Don't Buy It
We'll have to curb the urge to splurge, but we can afford a break.
By Judith Levine
Sunday, November 23, 2008; B01
'Tis the season to be frugal. Two-thirds of American consumers tell pollsters they're cutting way back on their holiday spending. Nearly six in 10 Americans told Pew Research in October that their finances are fair or poor. Jobs are disappearing, personal bankruptcies are proliferating, and if you think your gigantic credit card balance is a problem, wait till you see the next crisis: no new credit at all!
It all gives new meaning to the term Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, when hyperactive shopping is supposed to bump retailers' bottom lines into the positive column. And if next Friday is the bummer forecasters are predicting, it will be just another glum day in a long procession of economically and emotionally black Fridays -- and Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays -- to come. Recessions are tough every day. But they feel toughest during the holidays, when generosity and overindulgence are the words of the hour.
Adversity will not make us nicer, more spiritual beings. We are not about to join hands around the globe and start singing "O Come All Ye Faithful" as we watch the Dow plummet. In fact, people are more likely to fight, drink to excess or mug their neighbors when money is tight.
Scarcity depresses us, especially when we don't have that easy (if temporary) pick-me-up of picking up a little something at the shop around the corner. When I read that half of Pew's respondents agreed that "People should learn to live with less," I could hear their voices: righteous or resigned.
Relax. People can learn to live with less -- happily. I know from experience. A few years ago my partner, Paul, and I spent a whole year not shopping. We bought nothing but necessities: basic groceries, Internet access, insulin for our diabetic cat. We forwent the rest: clothes, books, CDs, movies, restaurant meals.
When we described our project to friends, among their mixed reactions (terror, amusement, incredulity) was thanks. Many communicated an attitude the Germans should have a word for, meaning "admiration for an enterprise you are glad someone else is pursuing so you don't have to." And you don't. The good news is, a little moderation can bring a lot of cheer.
The Year Without Shopping occurred to me, like so many rash ideas, at Christmastime. Although I'm a secular Jew, I'd scattered $1,001 on gifts and other holiday odds and ends. As my credit line grew smaller and my shopping bags heavier, I envisioned their contents, along with those of a whole nation, dismissed, disliked and discarded -- and moldering in landfills forever. Then as now, more than two-thirds of the gross domestic product came from consumer spending. There was, and still is, essentially one measure of economic health: growth. But all that growth is outgrowing our finite planet. Ask any economist left or right about this, and he'll write off resource depletion as an "externality," something to worry about later.
I decided to investigate the connection between the personal activity of shopping and the global problem of overconsumption. And I figured that the best way to understand the draw of the marketplace would be to quit it altogether, then see how that felt -- like contemplating a failed marriage from the distance of post-divorce single life. I knew that my no-shopping budget would be on Mother Earth's side. Which side would the macroeconomy eventually be on? Today it's clearer than ever that we'll have to worry about that sooner rather than later.
Paul, a non-shopper, was game with my plan. I got a book contract, and the rest is . . . more complicated than anticipated.
Almost immediately, we learned that both necessity and desire are defined by where, when and among whom we live. A Vietnamese farmer needs a quart of fuel per month to feed his family; a Cleveland commuter may burn 20 gallons of gas in the same time.
The distinction is also personal. If I was going to pay for haircuts, what about hair gel? Toilet paper yes, but Kleenex? Paul and I deemed organic coffee a must-have. But we disagreed on wine. "I'm Italian," he pleaded. "Wine is like milk to me." I raised an eyebrow. He upped the argument: "It's like water!"
We learned that people buy to keep up with the Joneses, although it's not just the Joneses anymore. As the economist Robert H. Frank notes, the media's 24/7 surveillance of the absurdly wealthy entices us to keep up with the Zeta-Joneses and the Gateses. Frank calls this escalation of desire "luxury fever." And the delusion that we can all live like Croesus is partly to blame for the mess we're in today.
Still, shopping is not just something "they" make us do. It provides undeniable pleasure -- and more.
During our cold-turkey year, I was sometimes bored. The British psychotherapist Adam Phillips calls boredom the restless state of waiting to desire. Consumption gives us myriad names for inchoate desire -- and ready objects to allay it. Take away shopping, and you're left with the restlessness.
When we couldn't go out for a beer or a meal with friends, Paul and I felt lonely. When others talked about the latest movies, we sat dumb. I felt out of it. No longer the plugged-in cultural maven, I wasn't myself. In a consumer society, much of our social, cultural and political life -- and even our identities -- is cobbled together from the things and experiences we purchase.
We had to get out of the apartment. So we walked to free concerts and the Brooklyn Public Library. We took in museums on free nights. We trawled the public sphere with gratitude and glee -- but also with dismay, because the public sphere is in sorry shape.
We realized that there are only so many dollars, and they can either go to private consumption -- President Bush's concept of an "ownership society" -- or be invested, through taxes, in the public good. The latter can't just be entered as a personal-finance debit. We should see it as an asset, in the form of highways or health clinics, yes, but also in the feeling that we're in this together, a.k.a. community.
Not shopping connected Paul and me with community in concrete ways. We devoted more time to activism and more money to favorite causes. Meanwhile, I paid off an $8,000 credit card debt without really trying and haven't run it up again. I still shop less than I did. And on more or less the same income, I give away much more money than I used to.
The shopping hiatus reminded me how sweet it is to take home the perfect pair of trousers or sit in a café watching the world. Unless you're a monk, material abstinence does not magnify the spirit. Still, compared with either consumption or abstention, the best soul-grower is social connection.
Which brings me back to the holidays.
By the time December of our non-shopping year rolled around, Paul's and my non-consumer confidence was strong. We knew we could walk away from the seasonal extras -- red-velvet ribbon, champagne flutes, figgy pudding (whatever that is) -- like marathon front-runners easing through a 5K race. But what about gifts? What about parties? Were we going to impose our skinflintery on our loved ones? Did we have to beg off fireside get-togethers just to avoid bringing a box of chocolates?
We did not, and truth be told, we did not want to. We relish lighting up the dark days with giving. But how could we give without getting and spending? How could we celebrate without adding to the global litter?
I got a clue from the past. The midwinter holidays originate in pagan rites to seduce the sun back from the underworld. Doing that requires excess -- gorging, reveling and giving.
In this spirit, Paul and I throw an annual Hanukkah Latke Bash, the no-shopping year not excepted. We load the table with dozens of potato pancakes plus vats of sour cream and homemade applesauce and plates of smoked fish. Our guests arrive with libations, load their plates and eat until a stupor descends upon the room. Our feast is cheap -- basically the food of the shtetl. And all that's left in the end is (compostable) bones.
"You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough," wrote Blake. Now think celebration, not shopping. Because in spite -- no, because -- of the economic gloom, it is our duty, and can be our pleasure, to make the season as festive today as in the fattest times.
Judith Levine is the author of "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping."
Don't Buy It