The tipping point for my year without shopping came shortly after the 2018 New Year sales. My arms were heaving with bags full of purchases I didn’t remember and instead of elation, there was a weight within me as heavy as the tissue-wrapped discounted items I was carrying. I realised my attachment to what others so fondly call ‘retail therapy’ needed to be challenged, and took on the battle to win back my independence from consumption. Shopping is a very real addiction, even if its packaging isn’t as jarring as a tar filled cigarette or as sloppy as a floor strewn with bottles.
How to start your shopping purge
I didn’t enrol myself into a 12-step programme for Shopaholics Anonymous. This was a personal journey that began as a 40 day fast to tackle my reliance on instant gratification because, let’s call it what it is. From a psychological standpoint, this was the driving factor to why I tend to do things last minute – and the behaviour manifested the ugliest when I was pushing those magical four digits on the gummy buttons of a pin pad. As for the spiritual perspective, there’s a verse in the Bible (Matthew 4:4) that really spoke to me. I realised that there are some things that provide instant gratification but leave you feeling hollow afterwards and I had a hunger for something that needed to come from something bigger than material things. Understanding the motivation for my shopping addiction was only further backed by financial education. I was shocked by the review of my spending patterns. Again, let’s call it what it is: I was spending well beyond my means. A tip from someone that’s been through it all and come out the other side: you will save more money by taking an unpaid day off from work and reviewing your monthly expenditure than it would be to go to work and not review your spending – even if you’re not saving for something big like a mortgage!
The 40 day fast went by surprisingly smoothly. During this time, I became more aware of my consumption patterns, like my restless feet wandering into shops when I was bored or lonely. The new year brought along with it a busy schedule, so I was dissuaded from this. Then the typical signs of a shopping addict, like hiding purchases from people because I felt guilty. Or buying things I didn’t need that I couldn’t afford because, hi overdraft. I removed myself from the usual temptations of the suave little boutiques in Covent Garden, decked in flowers and fairy lights. I resisted browsing my favourite online stores. But I had also spent a fortune during the New Year sales, so temporarily I was still on that high. Not to mention, what can you actually buy with a depleted bank account?
But tackling the supermarket was another story. It’s harder to distinguish what’s “unnecessary” during your weekly shop for sustenance. I found that sharing my fast and goals gave me an incredibly supportive network. The initial reactions that I received were as expected: surprise and confusion. In our society, particularly in a retail capital like London, new is the norm. However, my vulnerability opened up deep and healthy conversations about their struggles. Quite often, it stemmed from the same psychological pain points. I wasn’t so different to everyone else.
Making healthy decisions last
After the 40 days were over, I felt empowered. I realised I have the power to overcome my crutch that was stopping me from developing. So I made the decision to push the fast to a full year. And it was a strange one. There were more of those conversations which lead to some breakthroughs in my relationships and their lives. The encouraging results in being able to help others got me over the fear of sharing my story to more people (and being judged for doing it or for failing the fast and being judged). And of course, there were relapses, like the time I ended up buying a dress during a moment of boredom in my lunch break. My initial reaction was a sickening guilt and my instinct was to hide it like a dirty secret. But eventually, I realised how that decision was made entirely on emotion. This is something I could learn from and could remind myself of when I know there’s a potential trigger.
Importantly, I learnt to forgive and be kind to myself. I ended up receiving so much more from people than I would have normally bought in a year. I inherited an entire wardrobe from someone my size who was moving out of the UK. People’s generosity astonished me: I would be given things I’d normally deem ‘too expensive’ and even at times when there was no reason to be gifted at all. As for situations that usually call for something new, I did what any of us would’ve done when we were teenagers. I turned to friends. In doing so, I spent some quality time with them and the compliments I received on these borrowed dresses were all the more meaningful.
Two years on
The biggest release was not the healthier bank balance but the very tangible feeling of freedom. I was shackled to the mindset of “I need to buy XYZ then I will be happy”, and yet after buying XYZ, my thoughts would immediately turn to what to get next. The shopping element was a symptom, not the real issue. Like addictive junk food, feeding my mind with something healthy was what was needed – with a detox diet to kick it off. Instead of looking for short-term unsustainable satisfaction, I put that time and money into helping others, be it financially or even taking them out for brunch. The return on investment from spending money on someone other than myself has been far greater. And those who were generous to me during that the year of cold turkey taught me what real pleasure is.
In case you’re wondering, that cheeky lunch time purchase wasn’t the only time I ‘let myself down’. A few weeks ago, I kept seeing the same beautiful double-sided shearling coat, until my mind was screaming out, “I must have it!”. After a frantic search, I discovered it was sold out in the flagship store and online. When I saw that ASOS had it, I jumped at the chance only to find that the Hermes delivery man had lost the parcel! I took that as a definitive reminder of the turmoil I went through by chasing material items, and why I even went on a shopping fast. As we approach 2020, it’s been two years since my 365 day shopping ban. When I catch the eye of a woman piling into an overcrowded tube carriage with her oversized paper bags, names of brands emblazoned on the front, I feel a pang in my chest. I see myself in her and know that she isn’t happy. Sure, it could be that no one enjoys the discomfort of being packed like sardines on the Central Line. But it evokes memories for me, of wanting to buy everything, always wanting more but knowing that it would never be enough.
Words by CL