“Spend less money” is probably a close second to “Lose weight” on the list of most-common New Year’s resolutions. But when California blogger Elizabeth Jayne Liu says she’s giving up shopping altogether for a year, you tend to believe her. After all, she’s already been at it for four months. Since September, Liu has been chronicling her self-imposed exile from retail on her blog, Flourish in Progress. While she still allows herself occasional splurges like gifts, haircuts and a gym membership, Liu refuses to buy clothes, books, movies, fast food, furniture or most anything else, beyond the bare essentials. It’s not a story of financial hardship or a crusade against consumerism. So, what is motivating her to swear off spending? We caught up with Liu for a chat about self-denial, good parenting and her impending knife fight with the U.S. treasury secretary.
AdFreak: You’ve said on your blog that you’re not in debt, facing foreclosure or otherwise struggling to stay afloat. So, why the one-year shopping ban?
Liu: I spent seven years as a single mom before suddenly getting married (in Vegas, after dating just 18 days … I like to keep things classy) three and a half years ago. During those seven years, I was always on a tight budget and lived without a lot of material luxuries. After getting married, I had the opportunity to stay at home with my daughter, and I starting buying, buying, buying to make up for lost time.
This past summer, just before my 30th birthday, I realized two important things: First, my shopping habit consumed most of my free time. Second, it wasn’t achieving the deeper satisfaction I always imagined it would bring. So, I decided to give it up and focus my time on goals I’ve been putting off for months … or a decade.
I originally thought about doing the project for a shorter length of time, maybe a month, but I knew that I would end up just marking the days off my calendar and wait for the month to be over so that I could start shopping again. I picked a year because, well, a year is a damn long time, and I would be forced to find something else to do besides stare at the calendar.
AdFreak: Were you a pretty hard-core shopper before starting this project? Was it a big part of your life?
Liu: Absolutely. Where I shop and what I buy has changed over the years, but it’s always been a part of my life. I knew I was a hard-core shopper before I started the project, and the reaction afterward confirmed it. Sales associates I had befriended called to tell me about pre-sales and promotions, and most were not shy about asking where the hell I had been recently. I still receive invitations to store events along with gift cards and coupons to places I haven’t been in months.
AdFreak: What are you doing with the money you’re not spending?
Liu: At first, I kept a running list of all the things I didn’t buy, but I’ve learned that it’s easier to keep track of the money you are spending versus the money you aren’t. It’s hard to categorize the surplus at the end of the month. I stopped keeping track during the second month, mostly because it’s not about the money I save but what I do with my time since I’m not shopping.
AdFreak: Haven’t you heard that consumer spending is the only thing that will save the economy? Have you gotten any death threats from Tim Geithner?
Liu: That’s the guy from Project Runway, right? Oh wait, that’s Tim Gunn. I haven’t heard from Geithner. To that, I say, “Bring it, G.” Excessive consumer spending helped get us into this mess, and now consumer spending is supposed to get us out? I’m not advocating that everyone stop spending, but it was the right thing for me.
AdFreak: Your daughter isn’t part of the project, but do you see it having an effect on her and how she sees shopping?
Liu: Before I started the project, our family spent countless hours at the mall. I was afraid that dressing rooms and sample sales would comprise most of her early memories. She can still pick out a sweater in the right size from a clearance bin in less than 30 seconds.
Even though she’s not on the project, since we don’t spend the majority of our time shopping anymore, we’ve been able to do other things. We started a little garden, and instead of toys or video games, she got a new herb or flower. Then, they died. It wasn’t what we hoped, but it’s opened her eyes and helped her see a world outside the mall.
AdFreak: How do your Monday Dares work? Why did you include them in the project?
Liu: Early on, I knew I needed small, manageable goals to focus on each week. It’s easier to look at a larger end goal when it’s broken down into smaller tasks. I took away my biggest distraction, and I wanted to achieve a deeper level of happiness and satisfaction, but I wasn’t sure how to do that. So, I made a list of “Things to Do, Places to Go, Possible Acts That Help, and Possible Fun to Have.”
It started out with shopping-related Monday Dares, such as using the enormous number of pennies that were accumulating in our home, but I took it one step further and decided to include ANYTHING that I had ever wanted to do. Like, giving up swearing (epic failure, by the way) or learning basic French or speaking only the truth or letting go of grudges.
I’m thrilled that these dares resonate with so many people. Most Monday Dares have taken unexpected turns and ended up as a hot mess, and I’ve enjoyed every single one. The number of e-mails suggesting new dares has been astounding. I’ve gotten everything from “Practice random acts of kindness” to “Waitress at the local nudie bar” to “Go dumpster diving.” I plan to do two out of those three, by the way.
AdFreak: You’re only a few months in to the project. Do you think it’ll be tough to ride out the rest of the year?
Liu: I’ve stopped crying when the catalogs come in the mail, and I’ve stopped yelling at the television during commercials, so I’d say the toughest part is over. I’ve slipped once already during the four months I’ve been on the project. While I can’t say for sure that I’ll be perfect for the next eight months, slipping up has shown me that shopping really does not have the satisfaction that I once thought it did.
AdFreak: Any parting advice for those considering a New Year’s resolution to cut back on shopping?
Liu: Have a plan. It’s easy to say, “I’m not shopping.” It gets harder when you have a free Saturday afternoon and you’re not sure what else to do. Jot a few things down. It doesn’t have to be a complete list. The more you steer yourself away from what you don’t want to do, the easier it becomes to see what it is that you do want.
This next thing is so simple. I can’t believe it took me this long to realize it. Buy quality. I spent years buying cheap $4 flip-flops that hurt my feet and had to be replaced bi-weekly. Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy flip-flops during my project, even cheap ones, I invested in a good pair the week before my project started. Four months later, they’re still like butter and ended up being cheaper than buying two pairs a month.
Most important, be patient with yourself. Even if you decide to give up shopping for a week or a month, unpredictable things can happen. Roll with it.