Personal Development

My own “Year Of Less”

December 29, 2021

“We must stop shopping, but we can’t stop shopping”. My exploration of why it’s so hard to stop & public commitment to my own “Year of Less”

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This article was difficult to sit down and write. I struggle to explain why this challenge scares me; I’m not so sure I even understand why myself. Have you experienced something that you feel compelled to do, yet also feel incredibly hesitant to start? My own “Year of Less” is that for me. Stating it publicly also increases the level of commitment I feel to seeing it through.

About two years ago I read the amazing book “The Year Of Less“. It should be on everyone’s must read list. I remember fantasizing about doing one myself. I even took a picture of her decision tree of whether an item should be purchased (you know, for when I did the challenge myself…):

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Taken from “The Year of Less”

I kept thinking I was going to do my own “Year of Less”. Yet I didn’t.

I can’t even explain why it unsettles me so much. If I have everything I need and many things I just “want”…. why would forgoing consumerism for a year even BE a challenge??

I didn’t start the challenge, but the book did lead me down a heavy road of minimalism and waste-free living in 2020. I got rid of ~50% of my clothes, we streamlined our kitchen gadgets, and took 3 loads of items to the donation centre. We made conscious efforts to decrease the amount of items we bought in plastic packaging and drive less.

I felt more peaceful in our home almost instantly.

The horrifying part?

I can’t even remember what we got rid of!

At some point I spent hard-earned money on it, yet it just became… forgettable?

Why buy it in the first place then?

Why does not buying things feel painful?!

In “Minimalism: A documentary about the important things” (which I’ve probably watched 6x now and highly recommend), Patrick Rhone is talking about humans desire to just keep consuming. He states “Just turn it off”.

What if you CAN’T though??

How do you stop when shopping is so built into our experience as humans? We’re bombarded with ads, gorgeous lives on social media, fancy new homes popping up on the block, and constant reminders that if you don’t keep running you’re going to fall behind.

Behavior change under those conditions feels almost impossible.

In the past, I decided to tackle my sweet tooth by doing a one month sugar fast. The first week I daydreamed about treats like a psycho, but by the end of the month the cravings settled down. How easy would it be to say no to sugar now if I’d extended that challenge for a full year?

However, how much harder would the sugar fast have been if I was seeing ads & social media images of mouth-watering desserts 1000x throughout the day, or having friends eat incredible cookies in front of me constantly? Likely much harder to follow through. Next add in some societal pressure to eat treats constantly to fit in, and you’d have the pressure cooker of how hard it is to avoid shopping.

We can’t completely stop consuming or shopping. There are things you absolutely need to purchase. But what about everything else that we spend money on?

Lars & I pride ourselves on being more financially conscious than the average person, yet when we looked back on the past year we realized we bought a lot of STUFF.

Hilariously (sadly?), even the pursuit of minimalism and sustainable living lead to purchases (glass jars, bikes & trailer for getting groceries, some new furniture, etc).

Is everything just an excuse to shop?

We try to follow a budget that some might feel is restrictive, yet it’s still bloated wellllllll beyond actual needs.

It often feels like the more nice things I get, the more my other items look old and “require” upgrades. The Diderot Effect is real!

How do you break that cycle? Is it as simple as “turn it off”? Complete my own “Year of Less”?

If you stop shopping, does that craving decrease the same way the sugar ones did?

I want to find out. Yet I’m terrified to find out. Why? I honestly don’t have a solid answer.

My own year of less
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I read the book two years ago, so why is it back on my mind now?

We’ve been slowly doing DIY renovations to our old 1950’s house. The front yard was a disaster, we had 7 types of flooring in the ~900 square foot upstairs, and certain layouts just were not functional.

I LOVE how it’s coming along, yet I feel obsessive about it too. My mind is constantly racing with ideas of how to improve things.

Doing the work ourselves while being budget conscious is much more financially responsible than paying a company to do it, but it still stacks up.

It also feels like each room change leads to a few different items being “needed” to finish it. I even wrote an article about our house renovations last year in an attempt to settle myself down.

It’s exhausting & expensive, and we both feel like we need a break from it. I find it VERY difficult to say no to myself about the house however.

Enter a mindset shift:

I recently started reading an incredible book called “The Day The World Stops Shopping“:

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The subheading “How ending consumerism saves the environment and ourselves” sums it up quite well. The book explores what would happen if the entire world decreased it’s spending by 25%. We’ve all heard about how the economy will collapse if we stop buying, but would it? Does using GDP as a measure of financial progress even make sense?

If you enjoy either saving the planet OR economics, you’ll love this book. (I happen to like both!).

Anti-consumerism and economic stability are often painted as opponents. This was the first book I’ve read that explores in depth whether that’s true.

It’s not hidden that our planet cannot support how we’re living. “We must stop shopping but we can’t stop shopping: the consumer dilemma has become, quite simply, the question of whether we can sustain human life on Earth”.

“We are using the planet up at a rate 1.7 times faster than it can regenerate. If everyone consumed like the average American, it would be 5x faster! It’s like we’re spending all of our salary each year, then taking more than half again as much money out of the savings we’d planned to pass down to our children, and spending that too”.J.B. MacKinnon

The more insane part??

We also believe that we’ll find an ingenious way to do that AND leave “money” (a stand-in for earth) for our kids, even though all we have is debt rather than savings.

It simply doesn’t work.

The book goes into detail about how in all our years of trying to “green the economy” the best we’ve ever achieved is a couple years of holding CO2 pollution at a rate that matched the previous year. That’s not nearly good enough. He uses an example of adding a steady amount of ping pong balls (representing CO2) into your bath. Holding the addition rate steady is still going to result in a very uncomfortable bath quite quickly.

If we can’t “green buy” our way out of this mess, what do we do?

Buy less.

It’s the most simple & complex answer of all.

How will I signal to the world who I am without “stuff” though?

We often don’t buy items because we want that item; we buy it because of what we think it’ll give us.

Acceptance from others, prestige, a signal we’ve “made it in life”, love?

If you think about how much thought you put into a new pair of jeans, you’ll understand that purchases are about MUCH more than just the utility of the item.

Without that crutch, how do you show the world who you are? Or even deeper, what’s really there?

Maybe the fear of stopping shopping is answering that question?

We decided it was time to put our money (or lack thereof) where our mouth is. We spent hours talking about a low-buy year over coffee one afternoon and decided we want to try it. There’s something powerful about living according to your morals rather than feeling like a hypocrite chasing more shiny things.

Rules of my own “Year of Less”:

  • Consumables (such as gas & food) are okay, but we’re going to try to make more conscious decisions in this category. Avoid plastic where possible, more focus on organic produce, increased biking/decreased driving, etc.
  • Gifts for others are allowed, but we will try to give consumables or experiences rather than “stuff”.
  • Gifts from others will be accepted, but our preference is to receive experiences or consumables.
  • Items that truly get worn out or run out can be replaced (such as makeup, face wash, clothes, etc). However, the old version needs to be empty or beyond repair.
  • Food plants for the yard in spring are exempt, but we have set a $250 budget for them that we must follow (the money is already in the bank).
  • Necessary construction items (such as paint, trim, and underlay) for the flooring we’re still completing are exempt. We already purchased the flooring, so we want to finish the project. Money for the finishing items is already in the bank so we must follow that budget. We also have money tucked away to fix a foundation crack in our house in the spring. Nothing else for the house is permitted unless it breaks. A year without house projects sounds both delightful & depressing. The house is my largest trigger for spending, so it needed to go if I have any hope of successfully completing this year of less.
  • We can dine out/go to coffee shops as a date or with friends, but take-out is not permitted. We have to follow our $100 a month budget for restaurants.
  • We’re still going to make trips to the mountains in the summer for hiking, camping, and rock climbing. However, we’ve limited our available budget for these to the point where we’ll have to choose which trips we want most. Of all the rules, this one hurts us both the most.
  • Necessary (the term will be used consciously) purchases for my new business are exempt. I won’t compromise my business for the sake of my own “Year of Less”, but I also think I’ll require remarkably few things to operate.
  • I have a few approved purchases for the year: A white t-shirt (I ruined mine) and an outfit for an upcoming wedding. Lars said he cannot think of any purchases he needs to make.

Am I under any illusion that my “Year of Less” will be easy?

Not at all.

I think it’ll be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.

I also feel like that statement is disturbing enough that we have to do this. If I genuinely have everything I NEED why does not getting more feel like one of the hardest challenges of my life? Even thinking it feels oddly shameful.

We hope to end the year as fundamentally different people. Maybe Patrick Rhone was right; maybe you do just turn it off?

We plan on finding out.

It might just be possible to stop shopping. If so, what remains are more personal questions. Do we want to? Would life really be worse- or better?

J.B. MacKinnon
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