I have a big birthday coming up soon—you know, one of those birthdays that ends with a 0 and makes you reassess your entire life.
Recently, I drew up a list of things I'd like to do before the birthday in question. Some items on the list are serious (for example, sending letters of atonement to people I've hurt), and others are downright silly. So if you see me picking apples or riding a bicycle with a basket in the next few months, you'll know why.
I've taped a copy of the list to my kitchen cupboard—yes, the joys of living alone—so it's hardly top secret. One item in particular seems to surprise friends and family members who visit.
Do a month-long shopping ban.
My left-brained friends way overthink this one. So you're not going to buy groceries? Will the potbellied chickadees who count on your bird feeder go hungry? What about shampoo? To which I say: Hang on, folks. No birds will be harmed in the making of this to-do list.
Before I explain the rules of the shopping ban, let me start with the why. I live pretty simply, which means that I can afford to do what I enjoy—write, edit, coach aspiring writers, make websites, practice Reiki and teach yoga—rather than grind my nose to a nub in pursuit of a paycheck. This is an incredible privilege, and I don't take it for granted.
But lately I've been making so many purchases. The plastic bin under my bed overflows with abandoned craft projects. Some of the hangers in my closet are laden with more than one item of clothing. The trunk of my car is a mess of sports equipment, not to mention a few things I swore I needed but can't even be bothered to bring into my house. Unread books gather dust beneath my nightstand. (I ran out of room on the nightstand long, long ago.)
Sure, these spending habits bloat my monthly credit card bill. But beyond the financial side of things, something more insidious is happening.
Consumption takes up way too much of my time and attention.
When I have downtime, I find myself diving into the rabbit hole of Amazon, Craigslist, and customer review sites. I can always come up with something I "need": a new essential oil, the best probiotic supplement, a book that will provide the magic solution to all of my problems. Then I scour the web for a good deal, or even a not-so-good deal, and wait for the FedEx driver to deposit the box downstairs.
But what good has any of it done me?
This season, I've spent 100% more time researching tents than actually camping. (As I write this, the tent sits in its shipping box, half-hidden behind my bed.) I've spent 100% more time searching for deals on running shoes than actually running. I've spent 100% more time finding a designer to do a new logo for this website (by the way, do you like it?) than making the Meditation for Writing course I've had planned out for months. I've bought yarn and books and a soccer ball with a hole in it.
The problem: instead of using the things I buy—or, you know, actually writing—I go on the hunt again. It's not just physical objects, either. Maybe a massage therapist can fix the tension in my neck? Maybe a medium can put me in touch with my dead father? Maybe dinner at just the right restaurant will bring me and my boyfriend closer? Maybe a business coach can make me into a gigagillionaire with hordes of Instagram followers and dozens of yellow roses in my dressing room?
Hence the shopping ban.
Here are my rules: all groceries get a free pass, as do meals at restaurants (within reason). If I run out of a toiletry item, I can buy a replacement. Activities such as yoga, dance class, and harp lessons are fine, as are gifts for others. If an unexpected but necessary expense arises, that's fine too.
The rest is out: no clothes, no books, no random crap I'm sure will make me healthier/happier/hotter/more productive.
I don't really need any other rules, because in my heart I always know whether or not a particular purchase violates the ban. If I feel guilty or stressed or disappointed in myself, that's a good sign I've bought something I shouldn't have.
One problem: I was supposed to do the shopping ban this month. And I slipped up. Many, many times.
As I wandered into the bookstore, as I scanned Zappos reviews for the word "bunion," there were no guns to my head. No one was going to die if I didn't hand over my credit card. No dollar bills rained down from the skies. I can't even claim that I forgot about the ban.
I just... well, I just bought stuff. And then more stuff.
At first, I justified my purchases. Used books aren't going to bankrupt me, and surely it's OK to buy some new running shoes because my old pair cramps my toes a bit?
But yesterday. Oh, yesterday.
Yesterday I ordered a bike.
I remember getting a bike for Christmas as a kid. It felt like THE BIGGEST THING THAT HAD EVER HAPPENED TO ME. I'd waited months for that bike. I rode it down my little dead-end street about six million times, because my parents wouldn't let me go anywhere else. But that was fine, because the fresh air cooled my skin and the wind tangled my hair and my legs worked and my heart worked and my lungs worked and I had a bike.
Yesterday, on a whim, after about 20 seconds of deliberation, I bought a bike. Even though I'd promised myself not to do any shopping for a month. It was a one-click purchase from an online retailer that stores my shipping address and credit card information so I can drop a load of cash without thinking twice. The price was good, and there was only one left, so—click.
Remember how I know I've violated the ban if I feel guilty, stressed, or disappointed in myself? Well, I feel all of those things right now. My self-doubt is shrill enough to break a wineglass: Will you even use this bike, or will it become another thing you flake on—just like your creative projects, just like those diets you used to try, just like like the friendships you haven't maintained over the years?
The only way I've figured out how to quiet that self-critical voice is through reflection. Specifically, I've been looking at my possessions and my credit card statements and asking myself the following question:
What are you really trying to buy?
You might wonder what any of this has to do with writing or creativity. My answer: a lot. We all have finite time and resources, and we're bombarded by messages every day that we'll have more friends if we drink this brand of liquor, we'll be skinnier if we eat this snack food, we'll be closer to nature if we buy these hiking pants.
Excuse me while I get soapbox-y, but these messages—and the time and money we spend in reaction to them—are distractions from what's in our hearts. And what's in our hearts includes our creative work.
The only way I know how to do this whole blogging thing is by being honest. So I'm going to tell you about a few things I've bought lately—things for which I did extensive research, comparison shopped, and/or violated my shopping ban—and what I suspect I was really trying to buy.
My hope is that my slip-ups will give you a new perspective and guide you to focus more on your true priorities, which probably don't include saving money on a purchase you didn't need in the first place.
All right, my friends. Here we go.
Number 1: A six-person tent.
Things stashed behind my bed: air mattress, spare chair, unused elliptical, library books, and an unopened tent I just had to have.
The damage: Bought from Amazon for $168.86 on May 23rd.
Current status: Unopened in original shipping box. It sat in the middle of my living room for a couple of weeks, and then I dragged it behind my bed.
What did it really cost me?: I spent hours upon hours reading tent reviews on Amazon and scouring Craigslist. I also did many hours of related research on other camping paraphernalia I don't yet own (camping stove, ground tarp, camp chair, etc.).
What was I really trying to buy? I became obsessed with the idea of camping because I felt sapped by my computer. I spend my working hours and many of my leisure hours hunched over this thing, and yet I don't feel particularly productive or fulfilled afterward. The idea of retreating to the woods, where no one needs anything from me and I don't have to achieve anything and the night sky feels as if it were made just for me—I long for that. I also want to face some of my fears before my big birthday, and camping is definitely among them.
The irony: Instead of going outside for a walk, I spent hours doing exactly what I was trying to escape: staring at a computer screen feeling inadequate, unfulfilled, and burdened. And I'm no closer to actually facing down the fear I've felt about camping. Instead, I retreated to my glowing-blue-screen comfort zone.
What now? This order wasn't fulfilled by Amazon, so it's unclear whether it's returnable. I do want to camp, however, and I have to admit that my time is valuable—including time spent scouring Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for a better deal, let alone driving to pick up the tent—so I'm pretty sure I'll keep this thing.
New goal: To camp—even if it's just in the great big field behind my house—for two nights before the end of July. I'll borrow necessary equipment from friends and family.
Number 2: Six bottles of essential oils.
The damage: Ordered from an essential oil retailer in the last hours of May 31st (in other words, right before the shopping ban was supposed to kick in). $79.70 including expedited shipping, because how can I be expected to wait for my oils?
Current status: I've tried them all, and I'm on the fence. Usually I love essential oil blends, but this batch doesn't really do it for me. One smells stinky but maybe calms me down a bit. Another smells like old-lady perfume. Another third smells a lot like the first but doesn't seem to give me the same emotional benefit.
What did it really cost me? This was a true impulse purchase, so I didn't spend much time researching or agonizing.
What was I really trying to buy? A solution for feeling stuck, anxious, and ugly. For reference, here are the names of three blends I ordered: "Align," "Allure," and "Be Still." I probably hoped that Align would lift me out a funk, Allure would make me feel sexy, and Be Still would lift my anxieties and transform me a cool, calm meditator.
What now? These are returnable (the company has a 30-day refund policy, which is super), and I'll probably send them back. There's a chance I'll keep the one that seems to calm me down.
New goal: Use up some of the oils I already love and own. Look for ways to relieve stress and feel good about myself that don't involve buying anything.
Number 3: The running shoes.
The damage: Ordered from Zappos after my bedtime on June 8th. $68.95
Current status: Sitting by my doorway, looking messy. I can't decide whether they scrunch my toes or not.
What was I really trying to buy?: Fun fact: I can't run. Or at least I tell myself I can't. I have bunions on both feet, tendonitis in my ankles, and arthritis in my right foot, and in the past, running has aggravated all of these. But I'd love to improve my cardiovascular fitness, and it would feel so good to discover that I am capable of running again after all. (Before my foot issues presented themselves, I loved running.) So I hoped that the right shoes would not only inspire me to do cardio, but also fix my feet.
The irony: I have no idea whether these sneakers will treat my feet any better than my old pair. As a result, they're sitting unworn by my door, and I'm sitting on my couch.
What now? Hours of indecision, most likely.
New goal: Forgive myself. My intentions were good. No one died because I bought something that I didn't need, and no one will die if I keep them and discover that they cramp my toes after all.
Number 4: The dreaded bike.
The damage: Ordered from Amazon on June 16th. $319.79, including tax.
Current status: Scheduled to be delivered tomorrow.
What was I really trying to buy?: Fitness. Time outdoors. Connection to my childhood love of biking. A way to save the environment. On a shallower note: a way to demonstrate how much I care about the environment. Plus my boyfriend loves biking, so it could be an activity that brings us closer.
The irony: To use the bike for errands (and thereby single-handedly save the environment), I'll need to acquire a number of other items, such as safety lights, a lock, and some sort of rack/saddlebags/basket getup. Also, if I go biking with my boyfriend, he'll be approximately twice as fast as I am.
What now? I don't know. I really do worry that I won't use the bike all that much: my town is hilly, and New Jersey drivers aren't known for being cautious, considerate, or attentive. I'll at least assemble the bike and see whether it fits me comfortably. If it does, I'll ask myself whether I want to keep it. If I can quiet the mean, biting, self-berating voices in my head, I'll probably know the answer.
New goal: Block Amazon and Craigslist on my computer using an (ironically named) program called Self-Control. This will free up time and eliminate those one-click impulse buys.
What really matters?
The issue with these purchases isn't that they cost me money. It's that they take up space in my life, distracting me from more important things and preventing me from actually addressing the underlying issues. If I'm concerned about my cardiovascular health, I need to get moving, not while away the hours on Zappos. And if I feel anxious, I need to meditate, get out of the house, or call someone, not read customer reviews of products that promise to make me better.
So what really matters to me, and how can I structure my life so that I'm not distracted by shiny objects? How can I honor my true priorities—such as self-expression, learning, health, and relationships?
This post is ending on a more serious than my usual fare, and I'm tempted to make a self-deprecating joke or tone down what I have to say or make disclaimers that I'm no expert. But I won't.
Yes, it's easier to click through product recommendations than to ask myself what I truly need. But you know what? I'm writing this on Fathers' Day and I'll never be able to take my dad to dinner again. We hear it all the time, but it's easy to forget: time is precious. Too precious to spend consuming and consuming and consuming.
So as one decade of my life closes and another opens, I hope I find the strength, willingness, and energy to face the hard questions rather than settle for distractions.