a peek inside the fishbowl

02 Jan, 2011

Shopping Embargo of 2011

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

Happy New Year!

Our 25 Days of Christmas is over and done. No time for a wrap-up post about it, but I will say that although it was successful I can see how it gets challenging as the kids get older! Perhaps next year I’ll make it 12 Days of Christmas. :) Regardless, I think it showed us that we CAN have regular, cheap, family fun without relying on shopping. And with that in mind I am reviving another Fishbowl tradition: the post-Christmas Shopping Embargo.

shopping embargo 2011 

Shopping. Is it good for us, or bad for us? It’s certainly not cut and dry, is it? On one hand, the act of shopping means that we’re creating jobs. Local people are being employed, which is great. When local people are being employed those people become valuable, contributing members of our society and they make our community better and stronger. But then again, so many consumer goods are being produced overseas that one can’t help but wonder if any pros are being erased by the cons. Let’s take the dollar store for example. When we shop at the dollar store I know they’re employing 20+ people, but the things they sell are the cheapest possible goods coming right off the slow boat from China. What is that doing to our economy? And our resources? And how can we, as a species survive if the rate of consumtion overtakes the rate of regeneration? Like a colony of termites chewing through a fixed amount of resources… what happens when we run out? How many bloated queens and buzzing mounds of semi-digested wood can our world support?

I first started the Shopping Embargo on Boxing Day 2006 (!). Mark and I decided we’d do it again and I thought I’d throw out an update here on the blog.

As per previous, this is how the Embargo works:

Between January 2 and Feb 28, we will only purchase essential items for ourselves and for our family: groceries/consumables, gas, basic hygiene (shampoo, soap, but not cosmetics), medicine and essential clothing.

We will continue to spend 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.

This is not necessarily a SPENDING embargo. It’s a STOP BUYING CRAP WE DON’T NEED kind of embargo.

This is where I confess that I struggle with the Shopping Embargo post every year. I don’t have much to add that’s NEW.  That’s why I’m largely cutting and pasting the following text from previous years’ posts. :)

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.

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.

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?

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. 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? :)

In past years I know 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. 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. :)

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 the following 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) Do you REALLY need to buy something? Like a gift for a loved one and don’t feel like explaining the Shopping Embargo? (I only mention it because it’s happened to me!) Support small business instead of the big box stores. Here in Ottawa 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. I will go there first when I need to buy something. And still consider my needs carefully when I get there. :)

3) Don’t shop at WalMart. Why? Check out these fact-sheets if you want to get informed.

  • Wal-Mart’s quest for the lowest price means the goods are outsourced to places where working conditions are often sub-par. In 2004 alone, Wal-Mart purchased $18 billion worth of Chinese goods. Bye bye American manufacturing jobs! (From here.) And I haven’t even touched on food and toy safety, or wage violations. 
  • The owners, the Walton family, collectively control over 39% of the company and are worth approximately $19.2 billion each for a combined total of $81.8 billion (as of March 2008). (Wiki)They’re billionaires, BILLIONAIRES, while the regular folks who work at their stores, helping them make their billions, earn poverty-level wages, you know, to help keep prices down.
  • Many of their employees cannot afford proper health insurance.
    Edited to add: I’ve already received one email in defense of WalMart. If anyone else is thinking of doing the same, I urge you to watch this Frontline documentary BEFORE you hit send. Thank you. Bottom line: shopping at WalMart isn’t doing our economy any favours.

4) Buy second hand.

5) Brown-bag your lunch and use a reusable mug for your daily cup of coffee.

6) Remember to use your cloth/reusable grocery bags.

7) 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.

8) Track your purchases. It might surprise you.

9) Need new clothes? Avoid the trends and more on good quality goods that will last. That trendy $14.99 sweater you’re thinking of buying probably isn’t going to last you until next year.

10) … better yet, consider buying handmade, or some original artwork. Buying handmade is a great way of supporting the local economy.

11) Know your weaknesses. I know now that I shop when I’m bored and edgy. Find a buddy you can go hang out with when feeling the urge. Think about other things you can do if you’re feeling tempted. Go out for a walk around the block, pick up a book, organize something, whatever!

This are a few other things that have helped me in the past.

  • Just saying no to Boxing Day/Boxing Week/Boxing Month sales and specials.
  • 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.
  • Throwing the flyers right into the recycle bin. They just remind me of the things we don’t have and create new “needs.” (i.e. “Hey, Canadian Tire has laundry baskets on sale. Don’t we need new ones?”)
  • Watching less television.
  • Switching grocery stores to one that ONLY sells groceries. I often shop at the Superstore, and they sell a lot more than just groceries. I need to physically avert my eyes from the displays of cute merchandise they sell there. (Sunglasses, socks, slippers, lip gloss!)

As per last year, I’m not exactly comfortable asking my readers to play along. For some people the idea of a Shopping Embargo is not a game or something to be taken lightly because it’s already a way of life that lasts all year round, but I would be happy knowing if other people are joining me. (Mostly because I like having someone with whom to commiserate!)

To keep it simple I will be updating my progress in the comments of this post. There’s a graphic in the right hand sidebar that will bring you to this post while it’s active. I’ll be tracking any slip ups and adding updates here. If you’re joining me I’d encourage you to do the same.

So let’s get started.

36 Responses to "Shopping Embargo of 2011"

1 | Ginger

January 2nd, 2011 at 10:54 am


I am definitely joining in this year. Christmas felt like a HUGE spend fest this year. The boys received more than normal, but I was replacing all the baby toys with big boy toys. Suddenly all their needs have changed. The best thing about that is that most of their toys are open ended, grow-with-them toys.

All that aside, I am spent out. We so don’t need anything else!

But I am going to add something to our shopping embargo. I am going to use these first two months of the year to go through everything and donate all those things we don’t need anymore. It is time to do a major purge!

2 | Fiona

January 2nd, 2011 at 12:15 pm


We live in a small house and at Christmas time we definitely feel cramped with the extra things that are out for Christmas like the tree and assorted other decorations. By Dec 28th of this year, I looked at the gifts under the tree, only 3 days old but already I wanted to put everything in a garbage bag and get rid of it. Hopefully as our kids get a little bit older they will require less “filler” gifts and be happy with 1 or 2 things that they really want.

3 | bushidoka

January 2nd, 2011 at 12:25 pm


We are programmed to consume. That’s the very basis of our society and the very reason this planet it doomed until we can collectively change that. Every single thing we do from the time we wake until the time we go to bed is centered around consumption. Another think to add to the list is “avoid the use of the word ‘consumer'”. Sound funny? Sound crazy? Acceptance and use of that word is acceptance of the whole kit and kaboodle.

There are tonnes of great things in your list, but really this is something that has to be year round, not just for 2 months. If we just move the frivolous purchases from these 2 months into the other months, we’ve not gotten anywhere. Though I would wager that once you are in the habit of asking these questions, it probably stays with you for the rest of the year anyway. It is getting into the habit of asking them that is probably so difficult for most folks.

So, very much a worthwhile exercise for 2 months. Hopefully get some people thinking about this year round.

4 | bushidoka

January 2nd, 2011 at 1:12 pm


Oh, forgot to comment on the notion of economic activity being a good in and of itself. This is the basic problem with the GDP, which we use to measure the success of our economy. It measures all economic activity as good. So, for example, the huge oil spill we had in the gulf was a good thing because it generated billions and billions of dollars in economic activity which otherwise would not have been there. I would argue that a very large percentage of people’s yearly purchases are in the same category as the economic activity from that oil spill.

5 | bushidoka

January 2nd, 2011 at 1:13 pm


And of course I forgot to mention the “GPI” as an alternative to the GDP. Google will tell you quite a bit about it.

6 | Laura

January 2nd, 2011 at 2:28 pm


I am IN. Great idea Andrea.

7 | andrea

January 2nd, 2011 at 2:40 pm


Hi all! Thanks for your comments so far. I am excited to be in this with you!

bushidoka: I know we should keep these things in mind all year, but the reality is that most people don’t. And most people need to take small steps to make big changes. I bet that the majority of people out there can’t go a week without buying something.

8 | Sarah (mrsgryphon)

January 2nd, 2011 at 3:35 pm


I feel like we are already quite conscious consumers – especially after our Handmade Holiday this year (per our blog Canadian+Handmade) – but there are definitely still ways for us to reduce our consumption.

We’re going to tackle the embargo this year, too, and I think what’s going to make the difference for us is the latte factor – all those little spends of $4 here and $6 there. I also find that it helps to not carry cash, because I’m way less likely to debit a little purchase!

Also?! Wal-Mart has been banned from our family. Permanently. Not easy in our little city with limited retail options, but I just can’t do it anymore. I was never a big fan, and have probably shopped there less than 30 times, but each time I left wondering if it was worth it. I’m in a financial position where I can choose to shop elsewhere, so I will.

9 | bushidoka

January 2nd, 2011 at 6:31 pm


One good side benefit of doing this sort of thing, by the way, is that it ends up being helpful during tough times. As Andrea correctly points out, a lot of people have trouble separating “need” from “want”. If you practice this type of behavior as a matter of course, you are in a very good position if you ever become unemployed. I’ve been unemployed for about 6 months now and we are able to make ends meet with my pogey and my wife’s part time job. And it really was not a very difficult adjustment at all – and that is coming from me having an extremely well paying high tech job

All in all a good exercise.

11 | Alison p-h

January 2nd, 2011 at 7:21 pm


Andrea- I am in. I actually participated in The Compact for 2010 which is to buy nothing new, similar to your Shopping Embargo. It is better explained by Katy at the non consumer advocate http://thenonconsumeradvocate.com/. I will admit that I had a few slip-ups in 2010 as it is tough to buy second-hand gifts for others (as you mentioned above), especially wedding gifts or travel souvenirs. But overall it was a great exercise and it made me appreciate all that we have. I will try it again in 2011 but will add my own personal exceptions, still TBD.
Thank you for all your explanations/rationale above, it is a great reinforcement and your updates will help keep me going too.
Best wishes for 2011.

12 | Jen

January 2nd, 2011 at 9:12 pm


I love, love, LOVE this idea! I am right there with you. Just one question: how do you handle holiday gift cards that you may have received? Or gifts of cash? Do you delay using them until after your shopping embargo period? Do you use it to buy something you truly need? Just wondering : )

13 | Robyn

January 2nd, 2011 at 11:50 pm


I’m in too. Our family has had our own small version of this for the last few years — we call January, “Grateful Month” — we don’t purchase anything new in January so we can be more mindful and grateful for what we received at Christmas. It can be tough and we’ve made some exceptions but it’s also very freeing (if that’s a word!)

14 | andrea

January 3rd, 2011 at 12:05 am


Allison – I had a peek at the website you mentioned, great stuff. Thank you so much for sharing.

Jen – It’s a personal thing, and the point I was trying to make is that the Embargo isn’t a cage you can never break out of. It’s about being mindful of the purchases we make. If you got a gift card, buy something! :) If I received a gift card for a certain store I would think long and hard about how to spend it and ask myself the questions listed in #1 above. If I got some cash, I would spend it on something from a local business.

Robyn – Grateful month! I love it.

15 | Allison B.

January 3rd, 2011 at 12:44 am


OK I know it will be difficult to do!! But I’m IN! And my husband will love you for it!! ;)

16 | angela

January 3rd, 2011 at 9:30 am


this is great.

my husband and i already decided to cut our spending this year. we are buying a new house and have decided to cut the recreational spending ( and i am a recreational shopper, so the term is fair ) and put the savings directly into a “moving” account to cover all the little expenses that you forget about in a move. we spend almost exclusively on our credit card ( for points of course ) and have set a monthly spending goal…or rather a monthly non spending goal.

we live in a small town and are already committed to buying locally as much as possible, and realized a long time ago that shopping at walmart is not a great thing for all the reasons listed above…but also for the spontaneous “i neeeeed that”.

we don’t, so we won’t.

so, walking instead of shopping and we are hoping to save enough to move relatively painlessly and maybe have a little left over for a new camera…i mean furniture;).

17 | The kickoff post of my “no whites diet” - no sugar and no flour. >> a peek inside the fishbowl

January 3rd, 2011 at 1:27 pm


[…] if the Shopping Embargo wasn’t enough eh? As of today I’m also taking another go at a Sugar Fast, blogged […]

18 | Joanne

January 3rd, 2011 at 3:33 pm


This is a great idea – we were planning to do something similar because we decided to take a family vacation this winter we want to create family memories and not waste money on crap we don’t need. So will be taking part along with you!

19 | BeachMama

January 3rd, 2011 at 7:19 pm


I seem to join you in this every year, even though I don’t really blog about it. I find that January and February are left for necessities only and actually not unnecessary purchases. Takes that long for the kids (young and old) to get bored of their new toys…

20 | andrea

January 5th, 2011 at 10:47 am


BeachMama – so true!

I am glad a few of you have decided to join me. It’s day five and I haven’t been tempted in the least… and I’m feeling pretty good about the whole thing.

One thing I will have to add to my list of “things I can purchase”: work/business-related stuff. But this is a tough one given my love of office supplies. I will really have to work hard to keep it under control if/when I visit Staples for when I need to buy pens/staples/printer paper.

21 | andrea

January 7th, 2011 at 1:36 pm


My first “almost bought but didn’t moment” was yesterday: food-storage containers were on sale at the grocery store. I reached, and stopped, and thought “do we really need more?” Decided, no, we really don’t.

It must have really looked funny to fellow shoppers, me, with arm outstretched in the middle of the aisle. :)

22 | Theresa

January 9th, 2011 at 10:25 pm


bushidoka, I wholeheartedly agree, we so this (or strive to) year round.

23 | andrea

January 11th, 2011 at 12:59 pm


A purchase has been made! (I’ll be logging them all here.) I think it was an unavoidable one: wax for our cross-country skiis and a cork wax-applying tool.

24 | Beth

January 14th, 2011 at 3:51 pm


Single best thing I ever did for my spending habits was invest in a PVR – when you skip the commercials you don’t want to spend as much.

Second best thing – cancel the paper and the flyers. If you don’t see the sales, you don’t get tempted.
You can access teh grocery flyers online for meal planning and saving trees in the process.

25 | andrea

January 15th, 2011 at 12:52 pm


BOUGHT: $25 worth of magazines at my local mag shop. Reading material is not part of my personal Embargo because I want to support the industry that employs me. :)

Also: For $20, a new smoke detector to replace our old one. (Methinks a necessary expenditure!)

26 | andrea

January 15th, 2011 at 12:52 pm


Great tips Beth. You’re right. Tossing the flyers is one of the best things you can do to cut down on impulse buys.

27 | andrea

January 15th, 2011 at 12:54 pm


BOUGHT: a birthday gift for a little friend. We tussle with this every year. But I think we found a good solution… a gift card to the cineplex. Enough to buy admission and snacks. :)

28 | A signpost for wandering souls >> a peek inside the fishbowl

January 21st, 2011 at 1:41 pm


[…] A Morning peeps! If you’re looking for the Shopping Embargo post, it’s right here. It’s an ongoing project which ends February 28, 2011. I’m logging all of my […]

29 | Miracle Cheese and Boobies « TurtleHead

January 27th, 2011 at 7:28 am


[…] it really was a necessity – a definite exception to the shopping embargo – because I take swimming lessons on Friday mornings. For the past several weeks I’ve […]

30 | Eloisa

January 30th, 2011 at 1:36 pm


I saw you do this last year and I had wanted to join…but I already bought a few nonsense things and I kind of gave up on myself.
BUT, I need to save money and get into a habit of minding my expenses thoroughly so please count me in.
I did buy some things already: art supplies (which I hope I get to turn into artwork to sell).
Thank you for this :) Still a big fan.

31 | andrea

January 30th, 2011 at 9:58 pm


A biiiig update is required.

First Eloisa – you don’t need to keep to the terms I’ve set up for myself at all, or even the length of time. If you’re considering your purchases, that’s good!

What we’ve bought…

Mark bought a pair of jeans on sale. I can forgive him this purchase because he only has one other pair.

And that, my friends, is pretty much it!

We had a couple of birthdays to consider. Sarah had three parties to attend. This is always tough for me, every year, because giving birthday gifts is a nice thing to do. But I held fast. There were three birthdays, and we bought a gift card to a local movie theatre for one, a card for Chapters/Indigo for another, and a gift card to Claire’s. The latter is a jewelry store. I’m less thrilled about that one, because STUFF is still being bought in this process so it’s a bit of a cheat. Gah. Hey, I’m trying my best.

Once again, I am recognizing my weaknesses. Some evenings I just feel so squirrely I can hardly stand it. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch. One of those times I went to the library, a few others I took the dog for a long walk. It works.

I have been avoiding malls like crazy. I found myself at Carlingwood during a sidewalk sale one day (when we bought the gift cards). It was hard to see everything DRASTICALLY REDUCED.

But here’s the thing. If I buy, say, a purse that’s 70% off I save 70%. But if I don’t buy the purse I save 100%. And you can’t argue with those kinds of savings. :)

32 | andrea

January 30th, 2011 at 9:59 pm


I also wanted to remind you all, if you fall off the horse you should just climb back on. A slip really isn’t a big deal. YOU CAN DO THIS!

33 | andrea

February 5th, 2011 at 7:51 am


How do you provide an update when you haven’t really bought anything? :)

Emma spent her pocket money on two things recently: a t-shirt with a school logo on it and a gift for a teacher. (A book and a little puppet she intended for her to use in the classroom.) I couldn’t ask her not to buy it.

I’m so proud of how well we’re doing.

Mark asked me yesterday if candy was included in the Shopping Embargo. (We were on our way to The Candy Store when he said it.) Silly guy. Of course it isn’t! :)

34 | andrea

February 15th, 2011 at 9:47 am


We went to Montreal over the weekend and I didn’t buy a single thing. Unbeliveable but true! The girls restrained themselves too, which makes me proud. I couldn’t ask them not to buy anything, but they kept their purchases small without my asking. Sarah and Emma each bought themselves a pair of earrings.

Valentine’s Day was restrained too. No gifts, just consumables. The girls made cards for their classmates out of red bristol board and lollipops and pipe cleaners from the craft box. Yay!

I can’t believe we’re halfway through the last month of the Shopping Embargo.

35 | andrea

February 21st, 2011 at 8:50 am


Time for an update. There’s a week left to go in the Shopping Embargo.

Emma desperately needed jeans. We were in Montreal last weekend and she brought two pairs of jeans. She pulled one of them on and discovered that they didn’t fit anymore. She’s growing so fast that I can hardly keep up. The kid doesn’t have a lot of clothes, so we had to suck it up and go shopping.

We went to the Gap, where they were having a sale on kid’s denim. It was really hard not to go crazy. There was so much cute stuff on sale. I bought Emma four pairs of pants (one pair was free thanks to a loyalty card I had) so I hope she’s set up for the next while.

Sarah got a pair of slip-on shoes because she’s growing too. I would classify those things as “needs” for sure.

Other expenditures:

We had to go to Staples to buy some office supplies. Office supplies are a huge weakness for me and I find it really hard to keep spending under control. Emma needed bristol board for a school project. Mark bought pens. We needed some paper. We made one unexpected purchase: a fire-proof safe. This was something I’ve been wanting to buy for awhile, and we figured it was time to stop putting it off. It’s a place to store our special documents: birth certificates, will, passports etc. A family I wrote about recently had a fire in their home and their fire-proof safe saved their bacon.
It wasn’t expensive, $28.00 – so I think it was money well spent. Much like the smoke alarm we bought earlier on. Some things you HAVE to buy, right?

36 | andrea

February 28th, 2011 at 8:37 am


Today is the laaaaaaast day of the Shopping Embargo. I’m collecting my thoughts and will be posting final thoughts soon. Did you participate? If so, what did you learn about yourself and your spending habits?

comment form:


Stay in touch

Me and my pet projects

Ottawa Bucket list

Subscribe via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

The Obligatory Blurb

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.

If you'd like to contact me, please use this form. If you're so inclined, you can read more about me here. Thank you for visiting!


Connect with me at these places too!

On the nightstand

All hail the mighty Twitter