All lives can’t matter until black lives matter.

I Buy, Therefore I Am

Disclaimers: at the time of sharing this we are still in the midst of a global pandemic. Nothing here is meant to minimize the serious situation our species faces or the dramatic effects it has had on many lives. The title is a misremembering of Barbara Kruger’s “I shop therefore I am”.

I started writing this in May 2020, two months after Covid became real for most of the U.S. and 10 months before I’m writing this sentence now. At the time I had been reflecting on my buying habits, because I’d purposefully been doing less of it (less buying, more reflecting). We started “sheltering at home” (except for grocery store excursions) early on and I made a personal decision to also severely cut back on non-essential purchases.

The Seed

Years ago I read “Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping” by Judith Levine, just for fun. Then, years later, I read it again (for even more fun!). Both times, the book came from the public library, naturally. It was an experiment I wanted to toy with sometime, if not fully take on.

I have long been a reductionist and frugal. It serves me well in my work, but it does sometimes cause a bit of tension at home. With sheltering happening the time felt right to try the not-buying experiment.

The Result

Now I can tell you: not buying things for an extended period of time feels weeeeeird. It was palpable, uncomfortable yet very welcome. For the first time in… ever?… our family credit card bill was a single page of transactions.

I started to wonder: why is not-buying uncomfortable? Do I miss the little endorphin hits of walking out of the store with a new shiny, or hitting that buy button and receiving a package with my name on it? Is it the breaking of a habit?

All That Remains

Over the past year we’ve barely scratched the surface of using all the stuff that has collected in our house over many years. We have books, puzzles, board games (a LOT of board games), musical instruments, arts & crafts supplies, electronic equipment, sporting goods, and more that isn’t coming to mind at the moment… most of it virtually untouched despite our being at home 24/7 for all this time. We have more “free” time than ever before, and a lot of that stuff is still collecting dust. I feel like a lot of it could go away and we’d never really miss it. At least not enough to really want it back. We’d just move on to something else.

I love the idea that we don’t need to buy to feel good and have fulfilling lives. The only problem is that buying has become second nature and there are withdrawal symptoms when it goes away. We work, we buy. We deserve it. Other people have stuff, we should too. I’m bored or feel bad about something, time to make a purchase.

Most Recently

So far in 2021 I’ve really loosened up on the purposeful buying restrictions. It feels liberating but also feels like a slippery slope. My new underwear is an absolute life improvement, but how much does that new board game really add to my contentedness? I like buying presents for my kids’ birthdays, but how much is enough?

Speaking of the recent birthdays I did buy something I had long ago owned and donated away: the book “The art of looking sideways” by Alan Fletcher. I’ve sold, donated, recycled, and trashed hundreds if not thousands of items over the years. This is the first thing I can remember actually re-acquiring. Everything else had served its purpose. Some of it maybe never needed to be acquired in the first place.

Begin Again

Now I find myself again speaking in the language of products, making recommendations about material things I have enjoyed (in a way I did this in the preceding paragraph). I spend, I consume, I am. This is starting to feel like a confessional. Maybe it is time for another “no buy” experiment and I can report back in March 2022.

Try “not buying” for yourself, if only for a little while. See how weird it feels for you. Maybe you’ll get something out of it.

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Earlier Post: Rock balancing and the art of presentation

Later Post: Why testimonials are so important, and how to ask for them

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