Q&A: What It’s Like to Give Up Shopping for an Entire Year

Blogger-turned-author Cait Flanders decided to put herself on a year-long shopping ban—here’s what she learned along the way.

In 2011, when Cait Flanders found herself in $30,000 of consumer debt, she began a blog, formerly anonymous and known as Blonde on a Budget, to document her repayment journey—and to keep herself accountable. She (speedily!) ended up making her last payment in 2013, but it quickly became clear that she was still suffering from old habits and needed to “hit the pause button” on purchasing.  So, despite being debt-free, Flanders decided to embrace minimalism, getting rid of 70 percent of her belongings and rededicating herself and her blog to more mindful consumer behaviour—thus beginning her year-long shopping ban. Flanders has since developed a strong following on her (now self-titled) blog and this month, she released a book of personal essays, The Year of Less, to tell her story, so we caught up with her to talk about her year-long consumer experience and what she discovered in the process.Q: How did the shopping ban begin?A: Some people think I did it to get out of debt but I was already debt-free at that point. I was debt-free as of 2013, but I noticed I was going back to old habits and spending all my income. I was lucky if I saved five percent. I wasn’t happy with making a decent income but still living paycheque to paycheque.Q: Did the shopping ban drastically change your day-to-day life?A: I wasn’t allowed to buy new books anymore. When I started the ban I had 55 books I’d never read—every time I heard of a new book that I thought was interesting I would just go online and buy it. Coffee changed my life more so. Even though I was working from home I was still spending $100 a month on take-out coffee. I just wasn’t comfortable spending that amount of money on it. Whenever friends wanted to go out for coffee I would always have to suggest other things: “Do you want to go for a walk or a hike or just spend time outside together and still talk but not spend money?” And I think because we live here people said yes without question.Q: When you could no longer “treat yourself,” what did you do instead?A: I never used shopping as a way to treat myself. It was more food and drinking and I quit drinking five years ago. Being self-employed, I treat myself to a day off.Q: What was the reaction from the people in your life?A: People weren’t surprised. I had documented a lot of stuff on my blog about getting out of debt. My friends and family were just like, “Yeah that seems like something you would do, setting yourself a big challenge.” A few friends would make comments that made it clear they didn’t get it. People would talk about shopping in front of me and then say, “Oh you probably don’t want to hear this,” or they wouldn’t invite me out to dinner and I’d have to explain to them I could have gone, that’s not part of the rules. You could see it was making them think. For conversations like that to happen it shows how ingrained shopping is in our culture. It is a really social thing.Q: And people do have a way of making the things we do about them…A: I think whenever you do something remotely countercultural—when you do something different—it makes people think that what they’re doing is wrong. I didn’t care that they did shop. Why did they care that I didn’t?Q: Do you think anyone can do what you’ve done?A: I don’t go around and say everyone should. I think everyone can find a version that works for them. We live in a culture where everything comes easily for convenience…you can even buy things through social media now. I think it’s about hitting that pause button before making a purchase. It wasn’t about never spending money. I just didn’t buy stuff—things that come into my home and never get used.Q: Do you think everybody should should try their own shopping ban?A: It’s funny, one of the comments I’ve been getting is…on the front cover of my book the tagline says “life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store,” and people ask me, “Then why should I buy your book?” If reading the subtitle of my book is the first time you have ever questioned buying something then I’m okay with that.Q: What happened when you completed the ban?A: I actually did it for a second year. It felt like a lifestyle at that point. I wanted to see how much I’d actually used, like how many bottles of deodorant or tubes of toothpaste have I actually used? This isn’t life-changing information but to see how little we use—or I’d used, to know who I was as a consumer…I also became aware of how my interests changed based on what I still wanted to buy. When the ban ended there were some things I still really wanted to buy. And I think that’s it, sitting with the things that you want to buy for a while. Thinking it through.Q: How has the shopping ban changed your life today?A: I don’t buy toiletries unless I’m within a day of running out. I don’t browse. They always say comparison is the thief of joy but for shopping browsing is. I buy books if the Squamish library doesn’t have them and then when I’ve finished them I donate them to the library so the community does have them.Q: What’s next for you now that the shopping ban is over?A: I’m now looking at consumption tendencies as a whole. I’m looking at how much media I’m consuming. I think social media is really negative since the election and I just don’t enjoy it anymore. I cancelled my Netflix subscription. I don’t think it’s going to be a permanent thing; there are some shows that I like and when they come out I might get Netflix for the month. I think we have reached this critical mass for how much information is out there. The choice is overwhelming. I would rather watch a movie on iTunes or read more—that’s my goal this year.