It was New Year’s Eve, 2016, half an hour before midnight, when I last bought myself something to wear. Like many parents of little kids, I wasn’t out partying but ensconced in the living room at a friend’s house, dozy with drink, wondering how long I had to stay up before it was acceptable to go to bed. Rock and new-baby roll.
I took out my phone and opened Instagram. I saw a friend of a friend in a fantastic dress, and scrolled straight through to the comments. I was in luck. She’d mentioned the shop she’d bought it from and linked through to the website. They had a sale on! But... oh no. It ended on 31 December.
I felt a bolt of adrenaline, a sense of urgency flooding my fingers, quickening my breathing. Only 30 minutes left. I needed to act fast. I pushed myself out of my cosy chair to grab my purse from my bag, typed my card details into the tiny screen, rationalising the spend as “the last one of the year”. I hadn’t been shopping for ages. I’d been too busy caring for a newborn, spending my maternity pay on nappies. I didn’t fit into any of my old clothes, and I deserved a dress like that... didn’t I? Purchase made, I concentrated on the countdown, ignoring a creeping sense of spenders’ guilt.
Ten... nine... eight... seven... we clinked glasses, and I tried to remain philosophical. That money belonged to last year. It was 2017, now. The slate had been wiped clean. But then someone asked about new year’s resolutions, and I thought of the people queueing up at food banks, the rise in homelessness – one in every 200 people in the UK, according to the charity Shelter. I thought of how lucky I was, how privileged; the luxury of looking after a tiny baby yet still being able to spend money on a whim. I thought of how downright distasteful it is in the West, how inured we’ve become to advertisers urging us to spend, the arrogant ease of it. One click to “buy now”.
“I just spent £60 on a dress I didn’t need,” I blurted out. It felt like a confession. “I’m going to stop shopping,” I continued. “I’m not going to buy anything for myself for a year.”
The others laughed. It was clear they didn’t believe me. They’d seen my wardrobes, filled to bursting with dresses, wigs and scarves; they’d heard me squeal with excitement, trawling through charity shops and jumble sales. They’d browsed the rail I’d moved into the loft, filled entirely with vintage dresses. I haven’t, historically, spent a lot on clothes – preferring “retro” and second-hand clothing to high end or high street. I’d much rather fritter £12 on a musty-smelling skirt from the 1970s than £50 on a pair of socks from Selfridges, but nevertheless, I was drowning in “stuff”. And half of it I’d probably never even get around to wearing. It felt grotesque to have so much when all around me people had so little. And did I really need it? Did it make me happy? After maternity leave I was going back to life as a freelance journalist. Could I even afford it? When I couldn’t answer a firm “yes” to any of those questions, I knew what I needed to do.
Fast-forward 12 months and I’ve made it through the year... almost. It was hard at times, made harder with the incessant emails from Asos, eBay and Urban Outfitters, offering me 20 per cent off here, free delivery there. I hit delete, relegated them to my “spam” folder. I avoided Westfield, Brick Lane and Oxford Street. Black Friday felt like a relentless assault of consumerism – I received dozens of discounts and ‘special offers’ a day, but got through it by hitting “block” and “unsubscribe”.
I had slips. As bridesmaid at my brother’s wedding in March, I was to wear a silver halterneck all-in-one (quite the challenge, when you’re breastfeeding). I needed a strapless nursing bra, and I could only find one online. And on a particularly tough November day, I spent £15 on a flamingo-print dress to cheer myself up, but felt so guilty when the package arrived that I sent it back, unopened. I even filled an online basket full of clothes at H&M, then closed the browser before I could press “checkout”.
It’s been tough, but it’s been refreshing, and it has always felt right. The decision to stop shopping helped me channel the money I would once have spent on clothes to worthier causes. I’ve given more to charity and focused more seriously on my career, swapping the thrill of getting post for the excitement of pressing “send” on a £5 writing contest or competition entry. I’ve written more this year than ever before, and I’ve even won some awards.
I’m not the only one making the decision to cut down on spending – Ann Patchett wrote recently in The New York Times about her year of no shopping, saying, “If you stop thinking about what you might want, it’s a whole lot easier to see what other people don’t have.”
I have plenty to wear in 2018. And now that my year of no shopping is drawing to a close, rather than being giddy with pre-spending glee, I’ve made a list of the things I “need”: new jeans (my surviving pair are littered with holes), trainers (the lining has ripped away), underwear. For what this year has taught me, more than anything else, is that what I really want isn’t dresses and shoes, but to spend time with my kids and to keep on writing. And I can do both of those for free.
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