Not Buying It

‘It’s only by saying no that you can concentrate on the things that are really important.’ – Steve Jobs

The trouble with slow is that there is time to think, and consider the state of one’s life.  This summer was quieter on the work-front than the previous months, a much welcome break.  While working fewer hours, I found myself looking back on the year.

I couldn’t really remember whole months that slipped by in a blur of drop-offs, meetings, work travel, swim practice, play dates, trips to Target, and a million other things.  At the same time I realized I had been operating on auto-pilot in so many ways, including spending.

In looking back at our budget, I saw much that echoed this.  There were so many purchases, some I couldn’t remember what they were for.  I didn’t like the idea of all this buying on auto-pilot, most of it stuff we didn’t really need, and didn’t really value. Toys we bought were lost and forgotten under the couch.  New shirts hung in the closet, as of yet unworn.

Worse, buying was a distraction, a hobby of sorts to point and click.  I perked up to the sound of the UPS man pulling up outside, wondering what wonderful thing was in the latest box.  But, unlike the arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon, the things he brought were often disappointing.  They didn’t fit, didn’t work, or weren’t needed.  Returns weren’t timely; we often delayed or forgot.

Managing the stuff was overwhelming as well.  It seemed a full time job to procure it, sort it, keep it organized, and then discard it.  It was a constant cycle of new in, and old out.  There were piles of toys, stuffed animals, clothes, books, and housewares.  I longed to exist in a place free from the clutter all the stuff created.  I began to examine the state of our lives in earnest.

I read a book that had attracted my attention at the bookstore back in the spring, A Year of No Purchases.  It struck a chord with me, the idea that by spending less time dealing with stuff, more time could be created to spend as a family.

I procrastinated for weeks, wondering if we could really do it.  Could we put a stop to buying?  Could I really miss fall, my favorite shopping season?  As I looked back at the budget vs. our expenses again, there were trinkets, toys, clothes, outings, restaurant meals – thousands and thousands of dollars of them.  I decided we should try.

We would avoid buying non essentials until December, until Christmas shopping.  Only then would we buy gifts for one another, and practice Gift of the Magi, only three gifts per child, symbolic of the gifts of the three wise men.

Still on the list were purchases of experience: such as museums or dinner with friends, and essentials: food, medicine, and necessary toiletries.  Additionally, we would fix essential things that broke.

The first week was difficult.  I realized how often I stopped by the coffee shop for tea or ice cream.  Emails from retailers caught my eye; I couldn’t help but click.  But, after a few days, it was easier in many ways.

  1. I learned different ways to satisfy a need. It wasn’t about denial; it was about better use of what we already had.  I looked online and in magazines to see what was new, then went to my closet and to create combinations from things I already had.  I did the same with make-up, mixing together a couple of too bright or too dark lipsticks to make a new one that was just right.  I reorganized the kids’ toys, putting some away, and circulating others.  They seemed new and fun to play with when they hadn’t been seen in a few weeks.
  2. I unsubscribed from some retailers that just sent too many emails or catalogs. I didn’t miss them, and it was nice to have less junk mail to go through.
  3. At the end of the first month I learned for the first time in over a year we had made our monthly budget for personal spending and dining out, even with an unexpected household expense. Continuing in this way would mean we’d be able to fully fund our contributions to our kids’ 529 plans and our personal SEP-IRAs.  The projected costs of college seemed steep and daunting, but so far away, that the budget couldn’t possibility be affected by purchase of a new necklace or necktie?   But, it added up in a big way.
  4. It was empowering to say no to spending, and not feel guilty about it. I’m not sure how we’ll manage Halloween, but I was surprised how little the kids protested when I said we wouldn’t be buying any toys today, or bringing home any souvenirs from a recent trip.
  5. The best part was the extra time that seemed to materialize: buying stuff really did consume a lot of energy. Without it, we had more time as a family.

We stayed in and cooked more often.  I generally fear cooking, but tried some new recipes, and was pleasantly surprised with the results, tasty and healthy.  It made me happy to avoid throwing food away because we hadn’t found time to cook it.

At night we turned off the TV.  We built forts, and had family yoga time.   We finally put to order our array of board games and Legos, and played with them together.  I read and journaled after the kids went to bed, and found I slept better after spending an evening this way.

In hindsight I had been feeling out of control.  I had given up on holding the line: on sweets, on toys, on screen time, for both the kids, and myself.  It felt good to bring some discipline back, and to feel it was working.  This newfound peace above all is what will propel me forward.  I have a feeling I will carefully guard it, long after our not buying it experiment concludes.


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