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The Misery of the No-Spend Year

Don’t believe what you read in The New York Times—a year of no shopping brings no joy whatsoever

On Sunday, The New York Times published an op-ed from Nashville writer Ann Patchett about her year of no shopping (appropriately titled “My Year of No Shopping”), and all the wonderful lessons she learned from not buying shit she didn’t need — mainly, that she didn’t need much shit to begin with.

“The unspoken question of shopping is ‘What do I need?’ What I needed was less,” Patchett discovers after months of not flipping through catalogs and mindlessly buying shoes, dresses and jewelry.

It’s a valuable lesson, especially considering how many Americans live woefully beyond their means and are in no financial position to seriously consider retiring at 65 (or ever).

But Patchett concludes that we’d all be better off living as pious monks and nuns, with no earthly possessions whatsoever. That’s a pretty rich conclusion for someone whose-no shopping year still allowed for buying books, plane tickets and meals out.

And I’m here to tell you that, unless you’re willing to live a life of extreme religious devotion, that kind of austerity isn’t always a route to happiness or enlightenment.

I know because I lived it.

Denying yourself any indulgence is a sad, lonely existence. And if anything, many men need to be taught the opposite — that there certain things in life, things we often think of as feminine, that are more than worth spending on.

Comedian Mike Birbiglia has a bit about how, when you’re poor, all of your things are close to the ground, and that certainly rang true for me for my first several years living in New York. I moved there in a haste with nothing but two bags full of clothes and a few stray books, all of which I kept on the floor of an Airbnb room in a shared Bed-Stuy apartment.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t admire my own Spartan lifestyle (at first). Having nothing but books, clothes and a laptop was liberating. I could go anywhere, at any moment. I was mobile, unencumbered.

I should clarify that I was “broke” but not “poor.” Both mean having no money, but being broke is a temporary condition, whereas being poor is more of a socioeconomic class. I could afford to be broke in that I had the comfort of knowing I could move back to my hometown and fall back on my parents if things ever went south. Poor people don’t have that privilege. (Patchett acknowledges the inherent classism in her own piece, noting that for many people not shopping is not an experiment in frugality, but a fact of life.)

Still, I was determined to defy the millennial stereotype and not live off my parents’ largesse. They weren’t exactly supportive of my decision to pursue writing, so I lived independently as an act of defiance. I didn’t own a dresser until I sublet another apartment and the previous tenant had been too lazy to move his out. And I owned exactly one towel.

When the time finally came to get an apartment of my own, I opted not to live in Brooklyn like everyone else I knew, but in an absurdly cheap apartment tucked away in East Harlem. I slept on a mattress on the floor — the same mattress I inherited from the apartment I’d been subletting before. My sheets were scratchy and my pillows worn and yellow. All my furniture was used. I almost never went out to eat and made nearly all of my own meals. I rarely bought clothes, and when I did it was from Century 21 or some other discount store. Friends were amazed when I would insist on taking the subway to and from bars late at night instead of hopping in a cab.

At first, this was purely due to financial necessity. But then I worked my way to a raise, and I still didn’t change my habits. I was so career-focused and had grown so accustomed to living cheaply that I figured I’d just save my incremental income.

Which I did, but at the cost of my mental and physical health. My social life was virtually nonexistent and my contentment gone with it. I often canceled plans and ended relationships prematurely because I viewed them as an impediment to my professional and financial goals. I vividly remember one idle Saturday afternoon when, not having any work to do (for once), I realized there were people in the city out having drinks with their friends, and that I didn’t even know where to begin going about making plans like that.

It made me profoundly sad.

Physically, I was in a state of constant exhaustion. Every personal finance decision is ultimately a decision between your money and your time and comfort. I always chose the former. Between lugging groceries on the subway, making all my owns meals, doing my own laundry, cleaning my apartment, exercising on occasion and working more or less nonstop, I had precious little free time. Worse yet, I’d come to equate spending money on myself as a sinful extravagance.

It wasn’t but for the grace of other people that I learned the benefits of certain material objects.

One woman was so appalled by my towel situation that she dragged me to Bed, Bath & Beyond after just our second date. My sisters were similarly disgusted when they came to visit, and insisted I buy a third towel (which struck me as excessive). I bought a bed frame, but only because MEL gave me money to relocate to Los Angeles. Later, I had a girlfriend who refused to stay at my apartment until I made some long-overdue improvements to my bed and bathroom. And every time my mom visited me, she made sure to take me clothes shopping.

It’s no coincidence that all these revelations came at the hands of women. Whereas women are taught to value self-care, men are conditioned to believe it’s an inherently feminine practice and that they should shy away from it accordingly. Men can’t talk to each other about gaining weight or about body image issues. They’re more hesitant to seek medical and psychological help and have a higher suicide rate because of it. And they’re much, much more likely to have terrible beds with unacceptable pillows.

There’s a gendered aspect to Patchett’s piece; a tired “Women be shopping!” stereotype. But there’s an equal and opposite pressure on men to view personal care items as needless extravagances, even when those things can profoundly improve their lives.

Not that men don’t buy anything. Even when I was operating under my self-imposed financial restrictions, I still justified buying books and vinyl records for myself, at times. Or as my colleague Tracy Moore puts it: “Women shop. Men collect.”

That said, there’s certainly value in an exercise like Patchett’s. Much like the no-spend day, it forces people to re-evaluated their spending and identify the purchases they can reasonably part with. But there’s a balance between curbing your spending habits and joining the monastery, and it’s choosing a financial plan that helps you save without costing you your well-being.