Balance sheet of a shop-free year

While discipline held, I threw out all catalogues, avoided department s tores
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The Independent Online
On St Valentine's Day 1994, I declared in this column that I intended to give up shopping for a year, and promised to report back. Today's date is some weeks short of the full year, but since this is likely to be my final column, it is my last chance to say how I got on.

The shaming truth is that I broke my vow; the redeeming feature is that I kept it rigidly for eight months. As with all resolutions, the first few weeks are easy. Buoyed up by a sense of virtue, it is not hard to resist the blandishments of catalogues, sales and special offers. I avoided department stores, I boycotted sales. On holiday last year I made do with the same clothes I had worn on holiday in 1993; needless to relate, nobody noticed. I paid off my accounts at the two department stores where I have credit and stuck on the side of the fridge their final bills with the magic words: "amount due: £00.00".

In October we went to France for five weeks so that my partner could continue the eternal task of pointing the old stone walls of our cottage and I could start on my next novel. There, shopping for food in Sarlat market one autumnal Saturday morning, I saw in a shoe shop the very pair of flat shoes I needed for the winter. (A friend, hearing of my no-spend policy, had said "Ah, but there's a difference between buying and replacing!". Dangerous words.) The shoes cost a mere 168 francs (about £20). Reader, I bought them! I carried them home and gloated. They gave me more pleasure than any shoes bought in the past 20 years.

The French have a saying, more usually applied to adultery, "c'est le premier pas qui coute". How right they are. Having broken my resolution once, the wall of my will was breached, my discipline weakened, and the one small exception was soon followed bybigger ones.

Christmas was my undoing. I had intended to buy token presents only, but found it impossible. My son needed so many items to furnish his new flat, and it was such a pleasure to buy him a few necessary odds and ends. The January sales completed my downfall. Failure to keep my resolution is now complete.

A number of interesting discoveries remain. The first is that, contrary to expectations, I have not saved any money. Essential expenditure soon fills the gap vacated by non-essential spending and a new fosse septique for the cottage, a new boiler for ourkitchen in London, and the need to save for new oak flooring soon used up any theoretical "savings" from the months of abstinence.

Second, although spending money again, I am doing so at a much lower price level. Where, this time last year, I might have spent £80 in the sales on a silk shirt, reduced from £190, I now find myself spending £50 on one reduced from £80. I have become much more price- and value-conscious. These days I prefer to patronise good second-hand dress shops. London has many excellent ones to which ladies of undreamed-of wealth bring unworn couture clothes, shoes and bags for sale at a fraction of their originalprice. Last week I bought a pair of glove-soft dark brown ankle boots of positively fetishistic beauty for less than I might have paid for brand-new but much inferior boots.

Third, I have discovered that - as when trying to eat or drink less - it is essential never to go near temptation. If you are dieting, get someone else to do your food shopping. If you are "on the wagon", do not keep alcohol in the house. In my case, while discipline held out, I threw away catalogues unopened and avoided all department stores.

So although I cannot report that I kept my resolution, I have learnt a good deal in the attempt: above all, that the consumer merry-go-round is a treadmill to which there is no end. Once you let yourself measure satisfaction, let alone self-esteem, by your worldly possessions, you are filled with an insatiable hunger, for there is no such thing as enough. Buy a becoming new blue jacket for a wedding and lo! you need new blue shoes to go with it. The new shoes make the old handbag look shabby: better buy a new bag as well. But then you can't wear that old shirt ... and so it goes on. The lust to consume, like other lusts, grows with what it feeds upon. Temptation is everywhere, mocking, glittering, beckoning, unsatisfying.

The exercise has taught me a final, shaming thing about my childish need for reward. When I was a smoker I used cigarettes as a series of small rewards to punctuate the day and salute each tiny achievement. My glass of wine on returning home from work isa reward for effort and concentration. Spending money is also a reward: go on, says the siren voice inside; spoil yourself! you deserve it! It is a message that advertisements are quick to reinforce. I need to learn a new sort of reward; one that does not depend on novelty and is not linked to consumption.

The best reward for this column over the past two years has been the letters it elicited: about a thousand a year, mostly kind, even when correcting my howlers. I have answered them all and enjoyed the sense of communication with readers. Journalists hunched over paper or screen, drawing on news, facts, statistics, opinion and memory, write in a vacuum. It is easy to feel that our words are dispatched into the void, here today, gone tomorrow, ephemeral as dusk. One often wonders, is anyone listening? Writing this column, I always knew some, at least, were.

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