Since leaving my day job I’ve made a conscious effort to buy less “stuff”. It makes sense for me economically, and also feels appropriate, given that I’m blessed by plentiful possessions, a gym membership and a library card! But (aside from a monthly budget), I haven’t set myself any rules.
So I was intrigued to hear from Margaret Lukens that she embarked this year on a six-month no shopping commitment. While there are many routes to Serenity, I suspected this might have useful benefits for time, money and clutter. Margaret kindly agreed to answer a few questions and I’m delighted to bring you this fascinating interview:
Why did you decide to embark on no shopping for 6 months?
I am fortunate at this point in my life to be able to buy pretty much anything I really want or need. But I am not really good at knowing how or when to get rid of things. I had parents who grew up during the Great Depression during the 1930s and bore its stamp all their lives. My mother’s attitude toward clothes, which I learned to some extent, was that they resembled toothpaste tubes, in that they might contain, not one more noodle of toothpaste, but “one more wear.” So as long as something wasn’t ripped from top to bottom or shrunk beyond all hope, I could buy a new one but couldn’t easily let go of the old one. Consequently my closets were getting congested. And the problem wasn’t only with clothes but books and kitchen supplies, too. Many areas of my home, where I’ve been for over 17 years now, had gotten pretty over-crowded.
I realized that my closets and cupboards and crawlspace were like an overflowing bathtub, in that when things are way too full, the best strategy is to stop bailing and turn off the tap! Stop things coming in for a while. Just take a break. I was in no danger of going naked or having nothing to read, heaven knows! Just call a pause in order to more easily sort things out.
What ground rules did you set for yourself?
I gave a lot of thought to what ground rules I wanted to live with. This wasn’t supposed to be an exercise in deprivation. I wasn’t trying to dig out of a bunch of debt as fast as possible (though I admire and cheer those who stop shopping in order to give themselves more financial freedom!) But I did feel that I had gotten into sloppy habits around buying. So I decided that there would be no limits on food (even though I do splurge on food regularly). The point of the spending “pause” was just to postpone buying things, not to do without forever, so I decided that if I were out of the country, the shopping restriction would be lifted since I couldn’t easily go back and get whatever I had my eye on after the year’s midpoint. And I decided that flowers were fair game. Like I said, deprivation wasn’t the point. And when it came to replacing things that wore out, I’d figure it out as I went. I also had no limit on things such as renting movies from a streaming service. The point was to stop the flow of stuff into my life.
I did replace a pair of shoes that got holes in both toes. I found exact replacements. And you know what? I kind of wish I hadn’t replaced them but had just let them go. I have other shoes, after all, and replacing them was motivated by insecurity and fear––will I ever find another pair of brown loafers???—and not really by need or desire.
Aside from money saved, what other benefits have you noticed?
Money saved has been a great benefit. I love not worrying for a minute when the credit card bills arrive! But even more than that is the time I have gained. When the mail comes, I don’t have to flip through the catalogues “just to make sure I’m not missing something good.” I toss them immediately. Emails offering me the “bargain of the day” go into the trash without a moment of thought, if I haven’t already unsubscribed. Ads offering 15 percent off this weekend only? Not my problem. There are so many fewer decisions I have to make, and that is a huge relief!
How do you think your experience as a Professional Organizer influenced your approach?
Sometimes people think that professional organizers must have it all together, that their closets must be the ones with each hanger separated from the others by an exact inch and all the contents color-coordinated. The reality is that modern life can be messy and overwhelming for all of us. The point is to have a variety of strategies that will help people navigate their lives more easily, doing what they need to do and what they want to do with a minimum of stress and wasted effort. I have seen people criticize themselves or shame themselves for the messes in their homes, and I wanted to make sure that I avoided that pitfall. We should love our stuff! We should be surrounded by things that give us joy, remind us of happy times, and make our lives easier! Getting rid of that sweater that might have “one more wear” supports that goal.
Also, I had read some articles by people that I felt hadn’t yet reached a healthy and comfortable approach. For example, I remember shaking my head at someone who made a no-spending pact for a month and so refused to reimburse a family member for money they had advanced for a family vacation! I don’t believe we should try to balance our budgets by using the funds of our family members. Spend that money, no matter what “vows” you have taken! It’s not worth harming a relationship to uphold a no-spending plan. Relationships are worth more than cash ever could be.
What type of items are hardest for you to resist buying?
True confession: during the first three months of my project, mostly successful so far, I bought three books in one day. Please don’t judge me, I can’t help it! I got many things from the library, but I am not a fast reader, and there are some books I didn’t want taken away from me after two weeks. Also, I often confuse the ability to buy a book with having the time to read it. (Can you relate to that?) I am almost helpless in a bookstore.
What have you learned so far from your experiment?
I have been shocked to realize how many times a day I see advertising! I might be looking at a newsletter from someone I really like and it mentions something appealing, and the next thing I know I’m spending money on something that might require more decisions––which perfume in this sampler is really “me” and what size should I buy? Or which color of this exclusive new bra made of miracle fabric will really be the bra of my dreams? Will this amazing new anti-snore device really solve my husband’s and my sleep problems? Is this the magic nightlight that will put my granddaughter to sleep and let my bonus daughter get the rest she needs? And then, before I know it, I’m spending time doing comparison shopping for something that I didn’t even know existed when I got up this morning. Consumer society is crazy! (Lessons learned: a lot of women are very unhappy with their bras, and no one gets enough sleep.)
What advice would you have for anyone considering a similar effort?
First, do it! Any experiment will teach you something about yourself and your values and habits, whether you succeed by seeing it through or abandon it before the end. It’s either a success or an education, both of which are wins! Second, don’t be harsh with yourself, and for heaven’s sake, don’t be harsh with the people you live with. Compassion is more important than money every time. And if you try and miss, but you still feel attracted to the goal, try it again. Either success or education will be the result, so it’s all good!
I hope you enjoyed this insight into a shopping sabbatical as much as I did. And yes, bookstores are intensely dangerous places for me, too! Sincere thanks to Margaret Lukens for sharing her insights.
Margaret Lukens has enjoyed a varied career. She worked in finance. She taught theology. She founded a gourmet food store. She has worked as a writer and editor. And she worked as a productivity consultant and professional organizer, helping small business owners make a business plan that works.
She weaves all these interests together now by writing about food, productivity, and the human spirit. She lives in northern California with her husband and treasures time with her son, bonus-daughter, and all her friends and family.
Read more of her work here.