This is the third year of the Fishbowl Shopping Embargo and I am keen to get it going again. If you’ve been around for awhile you’re probably familiar with this already.
My guidelines are still the same:
Between January 1 and Feb 28, I will only purchase essential items for myself and for my family. This includes groceries/consumables, gas, basic hygiene (shampoo, soap, not cosmetics), medicine and essential clothing.
That being said, I won’t feel bad for spending money on events which bring us joy (and won’t end up in a landfill) like tickets to museums, movies and shows, bird seed for our backyard friends, the odd ice cream cone or square of fancy chocolate etc.
The challenge, for me, is twofold. It’s about saving money but it is also about examining my family’s needs and wants, and abstaining from buying things we don’t really need. The point is to think about the things we buy, and why we buy them.
Having done this before it always surprises me how many people cannot, or will not even try to reduce the amount of their non-essential shopping. Is it because they can afford to spend the money? I know two months is a long time, too long for some, but I can’t help but wonder: why is this not something everyone can do? (And I am including myself here too!) It shouldn’t be this hard. It’s not like we’re talking about undertaking something that is truly physically (and mentally!) challenging, like tightrope-walking or learning how to play the violin, right? :)
Why is the act of NOT SHOPPING so difficult to do?
Is it because we’re wired to buy? Is it because when we were small and sad our mothers bought us ice cream and Barbies to cheer us up? And does it stand to follow that to deprive ourselves of our “stuff” means that there we have no other way of cheering ourselves up?
In past years of this project I have teetered on the borders of Needs and Wants. It’s kind of easy to convince yourself that a WANT is really a need.
To make it more complicated, my needs and wants aren’t the same as the next persons. Last year a friend and I had a big discussion about food storage containers, specifically, big ones for flour, oatmeal etc. Is buying one of those a need or a want? Technically you can get by scooping the flour out of the bag it came in, right? But if you’re a baker, and you use flour every day and have to deal with the mess it creates, is that brand new flour canister a need? Or that what about that new bathrobe? Is that deemed excessive even if you didn’t have one in the first place? About about if you already had a half-dozen?
You can argue the details until the cows come home. But it’s not my place to judge your needs and wants. I can only judge my own. You be the judge your own. :)
(Anyway, if the rest of this looks familiar to you it’s because I am recycling some text from last year’s post. Much of it still applies.)
I love stuff, but I don’t exactly classify myself as a recreational shopper. If you are (and by “recreational” I mean that you shop when you’re bored, feeling depressed, or you shop to have fun with friends) going cold turkey might be tough. If you don’t think you can stop shopping for two months you could consider making these small changes for the same stretch of time. Every little bit counts!
1) Consider your purchases carefully. Before you get to the register, slow down and ask yourself:
* Do I really need this? Or is it a want?
* Do I already own something that could serve the same purpose?
* Can I borrow one, find one used, or make one instead of buying new?
* Was it made locally?
* Was it made with environmentally preferable materials?
* Was it made with fair labor practices?
* Will it serve more than one purpose?
* Is it made well enough to last a useful length of time?
* Will it be easy and cost-effective to maintain?
* Will using it require excessive energy?
* Does it come in excessive packaging?
* Can I recycle or compost it when I’m done with it?
* If I’m still not sure, can I wait a month before deciding to buy it?
(from http://www.newdream.org/walletbuddy.pdf … You can print these out and tuck it into your wallet as well.)
2) If you really need to buy, buy second hand.
3) Brown-bag your lunch and use a reusable mug for your daily cup of coffee.
4) Use cloth/reusable grocery bags.
5) Ditch single-use water bottles (the kind you buy at the grocery store, 24 for $3.99) and fill a reusable container at the tap/your Brita-type container instead.
6) Track your purchases.
7) Need new clothes? Avoid the trends and spend a little more to buy classic cut, good quality, goods which will last. That trendy $14.99 sweater you’re thinking of buying probably isn’t going to last you until next year.
8) Support small business instead of the big box stores. Here in Westboro we have a lot of really nice little shops, run by some really nice people, many of whom have been part of this community for years. Shopping there is better than shopping anywhere else.
9) … better yet, consider buying handmade, or some original artwork. Buying handmade is a great way of supporting local artisans.
This is what has helped me in the past.
- Not giving in to shopping as a form of recreation. Avoiding the malls is the best thing I can do. (Out of sight, out of mind, right?)
- Leaving my wallet at home.
- Not reading fashion magazines.
- Watching less television.
- Switching grocery stores. I often shop at the Superstore, and they sell a lot more than just groceries.
Anyway, I’ve been giving this a lot of thought, and I’m not exactly comfortable asking my readers to play along with me this year. For some people it’s not a game or something to be taken lightly. For some people the shopping embargo is a way of life which lasts all year round. I have a feeling some you are already doing this out of necessity, not because you read about it on someone’s blog.
I would be happy knowing that other people are joining me this year. Mostly because I like having someone with whom to commiserate! :)
To keep it simple I’ll be updating my progress in the comments below. There’s a graphic in the right hand sidebar that will bring you to this post while it’s active.
Last thoughts (written March 1, 2009)
I once read that people have a tendency to go supersize stuff just in case. For example, a family of four will buy a dining room table that seats twelve because extended family comes over once a year for Thanksgiving Dinner. But in reality a regular-sized table and a makeshift folding table would do the trick just fine. And that table for twelve won’t fit in a regular-sized dining room, so they have to move up into a bigger house. There should also be one bathroom per person. And one computer per person. And a TV for everyone in case the kids each want to watch a show in their bedrooms while daddy watches golf. And a DVD player for each person in the backseat … and on and on it goes. Excessive? Indeed. But shopping is deeply ingrained in our national consciousness and it’s a tough habit to break.
Scatteredmom recently pointed out an Oprah show in which families were challenged not to shop for seven days. Yes, SEVEN. I think that included groceries. It airs tomorrow (Monday March 2) and it’s called the “What Can You Live Without Experiment.” Here’s the info on the Oprah website. There’s a video teaser right at the top of the page. You have to watch it. I’m thrilled that Oprah is taking on this topic. If she’s talking about it, the world will be talking about it soon enough.
But seven days? I didn’t think the situation was this bad.
I was waiting in line at the grocery store yesterday and glancing over the magazine racks. There, between glossy cover shots of Obama and Mrs. Obama was good ol’ Betty and Veronica. They were holding shopping bags. They were at the mall.
“See Betty!” exclaimed Veronica. “We’re not shopping, we’re stimulating the economy!”
You know the economy is bad when Archie and the gang are talking about it. When will the Veronicas of the world finally get it? We can’t go on this way.
I met a lady who told me she’d read about the Embargo and was set to go along with it. “But then,” she said, “my husband and I went out and bought a laptop…” Her voice trailed off. I wanted to ask her what she did next but I didn’t.
When you fall off the horse you have to (a) admit that you fell and (b) get back on. No one is a failure here. You cannot fail, even if you find yourself buying a few things you don’t need. As long as you are thinking about it, making some kind of effort, saying no sometimes … you are still succeeding. Change doesn’t happen overnight, especially as it pertains to longstanding habits.
I have my weak moments. It often happens like this: it’s Sunday and I’m bored. We don’t have anything planned. I turn to Mark and say, hey, let’s go to Ikea and just look around! (Chapters is another favourite. I have also been known to take trips to Canadian Tire and Home Depot.) I cannot leave most of those stores without buying something. Especially Ikea and Chapters. The trick for me is to find something else to replace shopping when I’m bored. All it takes is a little effort. Ottawa is great for this, it’s all-season family fun. Skating, swimming, hiking, birding … there are hundreds of things to do that don’t include the mall.
It is difficult to calculate how much money we’ve saved compared to the Shopping Embargo of 2008. A couple of things worked in our favour. I went to Jamaica last year so I ended up spending some money on clothes for my trip. We saved on bank charges this year thanks to Mark doing a bit of research and making some changes. We’re paying more for cable and Internet usage and paid more towards the mortgage. Those weren’t things we were really tracking but they ended up in the calculation anyway so it’s difficult to come up with hard numbers. The budgie and the new cage were unplanned expenditures. (Want or need?) We did save money, I just don’t know exactly how much. I do know that I bought less stuff. I documented everything in the comments of this post.
I want to make it clear that I’m not advocating we all renounce our worldly goods and live like monks. It’s not realistic. And I don’t want to live like that either! There is room in our lives for beautiful things. But if I buy myself a couch it will be a great couch. If I buy a sweater it will be one I can wash and wear for years to come. If I buy winter boots I will buy one pair knowing they will last more than one winter.
Veronica’s wrong. I think if everyone shopped more thoughtfully, locally, looking at quality of the products the economy wouldn’t suffer as much as we think it would. In fact it could actually right itself. Factories and stores which sell low-quality, disposable plastic gadgetry could go under if there was no market for what they’re selling. Those who offer good quality at fair prices would prevail. Car companies could scale back and start producing vehicles that actually make sense for us, rather than being the driving force behind an unsustainable way of living. We have limited resources. Why can’t people understand that?
Every dollar you spend is a vote for the kind of world in which you want to live. I would like my children to inherit a world with clean air and water and I don’t want them to be buried alive in the garbage I created: electronics/appliances designed with a goal of planned obsolescence, all that packaging, the crap we all bought for birthday party loot bags, grocery bags, takeout containers etc.
In the not-so-distant past people managed to make do with much less. How did they do that? Our house was built in the early forties. For the past 10 years we’ve complained about our small closets and our non-existent pantry. Here’s an idea. Maybe the closets aren’t the problem. Maybe we just have too many things. For the past year I’ve been wondering if I could fix my problem by trying harder to fit my closet, not making a closet to fit me.
I find it ironic that on one hand there is the decluttering movement (a new phenomenon), while on the other there are luxury SUV’s, closets full of shoes, overflowing cupboards of convenience foods, and massive credit card debt.
How is this story going to end?
When did we start medicating ourselves with trips to the mall?
This project has made me take a much closer look at the how and why of my own shopping habits. It’s helped me develop better shopping habits, such as choosing quality over quantity and considering the necessity of each item. The Embargo eliminated all impulse spending (minus one pair of cute slippers for Sarah) and most importantly I have come to recognize my “need to shop” triggers. I often feel it when I’m bored, feeling down, or when I’ve been cooped up in the house for too long. My first and foremost question when I shop now is Do We Really Need This.
I was at the library the other day, returning some books and picking up some DVDs for us to watch over the weekend. Emma was home, sick. The day was bright and cheery and I’d been cooped up indoors for far too long. It wasn’t quite time to go home yet. I convinced myself to pop into the mall. (Mistake number one: why do we choose shopping as entertainment over other things? What else could I have chosen to do?) I browsed through many stores with one question in mind: what can I buy for Emma to cheer her up? (Mistake number two.) I looked at a lot of stuff. Earrings and kiddie jewelry, plush toys, little games etc. As I spent more time in the mall I had this growing realization that this was one of my traps, buying stuff for people to make them happy.
All kids want, ultimately, is to spend time with the people they love. It might sound trite, but it’s true. They want to go to the movies, play board games, cut and paste and fingerpaint, bake cookies, build sandcastles, and play the pool. Unless they’re spoiled rotten they don’t really care that much about material goods.
Emma certainly didn’t need anything. Anything I could have bought would eventually be forgotten and tossed aside for something else.
I turned away from the displays of Easter bunnies I was looking at (and Easter bunnies are a massive weakness of mine. I love bunnies!) and walked back to the car. The movies I’d borrowed for us (plus popcorn of course) would have to do. And I was right. When I got home I realized that Emma didn’t expect me to bring anything home and so she didn’t feel like she was missing anything. We had fun watching the movie together as a family. That was more than enough for us all, and nothing ended up in the landfill.
So once again the Shopping Embargo ends quietly, but successfully, for me at least. I will keep going, maybe not be so rigid about it, but I can safely say that my habits are different now and I can’t go back.