After digging herself out of nearly $30,000 in debt, Cait Flanders fell back into old spending habits. So she gave herself an ultimatum: no shopping for a year. Then she extended it for another one. That’s 730 days without shopping.
Flanders ended her two-year shopping ban last Wednesday, and scored a book deal that same day for an anti-consumption self-help memoir. Here, the Victoria, B.C.-based personal finance writer—and co-host of the podcast Budgets and Cents—explains how her shopping hiatus truly paid off.
For the past two years you didn’t buy anything new (with a few minor much-needed exceptions). What inspired your ban?
Most people think I stopped shopping because I was in debt, but I was debt-free when I started. I had spent two years paying it down, and there were months where I was putting up to 55 percent of my income toward debt repayment. After I paid it off, I started spending again. I went through this period that personal finance people call “lifestyle inflation,” where when you get more money, you spend more money.
At that time, I’d write a budget at the beginning of the month and include what I wanted to do with my money—like, “I want to save at least 20 percent”—and at the end of the month, I would say what I actually did with it. In reality, I’d have only saved 5 or 10 percent. I knew I could do better. So that’s how the shopping ban took shape. I realized I had all the basics, so why not try it?
What items were included in your shopping ban?
I couldn’t buy anything that wasn’t essential unless I absolutely had to replace it. So no clothes, shoes, accessories, fun cosmetics like nail polish, home decor like candles… things like that. But if I ran out mascara, I bought new mascara. Big things for me were books, because I used to buy them constantly but had stacks I never read. And takeout coffee, because I wasn’t comfortable with how much money I was spending on it. A few times, it got tough. My only pair of jeans ripped in the inner thigh about 250 or 270 days into the first year, and I tried to patch it but you can’t fix that. So I allowed myself to replace them, because it was something I needed, rather than wanted.
So what’s giving up shopping really like?
I embraced the idea that if I consumed less, I’d create more. For me that meant putting more focus on my blog and freelance work. One of the weirdest by-products of the ban was learning how little I needed to live off of each month. It enabled me to make the leap into full-time freelance writing [she had been working as a managing editor on a financial website], which I couldn’t have done if I continued mindlessly spending.
Was there a moment when you really wanted something and almost gave in?
Oh, yes. I remember really wanting a new e-reader when I saw one on sale. Mine was broken, and this one was $40 off. That’s when I realized how much of the spending we do is based on things we tell ourselves. We convince ourselves we need it, when most of the time we don’t.
What were some of the ways you treated yourself without shopping?
I still spent money, but it went to trips, like a 10-day road trip from Boston to DC, and visits to Portland, Toronto and New York. I was still frugal; I’d get a flight deal to a city where a friend lived and stay with them. Even with travelling, I managed to get down to living off of 51 percent of my income. I realized it was important to spend a bit of money to see new places, visit friends and make memories rather than bring new things home. So I saved approximately 30 to 35 percent of my income, and travelled with the rest.
At one point you were nearly $30,000 in student loans and consumer debt. How did you curb your spending?
Honestly I was maxed out. The stress weighed so heavily on me, and the debt made me so anxious that I knew I never wanted to feel like that ever again. So I started tracking my spending, and quite naturally you want to spend less once you actually see where it is going. After I did that for a few months, I took the averages of what I was spending and started budgeting.
Within two years, you erased your debt. That meant serious scrimping: just one haircut, no travel and rarely eating out. How did you stay focused?
That’s where goals are important: I set one and stuck to it. One thing I will say, I think I paid off the debt a little too quickly. If I had given myself a little more time to pay it off, maybe two-and-a-half or three years, I could had saved more each month and thought about my next goal, which would have helped me in the long-term.
What would to say to someone who is interested in a shopping ban?
You don’t have to be as drastic as I was. What’s more important is looking at your vices: things you know you spend too much on, or have enough of. If there’s one or two things you buy often, or spend a lot on, try giving them up for 30 or 60 days and seeing what happens.
Were there any mental or emotional benefits to your shopping ban?
I realized I’m perfectly content, and nothing I buy can make life any better. Much of what I used to buy was stuff I wanted the ideal version of myself to own. So I bought clothes that I thought Professional Cait should wear, or books that Smart Cait should read. It’s been so powerful realizing it’s OK to accept yourself and not buy things you think are going to make you better.
What are some of your best personal finance tips?
Personal finance is personal. That said, we’re told to save 10 or 20 percent or whatever, and a lot of people think as long as they’re saving that amount, it’s good enough and they can spend the rest. But that’s backwards. How interesting would it be if instead we heard advice like: You should try to live on 50 percent of your income. How different would your finances look? You can save more than you think.
Now that you’ve finished your shopping ban—the day before your 31st birthday—have you made plans to buy anything special?
I’ve been waiting to buy some camping gear for a road trip I’ve been planning. And after two years of not shopping, I probably have a lot of clothing that needs to be replaced. But that’s the key word: replaced.