When you hear the word shopaholic, you might picture a woman in high heels carrying handfuls of shopping bags full of clothes, shoes, and makeup. That’s what I have always pictured, likely because that’s what the media and popular stories have shown us to be true. There are books about shopaholics. Entire book series about shopaholics. Movies about shopaholics. And the picture on the cover is always the same: a woman in high heels carrying handfuls of shopping bags full of clothes, shoes, and makeup.
For that reason, I have never identified with the term. Aside from the car I had financed, most of my previous debt was a result of dining out and partying — living a lifestyle I couldn’t afford because my credit cards made it affordable. It was not all a result of shopping. I would occasionally hit the mall with friends, but it wasn’t one of my usual pastimes. I did some mindless spending, buying books I didn’t really need, and going into a store for two things and walking out with five. But I didn’t wear high heels, and I never brought home bags full of clothes, shoes, and makeup.
So I wasn’t a shopaholic — right? It’s easy to look at a picture of a stereotype, point your finger at it, and say, “I don’t look like that, so I’m not that way.” By announcing this, we somehow feel better about ourselves, even though we’ve just shamed every other person who does fit under that umbrella. I may not have identified as a shopaholic, but there was no doubt I was a compulsive shopper.
I was a compulsive binge consumer of everything, really, including food and alcohol. I didn’t even know how to stop myself from binging on television for hours on end, something I wasted all the rest of my time in my 20s doing when I wasn’t out actually getting wasted. I didn’t identify as an alcoholic, either, though a medical professional likely would have identified me as such at one time in my life. I often lied about how many drinks I had, I lied about how much I spent, and I lied about how I paid for it all — always with cash, never with credit, because “I could afford it.” When it came to my shopping, I told all the same lies and made all the same excuses.
I was also someone who, on occasion, fell victim to the retail therapy trap and bought stuff in an attempt to make myself feel better. Drinking was my usual go-to. But when big things happened — the things that pulled the rug out from under me, causing me to fall to my knees and have to shakily try to get back up — that was when I did the most damage to my finances through purchases I couldn’t really afford. For me, those big things were usually breakups.
A few weeks before I decided to do the shopping ban, I started seeing someone new. Andrew and I bonded over our love of numbers and spreadsheets, then quickly fell into a comfortable groove and made each other laugh. Despite the fact that we lived thousands of miles apart, we had an instant connection. The honeymoon phase was as wonderful as the name suggests. Because Andrew was in a different time zone, three hours ahead of me, I woke up every morning to a thoughtful text message that ended with a heart or a kiss. We would talk on the phone for hours, late into the night, and have Skype dates where we would eat dinner and watch the same black-and-white movies at the same time.
After only a month of this, he asked if I was interested in dating anyone else or could we be exclusive. I was floating. If we’d been together in person, I imagined he would’ve picked me up from the ground and twirled us three times, and our romantic black-and-white-movie-style kiss would’ve sealed the deal.
Aside from how sweet he was, one of the things I appreciated most about Andrew was that he wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions and start difficult conversations — about the things many people avoid, especially in the beginning of a relationship. We shared our salaries and net worths. We talked about our beliefs, both religious and political. We had numerous discussions about my sobriety and what it meant to me. And we talked at length about our past relationships, getting to the root of where things had gone wrong and why they ultimately ended.
I flew out to spend a week with him over Labor Day, and we immediately fell into a routine that would’ve made anyone watching think we’d been together for years. We glided around each other in the kitchen, him cooking and me cleaning. We held hands or rubbed each other’s backs whenever we were side by side. Even the way we curled up on the couch looked like two puzzle pieces that had finally been put together. Everything seemed perfect — this could really be something, I thought — until the night before I left.
Andrew was unusually quiet. He took his familiar position on the couch, with his head on my lap and arms wrapped around me. But he said nothing as we watched a movie, and nothing after it ended, and nothing as we crawled into bed. We didn’t have sex that night. He didn’t spoon me or even pull me in closer to him like he had done every night before. Instead, he curled up on one side with his back turned to me. I lay on my back and stared at the ceiling. Should I ask him if everything is okay? Should I say nothing and curl up next to him? Should I just make a move and see if sex will help?
I decided the second option was a good start, but before I could move or say a word, he started snoring. And with that, I curled into a ball so our backs were to each other, and let a quiet stream of tears fall from my eyes. I didn’t know you could feel alone while you were in bed with someone, until that moment.
When we got to the airport the following morning, he didn’t undo his seat belt and get out to hug me. Instead, he leaned over and kissed me. It felt forced, and I instantly wished we could take it back. Then I grabbed my bags and said goodbye, knowing it would probably be the last time we ever saw each other.
After the unceremonious breakup, I found myself constantly wanting to do anything at all that might brighten my day, or lighten some of the load I was carrying around with me. Often, the “anything” I resorted to was thinking about something I could buy.
I began to notice how much I hated my clothes. Everything felt old and shabby. In turn, I felt old and shabby. The women I saw walking around my neighborhood or through the grocery store looked so much more put together. They looked happy.
I started browsing online stores for anything that could make me look more put together. I found shirts that looked more grown-up, and pants that weren’t jeans, because all I ever wore was jeans and how unprofessional was that? I should also start wearing dresses, I thought. I had always hated dresses, but the women I saw wearing them looked so cute, and it was such a simple outfit to put together. Hey, look! There’s an empire-waist dress that would look great on me. Maybe I should get it in two different colors. I thought about buying books constantly. There was also a handmade mug I imagined sipping coffee from each morning, and a rug I thought would keep my feet warmer in the kitchen, and a chef’s knife because I didn’t own a single sharp knife and how could I cook another meal without one?
The biggest problem to fix would then be the replacement of my cell phone, because mine was old and slow and sometimes shut itself off, which always filled me with unnecessary rage. I needed it. Replacing my cell phone would remove a daily annoyance and make my life so much better. I deserved to have my life be so much better. It wasn’t until I physically added the new phone to the shopping cart on my cell phone provider’s website and looked at the total that I realized what was about to happen. If I hit the submit button, I was going to be buying something and, therefore, breaking the shopping ban.
Having the ban looming over me not only stopped me from potentially wasting hundreds and thousands of dollars, it also forced me to pause and question what I was doing. This was something I had never done before, especially during a breakdown.
I didn’t buy any of the things I wanted to that month. I emptied the shopping carts and closed the tabs in my browser and didn’t buy a single thing. But old me would have. Old me had.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders. It can be found online at hayhouse.com or amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.
Cait Flanders is a former binge consumer turned mindful consumer of everything. Through personal stories, she writes about what happens when money, minimalism, and mindfulness cross paths. Cait’s story has been shared on Oprah.com, Forbes, Yahoo!, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, CBC News, and more. She inspires people to consume less and live more, on her blog caitflanders.com. Cait lives in Squamish, BC, Canada, with her three loves: the mountains, the forest, and the ocean.