I confess: I like to shop. A lot.
It's not just that I like to look good -- though who doesn't. It's that I enjoy the process: the browsing and bargaining, whether at a boutique or a fruit stand. I savor the socializing and the feeling of discovery that comes from talking to sales clerks (even the bitchy ones), scouting out discounts, scoping out the bags of fellow shoppers. Like speaking French or doing shots, shopping is a skill -- one that I have honed with dedication.
So when I heard about Judith Levine, a writer who, with her partner, Paul, gave up the pleasures of retail for an entire year -- no more Starbucks, "must-see" movies, or sushi -- I was intrigued. I wondered if someone with my lifestyle (that would be the, uh, acquisitive lifestyle) could follow Levine's lead for even a fraction of the time.
Levine's project began not as an attempt at contemporary martyrdom but as a way of understanding the role consumerism played in her life -- an experiment she documents in her new book, "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping." But Levine, a 53-year-old with spiky hair and a dimpled smile, who spends half the year in a cheerful Brooklyn apartment and half in a house in rural Vermont, was never, by her own admission, much of a shopper. She doesn't care about the latest trends, prefers home-cooked meals to eating out, and is admirably immune to impulse buys.
I, on the other hand, never pass up a yard sale, 99-cent store, thrift shop, or designer showroom. I've outgrown any semblance of closet space in my apartment; accessories now double as dicor in my bedroom. Whereas Levine seems almost embarrassed about having a dozen pairs of shoes cluttering each house, I have that many sitting under my desk at the office. (As part of this story, I planned, for the first time in eight years, to count just how many shoes I have. But the project proved way too daunting, both logistically and spiritually. My educated guess is 200 pairs, give or take about 50. This will become important later in the story.) I don't go shopping so much as I am shopping, all the time.
Millions of other people have already taken on the no-shopping challenge as part of Adbusters' annual Buy Nothing Day, which has been going on for 15 years. Hell, even I can refrain from shopping for a day. But could I do it for a month? Or, more realistically, a week? A week and a half of not buying anything except for food and subway rides and any work-related necessities? My friends said they would have bet on the outcome -- except no one thought I could make it.
Quite frankly, even I knew I was too weak to make it solo. Levine had Paul; so I enlisted the help of a team of experts, counselors and, of course, Levine herself, who offered to act as my guru and guide while I tried to break my own shopping habit.
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"You're in the consumption business," Levine says when I tell her about the movie premieres and club openings I regularly go to (and dress for) for work. This serves as a comforting excuse -- attention, IRS: Shopping is my business! -- but also as a pretty hefty challenge.
Of course, it's impossible to go through a year without shelling out any cash. Levine and her partner had to buy food and supplies for work and pay for housing and utilities. Medication for their cat, gas for their car when they're in Vermont, Internet access (work-related), and the New York Times also came under the heading of necessities.
But other than that, they were fairly austere -- much more so than I could be, even in under two weeks. With the exception of bread, none of the food they bought was pre-made or packaged. The need for pricey haircuts was debated, and movies, theater and all other forms of entertainment were ruled out. A full year after the project ended, Levine says she still thinks of a slice of pizza as an indulgence.
I know I can't make those kinds of drastic changes in only a dozen days. But from Feb. 22 to March 5, I decided to cut out all elective purchases, from fresh flowers to booze to rock concerts. I do make an exception, though, for prepared food. I just don't have the kind of lifestyle where I can come home and cook dinner in between assignments. A colleague tells me this is a cop-out. "You could eat cereal," he says. But 12 days of bran flakes? I decide to stick with being a cop-out.
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Working from home, as Levine does, will make this whole endeavor much easier, I think. There are no smartass colleagues, no wandering past storefronts or encountering sales when I run out to do "errands" on my lunch break. But my Web-browsing history that morning is nothing if not tempting: shopping site after shopping site after shopping site. In the afternoon, I leave my computer and go out for a walk. It just so happens that I walk by a clothing store where I see the Most Perfect Dress to wear to my boyfriend's upcoming birthday party (and maybe once or twice after that). I go in and check it out, but I don't try it on. At this point, I don't trust my self-control around bias-cut silk.
In her year of living economically, Levine paid off her credit cards, saved several thousand dollars and even donated five times as much as she normally did to charity. I take out $100, half my usual amount, from the ATM. Will it last a week?
I go out with some friends to a bar that I'm writing about. I could probably score a free drink from the staff, but that seems wrong. After hearing about my project, my friend offers to buy me a cocktail. I decline. (This isn't going to be any kind of challenge if I become everyone's pity party.) A little while later, she offers again; I decline. (Note to college students: Fake poverty is apparently much more of a turn-on than real poverty.) Not long afterward, we leave. Bar-hopping is not that much fun when you're sober, and once everyone has gotten over the novelty of my newfound puritanism -- a story I am figuratively, and sometimes literally, dining out on all week -- I get a little boring.
"What you see when you stop purchasing things is how central purchasing is to having a social life," Levine tells me. No kidding. Aside from working and going to the gym, I can't do anything -- in my 12 days of willful pauperism, I decline invitations to see four concerts, one dance show, two movies and a play. While all the leisure time means I'm actually making headway into my bedside stack of books, the restlessness is killing me.
Even my conversations are becoming stilted. One of the curious things about shopping is how much people like to talk about it. What they bought, where they purchased it, how they got the deal or fell for the scam: These are the small things we turn to so we can shy away from more important stuff.
I begin having philosophical discussions with my boyfriend about what all my shoe-mongering means. He says something about being shallow; I begin mentally cataloging my earring collection.
I'm having odd withdrawal symptoms. It feels like I have an itch I can't scratch. A slinky-dress-shaped itch.
To distract myself, I decide to talk to people for whom shopping is a true calling, who think about it even more than I do: stylists. But it turns out that when they're not buying for clients, some stylists can be depressingly un-consumptive.
"I shop four times a year," says Joe Lupo, a stylist in New York and co-author, with Jesse Garza, of "Nothing to Wear? A Five-Step Cure for the Common Closet." Los Angeles stylist and costume designer Alicia Lawhon always shops with a list -- even at the flea market. Still, she thinks that if you can afford it, you should buy as much as you want. "Like, why not? If you work hard, you've earned it," she says.
Both sets of wardrobe wizards advocate "proactive" not "reactive" shopping, which boils down to understanding what I already have, and what I need. (They also advise that I "demote" clothing that is starting to look raggedy. Apparently, anthropomorphizing your stuff and bossing it around makes your compulsion healthier.) Lawhon, a former shopgirl at Ron Herman, feels like she's made a life change because she no longer snaps up a $1,500 Marni dress. "I'll make one," she says. "Or I'll wait to see if it goes on sale."
Still, the stylists were horrified when I told them about Levine's project. "That book, to me, sounds ludicrous," Lupo says. "The idea of not spending any money doesn't sound like you're living your life." Lawhon asks me if Levine is a "deprivation addict" -- and this is before I tell her that, no, manicures and facials did not count as necessities.
I begin to feel a bit better.
Later, when I visit Levine in her Brooklyn apartment, she tells me that despite her metamorphosis, she's not against consumption. "You cannot not buy in this culture," she says. But she is against overconsumption, given the strains it puts on the environment and the economy. And that's not just personal overconsumption; it's corporate overconsumption, government overconsumption, national and international overconsumption (think oil), big-ticket problems that she thinks need big-ticket solutions, and, blah blah blah, all the boring-but-important stuff I already agree with her on. I just want to know what she bought when she rejoined the retail world.
"Socks," she says.
Afterward, I stop at the bodega to get some groceries for dinner and deliberate for way too long over two peppers. One is whole, wrapped in plastic, the other pre-sliced, wrapped in plastic, and sitting on a Styrofoam tray. I need a chopped pepper, and they're priced the same. Is convenience a symptom of overconsumption? I buy the whole pepper.
I'm experiencing restaurant lust, looking at menus, perusing reviews, walking blocks out of my way to peek into a place that sounds promising. Food is basically the only luxury I have left. But Instead of giving in, I cook more elaborate meals when I'm home. My boyfriend and I use our dining table for something other than receipt storage. It feels nice.
It's no surprise that I'm becoming fixated on food. Talk to experts about what it's like to abstain from or gorge on retail, and they all come up with the same metaphor: eating.
Levine assures me that, just like a diet, the first week of consumer withdrawal is the hardest. Lawhon tells me her shopping philosophy is akin to her dining philosophy: "It's kind of like eating dessert," she says. "I always want to eat dessert, and I always want to eat pasta, but I know that if I eat pasta and dessert, it's a bit much."
"It's in the same category as far as overindulgence goes," adds Pamela Klaffke, a Calgary, Alberta, writer and the author of "Spree: A Cultural History of Shopping." "[In both cases] we're talking about things you don't need -- the bag of cookies -- but you want them, just like you want the shoes or the new handbags."
Shopaholism, along with chocoholism, is one of the few acceptable vices for women. (Though there are male compulsive shoppers -- they're called "collectors" -- the vast majority of cases are among women.) Along with my shopaholia, I resolve to ditch my dessertophilia for a less girly vice. Something like alcoholism, maybe. I'll start as soon as I can buy a beer.
Shit. Cabs. I forgot about cabs, and now it's 1 a.m. and I'm in midtown Manhattan after covering the premiere and after-party for a movie (and not even one I would've paid to see). I'm exhausted and wearing uncomfortable shoes (normally, I would've bought new ones at the first pinch, but now I have to tough it out). Using my already-paid-for Metrocard will mean at least an hour on the train; a taxi would be take less than half that time. I feel my resolve withering. I wouldn't be in this situation were it not for work, and work-related expenses are allowed, right? I cave and cab it home. Ah, luxury.
Friday night, and the comp tickets I thought I had for a show fall through. To stave off boredom, I do the unthinkable: I ask my editor for more work. I wind up covering an awards ceremony at the French embassy. Norman Mailer is there, and so are pastries. French pastries.
Feeling smug, I call Kalle Lasn, founder of the Vancouver, B.C., culture-jamming organization Adbusters and creator of Buy Nothing Day. He defines the ways that he believes consumption hurts us: environmentally, psychologically, politically and morally. Surprisingly, though, he's not an extremist. "Being anti-consumption is fundamentally wrong," he says. "We have to be pro-something else. The real problem that I think each one of us faces is to find some sort of a balance."
So I tell him about the balance I've struck. Although I am a shopper, I try to be a conscientious one: I repair rather than toss, get a lot of stuff secondhand, and don't buy things made in places whose labor practices I don't agree with. He's enthusiastic. Feeling bold, I tell him about the 200 pairs of shoes.
There is a momentary silence. "Wow," Lasn says finally. "I didn't expect that much."
So now I've outed myself as a disgusting, gluttonous human being to the world's most influential anti-consumption activist. Note to self: Maybe my boyfriend was right.
I demote a skirt. It feels surprisingly productive. Maybe later I will fire some belts.
I go back to the store with the hot dress. Eleven days ago, I couldn't trust myself to slip it on. Now, I don't even want to.
Well, until tomorrow, anyway.
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The day after my self-imposed shopping moratorium ends, I buy something -- a peacock-print skirt -- and immediately start feeling guilty about it. I don't usually feel guilty about what I buy, but after the experiment, I begin looking around my apartment and feeling accountable for all the stuff I own, especially the shoes, which is probably why I didn't want to count them in the first place. (Also, it would've taken a really, really long time.)
"I think we should feel really fucking guilty," Lasn told me. "I think we are guilty of some incredible crimes against future generations, and against the ecology of the planet. I wish sometimes we had a helluva lot more guilt."
For anybody who thinks that we spend too much time shopping -- and that includes me and Lasn and the stylists and Donald W. Black, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa who studies consumption, and even Klaffke, who writes a shopping column for the Calgary Herald -- the guilt is always there, the last note on the cash register's chime. So why doesn't it inspire us to make the return?
If we hope to kick our compulsion to consume, what we really need, Levine says, is to see rewards. Not just financial rewards -- though when you stop shopping, your bank account does, of course, swell; my hundred bucks lasted all week -- but also the kinds of benefits you only discover when you take a vacation from all your stuff. Levine's reward included a better relationship ("Paul and I didn't fight about money at all for the whole year," she says) and a stronger belief in the powers of citizenship, in buying into more than consumer goods. What did I gain? Slightly buffer biceps from all that extra time at the gym, a drink with Norman Mailer. And, yes -- not least of all -- a new appreciation for bran flakes.