After having spent $1,001 on holiday gifts in two weeks, Judith Levine found herself in a slushy New York street trying to prevent her purchases from falling through a soggy shopping bag and getting trampled by irritable and hurried pedestrians. At that moment, she declared, "I'm not buying it."
Thus, Levine began an experiment with her partner, Paul, to find out what life would be like if they turned off their consumer habits and purchased only necessities for a year. She chronicles the experience in diary form in the book Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping.
Levine comes to the project with a certain ambivalence about consumerism and its effect on the world. She makes her politics (left of center, with an academic sensibility) clear from the very beginning, but that doesn't mean she isn't a typical consumer.
She earns the median income for a New Yorker. Her credit card balance hovers around $7,500, also about average. She describes her attitudes about spending as normal middle class, citing research that shows everyone thinks they need the things they buy and considers a life of comfort just a little bit out of reach.
By April, she's wondering, "What if I discover my authentic self, and my authentic self is a shopper?"
Embarking on a year of buying nothing but necessities means a lot of soul-searching about what exactly constitutes a necessity. We get a sample of some of the discussions, like whether they'll have to make do with generic facial tissues or whether they can splurge for a softer variety. They buy the daily newspaper, but they shun prepared foods in favor of cooking. Paul takes up brewing beer and making wine.
We never learn the full list of purchasing rules, but we see plenty of situations where deciding "not to buy" requires a measure of creativity. Gifts present a particular challenge. They search out as much free entertainment as they can find, with some trepidations about losing touch with the culture at large. Outings with friends become more complicated as friends offer to pay for movies or dinner, causing some guilt or extended negotiations about suitable ways to spend the afternoon.
Levine spends quite a bit of time examining consumerism in the culture at large, but I was most captivated by her funny inner dialogue as she examines her own spending habits and the extent to which her identity depends on her stuff. Almost everyone will see a little of themselves somewhere in this book.
It takes until August for "not buying it" to become really habitual and for temptations to fall away. By fall, Levine sees that the project has made her realize they have everything they need, including fabulous friends. She already feels more financially secure than she has in decades.
By the end of the year, Levine has paid off her credit card debt, and she and Paul passed the entire year without fighting about money. But she glosses over her financial achievements, because what she's really found is time.
Reading the book, I felt a little of what Levine senses among her friends. She describes it as "an attitude there's probably a German word for, meaning 'admiration for an enterprise you are glad someone else is doing so you don't have to.'"
Still, it inspired me to wonder whether I'd survive a year of buying nothing extraneous, even though I probably won't try the experiment anytime soon. Well, maybe I'll give it a go for a week.
Fool contributor Mary Dalrymple welcomes your feedback.