a peek inside the fishbowl

29 Dec, 2009

Shopping Embargo 2009-2010

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Challenge me, challenge you|Shopping Embargo

Fishbowl Shopping Embargo 2010

Christmas is over and we’re in the throes of Boxing Week. The media has been full of images of people falling over themselves to snag some deals.

I certainly understand why this happens. If you want to buy something (computer, Xbox, camera, wrapping paper for next Christmas etc) and have the money to spend, this is the ideal time to do it. This is especially true for people who receive money for Christmas or those who don’t celebrate Christmas at all.

Confessional Sidebar: I am still very much wavering on a purchase of a MacBook Pro, something I’ve been coveting for ages. With all of the writing I’ve been doing lately I know it would be a very useful tool (right?), and something I can bring to meetings (right?) but, sadly, it’s not exactly realistic for me to go out and buy one. My desktop will have to do for now. *sigh*

What’s more, we’re planning a holiday within the timeframe of the Embargo and I will probably need to buy stuff in preparation for that too.

Many of us (including me!) have been spending out this month – on gifts, travel, baking and eating – in addition to bills and mortgages and swimming lessons. For many of us it might be a good idea to take a break. And this is it.

I know there are many who don’t understand why anyone would want to take a self-imposed haitus from shopping. Last year a fellow accused our group of hating ourselves. And I quote:

“Why are you people doing this? What will this accomplish aside from hurting businesses and slowing the economy to a grinding halt while lowering your overall quality of life?

Look, it’s great to want to be more responsible with your money. But only buying necessities means living off Ramen soup, turning the heat off and piling on sweaters, walking instead of driving, etc. Why suffer when you don’t have to? Do you all hate yourselves or something?

If you have extra money and you want to spend it, then spend it! Just accept that if you need money later and you spent it all, it’s your own fault. It’s that simple. Don’t subject yourself to pointless embargoes against happiness like this, it will do no good for anyone unless you’re completely irresponsible and need something like this to stop yourself from making stupid purchases. But if that’s the case then it sounds like money is the least of your problems. There is nothing honorable or virtuous about denying yourself happiness.”

The Shopping Embargo is not about denying oneself happiness. I don’t hate myself, and I think life is too short to live like a ramen-eating sweater-wearing monk. And I think the economy will survive just fine without my trips to the dollar store. This isn’t about ceasing all spending (although saving money is a nice side effect) it’s about thinking about what I’m buying before I buy it.

Confessional Sidebar #2: I debated whether or not to post about the Shopping Embargo again this year. I thought I’d said everything I needed to say and was feeling burned out just thinking about it. Then I had a chat about it with a longtime reader and commenter who gave me the boost I needed to post again. (You know who you are!)

In past years I found it tough to be the consultant or should I say, the conscience for a legion of shoppers and non-shoppers alike, as well as myself. 

“I just bought a new tube of mascara – does that count?”


“I can’t play along because I need to buy a new bed.”


“What’s your feeling about gift cards?”


“I can’t participate in the Shopping Embargo because I just bought a laptop.”

My answer: make your own rules and stick with them the best that you can. If you decide you really need something, buy it. And this is important: if you feel like you’ve fallen off the horse, get back on. As I said, the point is not to stop spending (at least is isn’t for me), it is to (1) think about my shopping habits and (2) consider our real needs and wants as it pertains to manufactured goods. (And yes, I’ve seen the Story of Stuff!)

I’ve been doing this for awhile. Here’s last year’s post about the Shopping Embargo (along with conclusions and last thoughts!) and here is 2008 and here is 2006-2007. (Holy cats, I can’t believe I’ve been doing it this long!)

I have learned a lot about myself, and I now know what my biggest failings are. I like a good sale (but whenever I ask myself if I NEED that thing that has been so deeply discounted it’s almost always a NO). I struggle with birthday gifts. I have a greater tendency to shop when I’m bored or feeling blue. I like pretty things. (A little too much, in fact.)

In the spirit of the Shopping Embargo I am recycling my guidelines from past years. (See below.) And like before I will update in the comments of this post. So if you’re curious and and want to check on my progress come back to this page (which can also be accessed by the “piggy” button in the sidebar).

I am keeping it all contained in the comments of one post because there are days when the act of not doing something doesn’t give me much to write about. Someone once made a remark about the unsatisfactory conclusion of one year’s Shopping Embargo … I guess because there wasn’t a big summary/wrap-up post at the end. Well, I’ll tell ya, sometimes it’s hard to come up with the clever ribbon that ties everything together. :)

So here are my guidelines.

Between December 29, 2009 and March 31, 2010 (YES, I am extending it by one month) I will only purchase essential items for myself and for my family. This includes groceries, consumable items, gas, basic hygiene (shampoo, soap, not cosmetics), medicine and essential clothing. If I am tempted to buy something new, I will ask myself a few critical questions first. (These follow below.)

These guidelines will break down differently for different people. For me, groceries are ok. Even pricey groceries. I will continue to buy $12 wedges of Parmesan cheese. I will try to decrease the number of times we eat out but am not making any promises :) A reduction in the amount of – or types of – food we eat is not really part of my Shopping Embargo but it might be for you. (Some people have used the Shopping Embargo as a way to eat cut out processed foods and eat healthy – I say go for it!)

My library card will continue to get a workout but books and magazines are ok. As a writer I need to support my fellow writers. Otherwise, I will do my best to ask myself those critical questions before I reach point-of-purchase:

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.)

If I need to buy new I will spend extra and buy a quality product that that will last longer. In terms of clothing, I will avoid the trends and spend a little more on classic cuts and good quality goods which will last longer.

I will continue to 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!

You can also participate in other ways:

  • Consider buying handmade (like for birthday and hostess gifts). Buying handmade is a great way of supporting local artisans.
  • Brown-bag your lunch and use a reusable mug for your daily cup of coffee.
  • Use your cloth/reusable grocery bags.
  • 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 instead.
  • If you don’t already, track your purchases in order to give yourself a better overview of what you’re buying.

 This is what has helped me in the past.

  • Leaving my wallet at home.
  • Switching grocery stores to one that only sells groceries, not other merchandise i.e. kid’s clothing, toys, etc.
  • Not giving in to shopping as a form of recreation.
  • Not reading the flyers.
  • Avoiding the malls.
  • Finding other things to do before the urge to shop hits: reading, going to the gym, phone a friend etc. Instead of meeting your BFF at the mall why not meet for coffee at home or at a coffee shop? Instead of shopping over your lunch hour why don’t you go for a walk instead? Or get a manicure? Or meet a friend?

As always, I would love it if any of you wanted to participate. Like any journey, it’s good to have companions along for the ride.

If you have any questions or comments about anything here, please ask. If you just want to use the comments area to commiserate or keep everyone updated, go ahead. If you want to blog about this too and would like to use the graphics associated with the Shopping Embargo (the big one at the top of this post or the smaller one in the sidebar – go ahead – I would just appreciate credit as the content creator. :)

Twittering about this? Consider using tagging your tweets with #shoppingembargo so the conversation is easily searchable.

Hmm. I guess I did have a lot to say about this, didn’t I? :)

Over to you…

28 Responses to "Shopping Embargo 2009-2010"

1 | Kaitlin

December 29th, 2009 at 3:51 pm


I will be playing along this year. Not because I hate myself, but because I hate the unhealthy spending that takes place at this time of year and need a chance to recoup.

I’m in the midst of beginning a blog on being health(ier), so this will certainly give me some material.

2 | lacoop

December 29th, 2009 at 5:24 pm


We are totally onside with this. And it is not about hating yourself or any kind of self-loathing. It is a natural wake up call to the mindless consumption we have all slept walked into during the past couple of decades. We actually believe in paying down our debt and spending for things that will have some value for us. When we spend, we try to do it for things that matter, not just because “there’s something shiny”. And because we are blessed to have good jobs in this bubble of a town called Ottawa, we also believe we have a little duty to spend our money locally.

3 | Nadine C.

December 29th, 2009 at 9:29 pm


We seem to have the same philosophies and resolutions regarding shopping in general and so do all of our friends . I completely agree with your attititude towards the “quality of spendings” and I would be really curious to find out what will ever happen to the skeptical blogger who wrote you that comment. Makes you wonder where these “creatures” sprout from…
Because our work requires the use of hi-tech equipment, we have been doing a few trips this year to the “big box” stores and it usually feels like a chore. As a rule, but mostly out of fear for our sanity , we avoid shopping the days that follow Christmas even if that means missing out on a mega deal. We only go for food and basic necessities. With each new year, we always try to re-think the way we buy as well as the way we live. We are already looking foreward to some major improvements for 2010, your list of ideas is definitely a great start!

4 | Littlehouse

December 29th, 2009 at 11:22 pm


yes. I think yes. I am drawn to the idea of starting the year ‘mindfully’ and share the general philosophy of spending locally, more sustainably and shifting the focus from ‘I want’ to ‘I need’ and helping my children think about those concepts. So count me in….

5 | Amy @ Muddy Boots

December 30th, 2009 at 10:15 am


I’m in… but as I don’t get home until Jan 5th -AND WILL BE TRAVELING ALONE WITH THREE SMALL KIDS- my embargo will begin Jan 6th. If I have to buy a boatful of junk to save my sanity, I’ll do it! But I will be joining all in on the 6th.

6 | Susan

December 30th, 2009 at 10:27 am


Our family will definitely be taking part, in part from a desire to spend more “mindfully,” as a poster noted above – and part out of necessity. Christmas is always a bit more costly than one expects!

Just out of curiosity, where do you fall on expenditures that are not on things but on experiences, such as concerts, plays and movies?

7 | Loukia

December 30th, 2009 at 2:26 pm


I’m for sure going to put my spending habits on hold… I spent way too much money over the holidays and really, I need to stop doing that. I need to start saving!!

8 | betsy mae

December 30th, 2009 at 9:32 pm


I’m glad you are doing the embargo again this year (and an extra month?? wow!). I have followed along for the past two years and enjoyed it. I will be joining in but not the same way I have in the past. Bert and I have been saving and planning for some big purchases (new cars) as well as some smaller home furnishing type purchases that will likely take place over the next several months and I’m not going to wait because of the embargo! Instead, I want to play along in other ways. I’m planning on cutting out frivalous spending on things like coffee at Tims or buying the featured BBQ sauce at the grocery store. I have found using only cash to be useful, I find I’m far more aware of my spending when I am paying with cash.

Also, I am in the process of re-arranging furniture and purging STUFF from our home. I am going to try really, really, hard to stop bringing home little items to decorate with that are filling up our living space!!!! We need lighting but the cute picture frame or clock is not coming home with us!

Good luck everyone, I’m looking forward to updates and comments from others.

9 | Ginger

December 30th, 2009 at 10:25 pm


I actually laughed when I read what that commenter from last year said about hating ourselves. I think he missed the idea of the embargo. I think the embargo is even more important this year. So many people had a very hard 2009 with the recession and all. I think it is a good idea to stop and think about purchases before you make them. Last year we used the embargo as a way to quit grabbing fast food and to cook more. We saved a crazy amount of money and ate better too! I am not quite sure what the embargo will mean this year. My husband and I have not discussed it yet. He loves the idea of not spending money though so I am sure he will have some good ideas. We also typically start on January 1st so I will be blogging about it then. I look forward to reading about everyone’s experiences and what the embargo means for them. I always find that I am inspired by others’ ideas!

10 | andrea

December 31st, 2009 at 9:33 am


I’m glad there are some people who will be lending their moral support. :)

Good luck everyone!

Susan: My personal embargo does not include events like movies or theatre and admission to museums. I’m not going to cut back on those things … they’re are good for our brains, good for our relationships, and they don’t end up in the landfill !

11 | Erin

December 31st, 2009 at 3:13 pm


We’re in again this year! I found last year to be a great chance to really refelct on what we buy, as well as the how, why and where.

12 | Chantal

January 1st, 2010 at 4:01 pm


I will participate this year as well. Although with me on maternity leave and my hubby out of work it is more out of necessity than for fun. I need to keep money issues top of mind. It really is so easy to lose control.

13 | Vicky

January 1st, 2010 at 7:24 pm


We started living on cash only in September, and I was amazed at the difference it made. Being forced to stick to a cash budget really makes you think twice about whether or not you need something vs. want it.

The part I found tricky was trying to juggle priorities… if I buy this new shirt, that means I can’t buy snow boots for my son until next month… that sort of thing.

We’ve definitely cut down on eating out and take out, and our clothing budget is $20/week so that means saving and planning ahead for purchases.

14 | Shopping Embargo 2010 « The Small Moments

January 1st, 2010 at 10:25 pm


[…] You can read her 2010 post here. […]

15 | LO

January 1st, 2010 at 10:55 pm


I’m in to be more conscious about my spending and WHY I am spending:) and i STILL don’t/won’t shop at Walmart !!!!!

16 | andrea

January 2nd, 2010 at 10:21 am


Even though it’s not something that would have ever turned up in a landfill, I turned away my first potential purchase: a 99 cent app for my iPhone. Normally I would have bought it without a second thought (“99 cents! That’s nothing!”) but I stopped myself. Shopping without thinking is what I’m trying to prevent.

17 | andrea

January 5th, 2010 at 10:37 am


I have been good at avoiding the malls entirely. Helps that the weather has been cold and that I’ve been hibernating here at home.

The girls are on board too. They know we’re not spending anything for the next while and they get it. Makes it easier for me, that’s for sure.

We’ve had made some unplanned clothing purchases for the girls recently: a snowsuit for Sarah, a shirt for Emma. They grow so fast. I need to buy them a few more things (including new runners for Sarah!) but I don’t think I’ll have a problem sticking to my list.

18 | andrea

January 10th, 2010 at 10:21 pm


How is that I can spend $78.00 at Shopper’s Drug Mart? I bought essentials: shampoo, medical stuff etc. I was pretty awesome at avoiding the Christmas leftovers. No chocolate, no wrapping paper, no toys… not even my weakness: lipgloss. It was just me and my drugstore goods today. FEEL THE POWER.

19 | andrea

January 24th, 2010 at 1:03 pm


I have some major updating to do here. We’ve been away on holiday.

In the week before I did a lot of spending. I bought a bathing suit for myself (need… my other suit didn’t fit anymore), sandals for the girls (need), and a cap for Emma (need). I don’t have an issue with these purchases because I couldn’t have done without them.

Our destination: an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana. Spending there was practically nil, other than consumables. The girls spent some money which had been gifted to them (they bought clothing and jewelry) and I bought a shell ring. (Not a need, I know.)

One purchase we made beforehand was four insulated travel mugs for the trip (long story) and three of the four are being returned because they leak. The fourth (mine) was bought at Starbucks. It is balancing on the line of want vs. need but I think i’ll get a lot of use out of it as it’s the only one I own that doesn’t leak and I can use it all year round.

There you have it, my recent expenditures. How is it going where you are?

20 | andrea

February 14th, 2010 at 5:46 pm


It’s been awhile since my last update. I am not feeling motivated, mostly because the Embargo hasn’t been that difficult this time around. I’ve been really good at not shopping for superfluous stuff.

I had a longing to go to Micheal’s today and buy something crafty, but I held back.

Recent purchases include a pair of jeans (for me) and two tops. I would categorize all three as a need. I can’t remember the last time I bought jeans for myself (four years ago? Five) and I was desperate.

Emma has had two birthday parties in the last two weeks. This has been a difficult area for me and I’ve addresed it in past years. I’ve given up buying practical gifts during the Embargo (i.e. gift certificates to see a movie etc.) in favour of books and small gifts that let the recipients get creative.

Otherwise that’s it for purchases.

Ironically I’ve been working on an article that required me to BUY STUFF. Weird, isn’t it? I can’t tell you more until it’s published, but I will say that I’m pretty proud that I returned everything I bought.

Oh yes, Mark bought a carry case for his laptop. But that’s business, right?

21 | andrea

February 20th, 2010 at 12:17 pm


Bought: one winter coat on sale at West End Kids and one pair of jeans for Emma on sale for $12 at Old Navy. Need? Yes! She’s outgrown both jeans and coat.

Bonus points: I was able to resit $5 t-shirts at Old Navy. It was hard, but I had to consider my already overflowing t-shirt drawer.

22 | PANTS >> a peek inside the fishbowl

February 20th, 2010 at 12:41 pm


[…] so, despite the Shopping Embargo I was able to justify this […]

23 | andrea

February 25th, 2010 at 9:25 pm


Resisting the urge to buy craft supplies after finding one of the girls books about weaving. MUST. RESIST.

24 | So. >> a peek inside the fishbowl

February 26th, 2010 at 1:02 am


[…] out there who’s still participating in the Shopping Embargo I would love to hear your update in the original thread. I feel like I’ve been talking to myself lately! How’s it going? […]

25 | betsy mae

February 26th, 2010 at 8:39 am


I haven’t done great but I wasn’t 100% on board this year. I’ve bought alot of things I wouldn’t normally buy, a dog collar for our dog (haven’t bought one since we got him 3 yrs ago), new boots for Mouse (hers wore through on the heel), Bert bought himself a new suit and several new dress shirts…could he have made due? Sure but he would eventually need them and they were on sale, he donated two suits to Good Will and had to toss a couple of shirts. Buying this sort of thing isn’t my problem, it’s the little things for the kids and GROCERIES where I am wasteful. One thing I have done is wait for an extra two or three days after I feel like I should be going grocery shopping and this has allowed me to ‘clean up’ our pantry and freezers, I am going to continue to do this because I find that I get more creative with meals (pancakes and fruit or quiche) and it’s saving us money! My big FAIL is starting a reward bin for the kids. They have been difficult to get going in the mornings so I bought some craft kits and small trinkets (yep dollar store junk which I had stopped buying for a long time) to try and motivate them. It’s worked and while more junk in the house is something we are trying to stop, it’s worth it for my house to have harmony in the morning. I know there are other ways but having the trinkets in a box (basket) by the front entry is golden right now.

26 | The 2010 Shopping Embargo is coming to a close >> a peek inside the fishbowl

March 30th, 2010 at 8:36 am


[…] am collecting my thoughts and will be adding my final update to my original 2010 Embargo post later today. Was it a success? How has it altered our shopping habits? How does the new puppy […]

27 | andrea

April 1st, 2010 at 9:08 am


I kinda hate these wrap up posts. I really do. Mainly because this project goes on so long that I don’t feel like I have much left to say at the very end. But here we are! It is over, and I owe you (and me!) some parting thoughts.

How did I do?

I think we did really well. I managed to itemize all of our purchases (above). There were a few that were questionable, but that’s subject to interpretation. Did I really need a new pair of jeans for the Ottawa Magazine photoshoot I was in? Reeeeaaallly need them? No. But Yes. You can read my justification above if you like. :)

The main idea of the Shopping Embargo is to curtail the number of impulse purchases and to consider needs and wants. This is something I was totally able to manage and it’s come with practice over the years. When I’m shopping I am no longer wandering aimlessly. And if/when I’m holding something in my hand I’m automatically asking myself The Questions: Do I need this, Why do I want this, Can I live without this?

Shopping as recreation has been wiped away from my life. I fill my time with other things: a puppy, writing, volunteer activities (i’m a member of two boards and am involved in my community). In fact, shopping is a big waste of time. There are so many other ways I can be spending my limited free time.

I do have my weaknesses, and that hasn’t changed.
For one, flyers that come to our door. For some reason we weren’t on a flyer route for a long time and just started getting them again. I leafed through a new batch and noticed that Zellers had a sale on X. Hey, I thought, we could use some X! And then I quickly realized that I wouldn’t have known for X if I hadn’t seen the flyer. And we don’t need X at all.

Flyers work, and they work on people like me who like to think they’re getting a deal. BUT if you are spending money on something you don’t need, that’s not really a deal at all, is it?

What’s next?

I’m not exactly sure. My shopping habits have changed permanently. There is no going back to mindless shopping of yesteryear. We are still consumers, but we’re reformed and mindful consumers. Does that make sense?

What about next year?

I think this might be the last official year of the Shopping Embargo. I’ll probably do it again, but quietly next time. I think I’ve said all I need to say on the topic and don’t want to keep beating people of the head with the idea.

Thank you to those who read and commented and emailed your support. It means a lot that I was able to do this with you! Thank you!

28 | Urban Girl (Greenest Stuff)

October 14th, 2010 at 12:07 pm


Yeah – I totally agree the deals are hard to pass up. That’s why I’ve eliminted flyers – better not to know!

I think I will try to do a shopping embargo in the new year – thanks for the inspiration!

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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