, my senses feel overwhelmed. There are too many lights, too many people, too many smells, and too many sales signs and promotions. It’s simply too much. (Case in point: I nearly had a panic attack at the Toronto Eaton Centre, while trying to find a shirt to wear on TV.) And if I have to spend time trying things on or testing things out, I’m usually ready for a nap after. So, we’re all clear on why I genuinely really dislike browsing in stores now, right?

The feelings I have around online browsing are a little trickier to describe, only because it can sometimes be more difficult to notice that’s what you’re doing. Choosing to not browse stores in person is easy. You literally just don’t go inside. But we are connected to tools at almost all hours of the day that make it so online browsing is always at our fingertips; that makes it a little more difficult to walk away.

I’ll take one step backward and share what online browsing looked like for me before the shopping ban (which began in July 2014). It would usually result from hearing about a book, product, or brand that piqued my interest. From there, I would either click through the links placed in articles I was already reading or do a Google search, then find myself scrolling through a website for the next 10-20 minutes. This almost always resulted in making a purchase (at least, with books). And if I didn’t buy something right away, I often bookmarked it and looked at it a few more times, before finally entering my payment information and clicking “submit order”.

I want to riff off that last sentence and say this is one of the reasons I don’t save bookmarks anymore and it’s also why I don’t use Pinterest: because the more times we look at a product/offer, the more times we think about buying it. And the more we see/hear about something, the more we believe we either really need it or might get value from it, and then we will ultimately make the purchase. (Likewise, the less often we see/hear about something, the less likely it is we will ever think about buying it!) So, no to online bookmarks, too!

Now, I avoid visiting online stores unless I actually need something (and we can talk about what that looks like). I also avoid reading articles that I know are filled with lists (and links) of things I could/should consider buying. Product reviews? No, thanks! Makeup tutorials? Never. Haul videos? I wish these didn’t exist. I won’t even look at lists of which books I should read in a season anymore (but that’s mostly because I have enough at home + more on hold at the library). And that’s not to say any of these things are bad! Every product has a purpose. But if you spend your time learning about the purpose of each object, it’s easier to talk yourself into buying anything.

Unfortunately, even though I avoid visiting online stores, I still see ads all over the internet. The trick is to look past them, and that’s also easy (after lots of practice). I think the one thing that still “gets me” is seeing friends share pictures of the books they read/loved on social media. I always add those to my “want to read” list. But I don’t feel bad about that. As a writer, you should read—A LOT—especially in the same genre you want to write books in. What I have changed is my habit of buying books the minute I hear about them. That doesn’t happen anymore. I only buy a book when I know I’m going to read it right away, and only if my library doesn’t have it. (I’m also really good at decluttering my “want to read” list, which is a lot cheaper when it’s just a title written in a notebook vs. an actual book that I paid money only to let it collect dust on my shelf.)

So, those are some of my general thoughts on what shopping looks/feels like now, nearly four years after I started this journey to become a more mindful consumer. I’ve realized “shopping” could be swapped for the word “browsing,” and removed that from my list of hobbies. I don’t go into physical stores, unless I absolutely have to buy something. And I only visit online stores for the same reason. It’s never to browse. It’s always to buy a specific item. If I could sum up what the shopping ban did for my actual shopping habits, I would say that’s it: it taught me how to take the emotion out of it, so shopping is strictly a transaction now (as it should be).

The reason I added “as it should be” is because I want to make sure that when we talk about shopping bans, we acknowledge that we still have to buy things sometimes. And that’s ok! We don’t need to add more shame around buying stuff or spending money (there’s enough of that elsewhere in the world—and holy moly has there been a lot of it during this press tour). So, buy your stuff! I don’t care! I want to be really, truly, and crystal clear on this: buying stuff isn’t bad and spending money isn’t bad! So you are allowed to buy stuff and spend your money on whatever you want. I have just learned that it feels so much better to only buy stuff when you’re actually going to use it. Because the value of an object comes out when we actually use it—not simply because we own it. And that is how I shop now.

Since the shopping ban ended in July 2016, I have bought lots of stuff. Are you shocked!? Don’t be. That’s life! I bought some camping gear, a couple backpacks, snowshoes and poles. When I moved, I bought a new couch and rug for my living room (but I’m still living without a coffee table lol). I also bought a coat rack, and then got all the parts and put together an awesome DIY standup desk. I’ve bought lots of books! And I’ve even bought a few candles, along with an essential oil diffuser. The difference between the way I used to shop and the way I shopped for these things is that now I wait until I have genuinely felt the need for it. (And I’m a firm believer that something you want is also a need, if it fits in your budget.) So I have learned to live without things—and then when I’m done “living without it,” I buy it. No questions asked. No shame. I just buy it and start using it.

What does “living without it” look like? Well, sometimes it means living without a couch for three months or a desk for six months, while figuring out what you really need and want. Other times, it means living in a new home for four months, and eventually seeing that it’s not setup to give you easy access to a front closet, but a coat rack would help you get your wet rain jacket off the floor. And I just realized I haven’t said anything about clothing. In the past year, I have bought exactly five pieces of it—and only two were for regular daily life (a sweater + new hiking shoes). The other three were for a wedding + something to wear for TV interviews/book tour stuff. So, to this end, I don’t stockpile or buy multiples of anything. I simply buy what I need, when I need it.

The beautiful thing about the way I shop now is that I genuinely appreciate all of the things I buy. It was really easy for me to write that list of things I’ve purchased since the shopping ban ended, because I can look around my home and see everything—and that’s because I use them regularly, and am grateful for what they do for me/help me do. Old me didn’t appreciate most of the things I bought, because I did so for all the wrong reasons. The most common mistake was that I used to buy things for a more aspirational version of myself, but then never used them because the real me didn’t want to. In waiting to feel the need for an object, I know it’s something worth buying—and when I have the money, the real me buys it and uses it. There are no justifications and no shame. I just buy it and use it. Transaction complete. :)