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My Year of Non-Compulsive Shopping

Fay Johnson

Transient

By Paula Derrow

For more than two decades, I worked at fashion magazines, smack in the middle of New York City, where buying a new shirt or a pair of cute shoes was as easy as strolling past a shop window, running in, and strutting out with yet another bag. Not that I’m swimming in designer labels, but I just didn’t give shopping much serious thought. If I wanted something, and it wasn’t too, too pricy, I bought it. In that respect, I’m quite unlike my frugal parents. I grew up not lacking for anything, but my father is a champion coupon clipper, and I’m certain my mother has never spent more than $50 for a bag or a pair of shoes.

Partly, I blamed my profession for my spending habit. I worked with all women at all those glossy magazines, women who (nicely) noticed what I was wearing, and I didn’t want to get caught wearing the same thing more than once a week (if that).

As the years passed, I found that I was buying more and more, yet, like most women, wearing the same seven or eight favorites over and over. Sometimes, I’d even discover random shirts buried deep in a drawer with the tags still on, mostly cheap things I’d picked up without thinking about it. But even a shirt that costs $10 is no bargain if it stays tucked in the drawer.

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Then, about a year-and-a-half ago, I lost my job in a company-wide layoff, and had to make some big changes in my spending, fast. I made a vow: No new clothes for a year. Or shoes. Or bags. Or jewelry. After all, I no longer had colleagues to impress. Besides, I had a closet stuffed with enough for two or three wardrobes; it was time to use what I already owned.

That’s a smart move for anyone’s budget, and as it turns out, for the environment. As Leo Rosario reported in “Fashion Forward,” in Deliberate Life’s second issue, a single textile mill in China (a country that accounts for up to 54% of the world’s clothing production), can use up to 200 tons of water for each ton of fabric it dyes, to the tune of millions of tons of fabric a year. I was definitely up for conserving water, never mind cash.

At first, it was tough. Whenever I’d pass a colorful window display, I found myself slowing down. “Ooh, love that coral bag! That sweater looks so soft!” my brain would think, and I’d lean in closer, scanning to see if there were any sales going on. Then, my super ego would kick in: “Keep going!” I’d warn myself sternly. You have plenty of bags. And sweaters.” And I’d move along, my heart beating a bit faster at a danger averted. Sure, I could go in for a browse without buying, but I told myself I wouldn’t even enter stores. Why tempt myself?

It turns out, some old habits don’t die so hard. Within a month or so, I wasn’t stopping to press my nose against store windows; I wasn’t even turning my head as I strode on by. And, to my surprise, instead of feeling deprived, I felt a tiny bit…relieved. There was no more keeping up with trends, no more wasting time deliberating over whether I could afford something.

Then came a major challenge: a long-planned trip to Rome that I’d been promising my 13-year-old nephew for years, in honor of his bar mitzvah. Despite my resolve, I wasn’t sure that I could resist the sumptuous leather bags, the Italian cashmere, the soft leather boots….

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I’d like to say that I kept my vow on that ten-day trip. But the truth is, I broke down and bought a few things. A bag. One sweater. I felt guilty—but not tremendously so. Because even though I was buying, I was doing it in moderation, thoughtfully. I passed up many sweaters before I finally plucked up one that I adored. And when I returned home, I paid off my VISA bill and resumed my un-buying spree. It was nice to have a few new things in my closet, and I wore them with pleasure; there was no way I was going to forget I owned these pieces.

As for the rest of my year-without-buying, it went off without a hitch. I actually learned to enjoy putting old pieces together in new ways (it’s amazing how a cool scarf can make an outfit look fresh again). I was free, for the moment, from the shopping bug, the urge to acquire, speeding past store windows on the way to more important things.

And when it was over, I didn’t rush out on a buying binge. Instead, when I do take out my credit card, I make sure it’s for something I need, something I’ll love, something I’ll wear like crazy. I can feel good about that kind of buying, even on a budget.

Images by Michelle Park