Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Thinking about Not Buying It

A few weeks ago, when Drew and I were wandering around the Danforth and enjoying $8 smoothies from a chi-chi organic smoothie shoppe in Greektown, I picked up a book at a used book store called "Not Buying It."  I bought it, for $10.  I've just finished reading it (minus the last few pages), and it was worth every dollar spent.  I might even have paid full price for it.

The book is Judith Levine's chronicle of the challenge that she and her partner, Paul, take up for one year: to not buy anything but the necessities.  This includes only food really, as they try to use up things they have (tiny bottles of hotel shampoos, for example) rather than purchase new things of even basic hygiene products.  It's not a philosophy or economics book, though Levine reads lots of books from both of these disciplines over the year in an attempt to understand consumption and commercialisation.  It's almost like a diary, and we see Levine struggling, failing, succeeding, and learning a lot from her and Paul's experiences with not buying things.  The book raises really interesting questions about how material objects are related to our identities, in the post-modern way in which people are described as living identity through the things that they consume.  There is food for thought about how brand identities are created and maintained, and how the brand becomes the thing desired through purchasing, which can never be purchased.  All things considered, it was an interesting and refreshing read.

It leaves me with a feeling of wanting to cut back on my own consumption, which is perhaps the greatest compliment to give a book about not buying things.  When I compare my spending habits with Levine's, I have a lot going for me already in the way of not buying it.  I don't have cable TV, I don't purchase a lot of clothing, I bike 9 months of the year and so don't buy transit passes, I have a car but drive it only on the weekends I go to Kingston or Fenelon, I purchased no new books in the last year (I bought used books instead), and generally I do things that make me seem behind the times in terms of technology and entertainment, and sometimes like a tight-fisted hippie.  Either way, I'm fine with that image, because just as buying things lends an identity to the buyer, so not buying things lends another identity to the non-buyer, and in this case it's that identity that I'm happy to have.  Maybe not so much the tight-fisted hippie, but certainly the under-consuming, reusing, recycling, vintage shopping, tree-hugger.

Still, there's significant room for improvement in my spending habits, I'm certain.  Judith and Paul gave up material goods, but also immaterial goods; they didn't go to the movies, they didn't eat out at restaurants, they didn't take any trips (apart from one for their niece's graduation - paid for with air miles), and they didn't go to any plays or any other kind of entertainment that requires paying for.  As the book was written in 2004 and it seems that Judith and Paul were labouring under a dial-up internet connection (the shame!), they weren't able to stream or download their music or movies either.  The ability to get these things for free is something that I depend on to keep my expenditures down, even though I don't personally download music (I'm happy to accept downloaded music from Drew and other friends).

I don't know that I would want to give up these things entirely even for one year.  It sounded like the limitations put on their social lives by not spending money on entertainment and going to restaurants were the most difficult part of the project for Judith and Paul.  Maintaining their friendships and professional relationships took a lot of creativity and finesse.  I suppose that I'm like many people in very much enjoying eating at restaurants.  Even then, I only eat out once every couple of weeks when I'm alone - when Drew and I are together we'll usually cook, but we like to go for brunch on Sundays.  Giving it up would still feel like the cruelest of hardships, especially since my social life in Toronto is still pretty tame (or am I just making excuses?).  Perhaps if Drew and I were in the same place it would be different, because then, like Judith and Paul, I'd have a partner in adversity and someone to hang out with on all those nights in.

Yet, I've caught the idea of spending less and it's very attractive.  Saving money wasn't the goal of Levine's project, but in the end she ended up paying off an almost $8000 credit card bill, and saved a small amount in addition to that which was money that she would have used if she'd been consuming at her regular pace.  This savings is impressive, and while it's the result of her not-altogether-desirable extreme frugality for that year, it's inspiring to someone like me, who has tens of thousands in school-and-life-related debt.

I wonder what could I save if I cut back on spending, even just a little bit?


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  2. This would be my own personal version of hell.