My Money, My Life

March 18, 2012

Wrapping up, Part 2

In the last five months of 2011, I spent 22 percent less and put 82 percent more in savings than I had in August to December 2010. Even in August, when I made all those exceptions for the wedding, I spent 34 percent less than I had in August the previous year—in part because I didn’t have a lot of credit card debt to pay off in addition to regular expenses.

The biggest surprise as I compared my spending month to month came at the end of the year. In December 2011 I spent a whopping 46 percent less than I  had in the same month in 2010. In 2010 I  bought my bike and a ton of Christmas presents, plus I  stocked up on underwear and other odds and ends before starting the No Stuff Experiment. In 2011 I simplified my Christmas expenses and made no major purchases other than Christmas gifts. (Flights, hotels, tours, and train tickets for the France trip were paid off in November from our joint savings, so they did not factor into my December 2011 expenses.)

What really surprised me in comparing the two Decembers were my food expenses. In 2011, despite my flurry of cookie baking and two holiday dinner parties, I spent 45 percent less on groceries than I had the previous December. How did that happen? I don’t have receipts from 2010, so I’m not certain. I’ll just assume that after a year of closely examining my spending, I learned to budget a little more wisely.

When I started the No Stuff Experiment, I wasn’t too concerned about money. I had eliminated my debt a few years back, and I was trucking along just fine with the little budget I had set up for myself. Sure, I had savings goals. My 2011 New Year’s resolution was to save a certain amount by December, and I was able to keep that resolution in part because I restricted purchases. But, still, money was not a primary motivating factor for the experiment.

In October, when I returned to my simple-living reading list, I picked up the 2008 edition of Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. I can’t say this book changed my life—or even the way I think about money or work or living. But it did change something. It helped me to reimagine my life with less stuff and early retirement.

Joe and Vicki developed a nine-step program for people to use to examine how they spend money. The exercises are useful, not just for folks with debt, but also for folks like me who are trying to tread more lightly and who are looking for work-life balance. As I mentioned in my last post, in November I started tracking my spending differently. I let go of my monthly budget, and instead now track withdrawals and deposits daily in a new spreadsheet. At the end of November and December, I categorized expenses by type and subtype (e.g., Food, groceries; Food, restaurants; Utilities, phone; Transportation, gas) in a separate spreadsheet, called “Monthly Tabulation” in Your Money or Your Life vernacular. I started to review my spending in each category but felt stymied.

I realized I needed to do my financial planning with my partner. It no longer made sense to establish solo spending/saving goals. So, as of January 1, Channing began tracking his expenses like I tracked mine (he was essentially doing this already), and for the past two months both Channing and I have entered our withdrawals and deposits in the Monthly Tabulation. We spent about a half hour at the end of January and February analyzing our spending and setting goals.

Without getting too bogged down in the details, I’ll say that these discussions have been enlightening for both of us. Channing is now keeping tabs on what he does with the cash he withdraws from the ATM; he’s not buying as many rounds of drinks at after-work happy hours; and in February he paid down a couple thousand dollars in credit card debt. I’ve been adjusting to post–No Stuff Experiment spending freedom. In January, a lot of money went toward stuff, but my food expenses were down. In February, I realized I wasn’t in a race to make up for lost shopping time, and I found a nice balance—more food, significantly less stuff.

Oh, and our savings account? Yeah, seventy-five days into the new year, we’ve already doubled the amount we had in there on December 31 (and have also surpassed the total we had before we took out money for the France trip). I’m proud of us.

(In case anyone’s counting, I have one more wrapping-up post to go.)

Wrapping Up, Part 1

The No Stuff Experiment officially ended when I purchased a crepe pan on January 3, 2012. My new pan, a 10.2-inch De Buyer, is awesome and has already seen good use. So far, I’ve tested two of the four crepe recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as two of the numerous crepe filling ideas therein. And once I tire of crepes—which, let’s face it, probably won’t happen—I can use the pan for omelets, frittatas, pancakes, and the like.

Other than the crepe pan, which I bought in a flurry of post-vacation excitement, my purchases have been pretty tame. I bought underwear, socks, and hose to replace the pairs I wore out (or destroyed) in 2011. The new socks, in particular, brought me joy I didn’t expect; walking to work on that little extra cushion where bare threads used to be is downright delightful. I bought parchment paper to make halibut en papillote, and when I couldn’t find a suitable reusable alternative, I caved and bought (organic) cotton balls. (Happily, this’ll be the last time for the cotton balls; a little additional Internet hunting unearthed this alternative.)

And, finally, I’ve been buying gear for triathlon training. I have registered for two triathlons in Reston this summer, and so, earlier this month, I borrowed The Triathlete’s Training Bible from the library (along with A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen—a great cookbook). I had already been planning to replace my running shoes, which I buy every six months, and my swimsuit, which is wearing uncomfortably thin in the gluteal region. But, inspired by the advice in the Training Bible, I also invested in a couple of multisport extras: a reflective vest for running and biking in the dark early morning hours and a pair of fins to make swimming drills more bearable (for both me and my lane-mates).

Now that I write it all out, this seems like a lot of shopping. And all I can say in my defense is, thanks to the Experiment, I am a more thoughtful consumer than I once was. For one, I’ve stopped carrying my credit card, and based on the advice in Your Money or Your Life, I’ve ditched my budget in favor of a careful record of daily expenses. If I don’t have money for a purchase in my bank account, I don’t buy it. So, for example, I won’t be buying that $1,000+ power meter the Training Bible recommends unless I can find a heavily discounted used version on Craigslist and a local bike mechanic to install it on the cheap.

For two, I shop with a list—a meticulously edited list of immediate needs based on what I now know I prefer not to live without—and more importantly, I stick to it. The list keeps me from going into a store for hose and coming out with hose plus three new shirts, a sweater, and a pair of pants. Impulsive shopping has been a problem for me in the past—and given the crepe pan purchase, I’m thinking it might still be. However, I’m not as drawn to the fashion on store racks these days, especially after successfully and happily spending twelve days in France cycling through the same three or four outfits, so I think I’ll be better this year about keeping impulses in check.

For three, when I shop, I look for more sustainable or equitable options for each item on my list. This means buying or borrowing used goods whenever possible; buying recycled, repurposed, reusable, local, fair trade, and/or organic, if used isn’t an option; and buying industrial new as a last resort. Duh.

But enough about shopping, buying, and spending money and resources. Let’s talk about what I’m planning to continue going without:

Aluminum foil, plastic baggies, and plastic wrap. I’m done with this stuff—or at least, I’m going to avoid investing my hard-earned money in it. Without my asking, my mom decided to start setting aside aluminum foil scraps for me, and over the year, I also collected a few scraps of my own from takeout meals and the like. I use the scraps on the rare occasions when I can’t find a foil alternative, and this works for me. It’s enough.

Next time I run out of plastic baggies—which should be a few months away, thanks to the small donation Mom gave me over the holidays—I will replace them with Lunchskins. I’m not sure these reusable bags will help with December’s cookie-freezing dilemma, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

On the plastic wrap front, I recently received a pair of silicone lids from some family friends that have greatly reduced my need for the stuff. I actually use the lids far more often than I ever used plastic wrap; they are extremely handy.

Oh, and as an aside, we still have a few kitchen trash bags in the box from June, and I’m hoping to keep our trash bag use to a minimum again this year.

Physical books, DVDs, and CDs. I haven’t bought a CD in a few years, thanks primarily to iTunes—and now Pandora and Amazon and all the other online music purveyors. My home VHS and DVD libraries have never been that big, but starting this year, if for some reason I want to own a movie, I plan to download it. No big deal.

The more difficult transition in the physical media category will be to ebooks. My husband and I were both English majors; he studied linguistics for ten years and I found a career in book publishing. Clearly we are big readers and even bigger book lovers. But, at the end of last year, both Channing and I decided it was time to embrace a book-lite lifestyle. I put a handful of free ebooks on my iPad for the trip to France, and after Channing finished the second installment of Twilight (his new favorite book series) our last night in Nice, I passed the iPad to him. He was halfway through Jane Eyre by the time we landed at Dulles.

So I think we are ready for the ebooks. I know we’re ready to unload more of our current library. Since we’ve returned from overseas, we’ve emptied an entire bookcase and sold our discards to the local used bookshop for a cool $50 (thanks for the tip, Sarah!). Now we’re only one bookcase shy of freeing up kitchen space for a butcher’s block and some much-needed counter space.

Pouf bath sponges. I had to toss my pouf early in 2011 because it was falling apart and grody. I have since been using a washcloth—and wondering why I ever switched to poufs in the first place. I can throw my washcloth in the laundry every week so it’s always clean, and I probably won’t have to replace it for years. Poufs, in contrast, lose their shape after only a few showers and need to be replaced every few months. It’s a no-brainer.

New furniture. Of the items on this short list, this one is sure to be the toughest. Finding new furniture that suits both my husband and me is a chore; finding used furniture that we both like will probably be close to impossible. Still, Channing’s agreed to shop used first for the several items on our furniture wish list. We’re looking to buy a butcher’s block, couch, coffee table, and dining room table. If you have any leads, let me know.

More wrap-up posts to come…

A Gym-Free Life

September 29, 2011

Yesterday morning I got caught outside in a mini thunderstorm. At 6:30, when I left the house for my five-mile run, it was super humid—a funky fall humidity that has been lingering for days—but it wasn’t raining. About five minutes into my run I noticed a flash of lightning. It was dark out and the flash crept up on me from behind. It was bizarre, but I couldn’t hear thunder. I figured I’d just keep going and see what happened.

For the next three or four miles, nothing happened at all. I saw a few more distant lightning flashes and heard grumbles of thunder, but there was no rain to speak of and certainly no apparent danger. The sun finally started to rise, and I could see breaks in the clouds. I thought I’d make it home before the rain blew in.

I didn’t. When I had just about a mile left to go, the heavens decided to open—big, heavy, soaking drops. You know the kind I mean. By the time I made it home, I was drenched from head to foot and happy about it.

Since I quit my gym membership four years ago, I’ve learned to love the rain. I run in fog and in drizzle, both warm and chilly, and I’ve been stuck in my share of downpours. And you know what? I haven’t melted yet. I also haven’t gotten pneumonia or, for that matter, any other weather-related illness. Sure, some of those rainy runs haven’t been all that pleasant, but for the most part, I like a good mid-run rain. It makes life interesting—and it makes a warm post-run shower all the more rewarding.

I can give you a laundry list of good reasons to quit your gym—learning to love the weather isn’t the only benefit of gym-free living. Energy usage is a big reason to quit. Gyms are pumped full of cool air at all hours, even when no classes are scheduled and only one or two people are around to use the weights and cardio equipment—machines that require plenty of energy themselves.  Add to that your drive to and from the place, and your annual gym-related fossil fuel usage can get pretty steep.

Time is another good reason. How much time do you spend driving to and from the gym? Packing a bag for the gym? Filling your water bottles? Wouldn’t you rather use that time to exercise (or sleep a few extra minutes)?

Money is the reason I left. In 2007 I was trying to pay down some debt and cut several unnecessary expenses. The gym was first among them. By that time I was running outside more and more often, and using the gym only once or twice a week for cross- and strength-training workouts. I spent the amount of a month’s gym membership on some basic equipment—a couple free weights, an exercise ball, resistance bands—and then I called it quits.

Money is also the primary reason I haven’t returned. I can’t imagine shelling out eighty bucks a month for a gym with an indoor pool when I can use the pool at the community center for $2 a visit (or Reston’s outdoor pools for $15 a summer!).  I do pay to go to a yoga studio these days, but while I was pinching pennies, I did hourlong workouts that I found for free online.

Oh, and all that exercise equipment I bought was not worth the money. Lunges, squats, sit-ups, and push-ups do the trick and require no financial expenditure. What has been worth the cost to me is the weather-appropriate gear, the headlamp, and the bicycle. But all of these things are optional (and have cost me less than the four years of gym membership would have).

I guess what I’m trying to say is you do not need a lot of stuff to get in a good workout. Nor do you need a big air-conditioned room full of equipment or shouting instructors. In living gym-free, I have found that exercise is one of those things that is most beneficial—for body and mind—when you’re doing something you love at minimal cost. I like to do yoga at home in my pajamas early in the morning, when it’s still dark outside. A walk or bike ride with a friend is pretty much always a good idea. And certain three-plus-hour long runs count among the most gratifying experiences I’ve had in the last few years (nonrunners will have to trust me on this one).*

I quit my gym in the middle of training for my third marathon, and I was very nervous about it. Could I cross-train without the elliptical? Could I strength-train without the weight machines? I could, and I did. For one thing, I started swimming again. For another, I discovered the miracle of free yoga. But, most important, I learned to love the weather—not just the sun and the perfect 60-, 70-, and 80-degree days, but also the rain, the snow, the cold, the ice, the blistering heat, and Virginia’s swampy humidity (OK, I’m still working on that last one).

*Not interested in a typical American workout? Here’s an alternative. Green gyms aren’t prevalent in the United States yet, but now seems like as good a time as any to start one, right?

Early Summer Spending

August 12, 2011

Maybe you’ve noticed that I haven’t written a post about my spending habits in a while. I haven’t necessarily been avoiding examining the monthly budget—between marathon training, a freelance assignment I couldn’t pass up, and wedding planning and festivities, I haven’t exactly had much time to sit down, compare spreadsheets, and write up an analysis.

Still, I have been a little bit scared of what I might discover. I feel like I’ve been unloading a lot of cash lately—on groceries, on consignment wedding dresses, on lunches with friends, and then this past month on pre-wedding pampering and various other stuff. And by “stuff” I mean the off-limits kind, like makeup and flowers. You remember how I made that wedding exception? I took a few liberties (just a few, though, really—more about this in another post).

It turns out I had nothing to fear. Over the last three months (i.e., May, June, and July), I have spent 18 percent less than I did during the same three months last year. My spending was up a tad (3 percent) in June because of a trip to Berkeley Springs, registration for a yoga class, a renter’s insurance payment, and a handful of restaurant meals. However, that month I also moved a four-digit amount to my savings account (the previous June, I didn’t put anything in savings), so all things considered, it was still a good month.

The biggest savings over the last three months, as compared with May, June, and July 2010, came in car expenses. I think I have mentioned before that I no longer have a monthly car payment, and so I’m now shelling out a lot less to keep the old Civic on the road. In July alone, my car expenses were a whopping 77 percent less than they had been the previous July—even with the spike in gas prices.

Spending in the “miscellaneous” category was also consistently about the same as or lower than it was during the early summer last year, thanks primarily to considerably lower credit card bills. Even in July, the month I bought that stuff for the wedding, my miscellaneous expenses were 45 percent less. Hooray!

The money management lessons I’m learning these days are certain to come in handy down the road. It just so happens that Channing and I visited the credit union this week to open a joint savings account, and I’m happy to report I actually have a decent amount of money to contribute to our collective total. In early summer 2010, I didn’t move any money to my savings account, but I did make a significant withdrawal in May. This year I have managed to put 20 percent of my income into savings every month (plus a little extra in June), and that 20 percent is about to get a little bit bigger—in July I got a promotion at work, which included a bump in salary.

I have a couple other good financial tidbits to share while I’m at it: First, because of the bounty of my CSA share (all-you-can-eat tomatoes this week!), I haven’t had to buy more than 20 bucks worth of groceries for the last two weeks. So, though my food expenses for May, June, and July 2011 were 8 percent less than in the same months of 2010, they are about to drop even more. In addition, because there’s so much food in the house, Channing and I are both spending less in restaurants.

Second, I just downgraded our household Netflix account to “unlimited streaming” only, which will cut my monthly Netflix bill in half. We’ll still get to enjoy Netflix’s vast collection of 90s sitcoms (Wings, anyone?), but minus the gas-guzzling means of delivery. OK, this move alone won’t free up much money for the downpayment on a new home, but for us, it’s a step toward streamlining our at-home entertainment budget. Next step: ditching the cable. Eliminating the hundreds of excess channels we currently have will appreciably lighten our financial load.

Feeding Channing

July 20, 2011

For the last six or eight weeks, I’ve been spending a lot more on groceries than I’d like to—despite weekly CSA pickups (which began in June). Sure, the first couple CSA shares were a little light, but under our previous food regime, Channing and I would’ve had no trouble surviving a week on a couple heads of lettuce, some kohlrabi, garlic curls, and a handful of zucchini.

But things have changed. These days, Mr. “I Don’t Eat Breakfast” is sitting down with me for a meal every morning before work. Plus, he’s given up his daily sub and soda for brown-bag lunches prepared by yours truly. I’ve been waiting four long years for Channing to establish some healthier eating habits. Yet, as exciting as this change of heart has been, it’s meant I need enough food in the house to cover ten to fourteen extra meals per week!

Thus, I’m in the process of re-learning how to buy local, organic foods on a fixed budget. The variety and bulk of the last few CSA shares have made rationing food expenses a bit easier, and I thought I’d share a few recipes I found for making every last bit of produce count—even the most unpalatable.

Chard and beet greens: While I adore dark leafy greens of all types, Channing hates them. I mean, really hates them. To the point that he won’t even try them anymore. Even when they are the #1 hit of Thanksgiving dinner 2009. To ensure Channing eats his share of the chard and beet greens that appear just about every week in our CSA share, I’ve had to be a little sneaky. I mix them in with one of Channing’s favorite foods—eggs—and amazingly, he’ll eat them with no complaints.

Beet Green and Garlic Curl Quiche
Adapted from Julia Child’s The Way to Cook
Yield: one 9-inch pie, serving 6

2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp finely chopped garlic curls
10 oz fresh beet greens, chopped (chard or kale work too)
Salt and pepper, to taste
Pinch of nutmeg
1 9-in. prebaked pie shell (I like Martha Stewart’s pâte brisée, but any pie crust will do)
1/4 c grated Parmesan cheese, divided
3 eggs, lightly beaten with enough milk to make 1 1/2 cups

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Heat the oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Saute the garlic curls until tender (but not browned). Add the greens and stir over heat until tender and bright green, about 5 minutes more. Stir in salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Let the mixture cool slightly.

Sprinkle the bottom of the prebaked pie crust with 2 tbsp of the cheese. Top with the greens mixture. Pour the eggs and milk over the greens. Sprinkle on the remaining 2 tbsp cheese.

Bake 30 to 35 minutes in a 375-degree oven, until lightly puffed and patchy brown.

Beets: I have been hoarding beets for the last few weeks because, though I love beet greens, I have little interest in eating the roots. On occasion I’ve enjoyed beet and goat cheese salads at fancy restaurants, but I find I can’t replicate them in my own kitchen, nor do I want to eat them on a regular basis. This week, though, I decided I needed to make use of the two pounds of beets in the fridge. After assessing the items in my pantry, I whipped up some whole-wheat beet coconut muffins, using only ingredients I had on hand. OK, the first bite of these muffins is a little unusual, but by bite two, they’re pretty darn good.

Whole-Wheat Beet Coconut Muffins
Adapted from Mark Bittman’s Minimalist
Yield: 12 muffins

1/2 cup melted unsalted butter, more for greasing tins
2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
3/4 c sugar (or 1/4 c Stevia)
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup grated beets
1/2 cup dried, unsweetened coconut
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp plain yogurt

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees and grease a 12-cup muffin tin. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon. In another bowl, whisk together the melted butter, grated beets, coconut, egg, and yogurt. Fold wet mixture into dry mixture until just combined.

2. Fill muffin tins; bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until muffins are puffed and turning golden brown on top. Serve warm. (Store at room temperature.)

Cucumbers: I have a great dislike for cucumbers (Channing calls them my kryptonite) and avoid them as much as possible. But lately they’ve been impossible to avoid. We’ve been getting several each week from the CSA—too many for Channing to eat on his own. So, I scoured the food blogosphere for a recipe that might make these nasty vegetables tolerable. And I found one. The key is lightly salted roasted peanuts and toasted coconut. I can actually get through a good portion of this salad without wanting to puke, and for me, when it comes to cucumbers, that is a ringing endorsement. You can find the recipe at 101 Cookbooks. (I used finely grated coconut, a mix of olive and flax oil, and yellow mustard seeds because that’s what I had in the pantry.)

Cilantro: When I have too much of any herb, I usually find a good pesto recipe or toss the excess into a salad. It’s pretty easy to use up basil and parsley this way. Cilantro, on the other hand, tends to linger in the fridge a bit longer, i.e., until it turns brown and slimy. A couple weeks ago I found a yummy cilantro salsa recipe to solve the lingering herb problem. (I’d also recommend this cilantro-peanut pesto recipe. It’s not only scrumptious; it freezes well too.)

Cilantro Salsa
Adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone
Yield: 2/3 cup

1 jalapeño chili, seeded and coarsely chopped
1 large bunch cilantro, stems removed
1/2 c basil leaves
2 garlic cloves, halved (or 2 garlic curls, coarsely chopped)
1/3 c olive oil, plus more to taste
1 tbsp lime juice, freshly squeezed, or to taste
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground coriander
Salt, to taste

Combine the chili, cilantro, basil, and garlic in a food processor with 1/4 c water and the oil and pulse to puree. Stir in the lime juice, cumin, coriander, and salt. Taste, add oil if dry, and correct the spices. Serve as a dip with chips or over grilled fish, chicken, or vegetables.

April Savings!

May 17, 2011

Finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for (or, at least, the moment I’ve been waiting for): I spent significantly less in April 2011 than I did in April 2010. Twenty-two percent less. Hundreds of dollars less.

The numbers for last month surprised me because I felt like I spent a ton in April. I spent the first weekend of the month in New York City, where I ran a half marathon with my sister and her mother- and sister-in-law. After the race, I splurged on a massage at the hotel spa. When I returned home, I registered for another session of yoga. Then, mid-month, Channing and I took a trip to Kansas City for his birthday, and I paid for our hotel stay and a fabulous, fun, and expensive birthday dinner at The Majestic—plus beers and food at the Royals game and his birthday present: tickets to a couple shows at Wolf Trap this summer (Bela Fleck in July and Bruce Hornsby in August).

And yet, I saw a 31 percent drop in my “other” expenses compared with April 2010. My notes from last year show that I indulged my spring yen for shopping with a trip to the Reston Town Center. I also paid a large credit card bill, which included the steakhouse dinner I gave Channing for Valentine’s Day 2010 and a ridiculously pricey trip to DSW.

Oh, wait. I forgot about taxes. Last year I plopped the government’s bill on my low-interest-rate credit card. I am still paying that debt a little at a time. This year, I had the IRS withdraw the (slightly smaller) amount directly from my savings account—I didn’t even bother noting the transaction on my monthly ledger (which is for checking only). I’m leaning toward paying off the remainder of last year’s taxes from my ever-increasing savings too. Seems like a smart option.

One of the biggest benefits of the No Stuff Experiment is it’s made me think a little more about several aspects of life that I otherwise wouldn’t pay much mind. In the money department, I’ve started to pay attention to not just whether I have money to spend but also where that money is going. And not just where money is going but where it is going compared with last year. I’ve noticed that if I don’t drop a couple hundred dollars on clothes and accessories at the town center at the beginning of the month, I can pay for Channing’s birthday trip out of pocket, rather relying on my credit card. Keeping credit card expenses down helps me meet my monthly saving goals so I can make large federal tax payments without much worry. It also allows me to pay my car insurance bill in March (which made my April 2011 car expenses 62% less than they were in April 2010).

Just two weeks after “Why I Shop,” my hankering for a mall trip has passed, I don’t miss the new clothes and shoes I opted out of this year, and I’m decidedly more financially stable. Nothing wrong with that.

Why I Shop

May 4, 2011

Spring Shopping Series, Part 1

It’s warm outside. The trees are in full bloom. The birds are chirping. Momma ducks are escorting their babies in and around the lakes. Spring has sprung, and I’m ready for a new wardrobe.

What did I wear last May? All of my warm-weather clothes look tired to me. I’ve been hanging onto many of my t-shirts and blouses for several years now. And what happened to all those skirts I thought I had? I’m in need of what one New York Times blogger termed “the modern-day ritual of renewal.” She was specifically referring to Christmas shopping, but I’d argue that just about any kind of shopping can serve to rejuvenate the spirit—if only for a short while.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have at least one foot in the anti-consumerist camp. But lately I have been noticing all the good things about shopping (namely, new clothes!). I guess you could say I have “consumerist ambivalence.” This is the term used by Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist who wrote a book about the evolution of the modern-day consumer, Spent. He writes, “Consumerist capitalism produces almost everything that is distinctively exciting about modern life and almost everything that is appalling about it.”

In his book about the history of shopping, I Want That! Thomas Hine writes that buying material goods is a way for people to express and empower themselves. Through shopping, consumers exercise their freedom to choose—and their ability to forget what they have and keep choosing. We can alter our identity with new clothes and new gadgets, which in turn fill our cravings for progress, excitement, and accomplishment. In the market or mall, we can commune with our peers and get a sense of what’s popular. What goods are available? What are others buying? Most often we purchase stuff that’ll help us blend in with a crowd, or to indicate that we are part of a particular crowd. Hine describes this as “creating a community of taste.” He writes that by choosing certain fashions we are exercising the privilege of participating in culture, in history. How are you going to convince anyone you lived in the 80s, if you don’t have the jellies or neon leg warmers to prove it?

Miller argues that we don’t actually need the jellies. In Spent, he writes that we buy particular goods and services in order to display desirable personality traits, such as physical attractiveness, physical health, mental health, intelligence, and personality. These are the traits we’ve found best attract the support from kin, friends, and mates necessary for our survival. But, in fact, we have evolved to glean evidence of these traits through observation and conversation, without taking stock of a person’s historical wardrobe. Miller calls this the “fundamental consumerist delusion”: Consumerist capitalism “makes us forget our natural adaptations for showing off desirable fitness-related traits. It deludes us into thinking that artificial products work much better than they really do for showing off these traits.”

It seems like Americans are falling prey to this delusion. Hine writes, “Most people are able to convince themselves, at least temporarily, that it is absolutely crucial to buy items they don’t really need. Indeed, our economic health depends on shoppers’ ceaseless lust for the inessential.” That “lust” is certainly what prompts me to hit the mall. I’ve witnessed so much rebirth, regrowth, and renewal in these first weeks of spring that I’m anxious to participate in the most reliable way I know how: acquiring new stuff.

Of course, I will not actually go shopping—at least not for new stuff and not at the mall. And, in the next two months, I will certainly find some other, creative ways to satisfy my yen for freshness and novelty. (I do have strawberries, asparagus, and English peas to play with all of a sudden.) All I really mean to say in this rambling post is that shopping, buying, and consumption aren’t inherently or entirely bad. In fact, as Hine put it, “Making material choices is a privilege, a responsibility, and an essential activity of modern life.” As such, we should take our choices and our participation in the consumer economy seriously. We should pay attention to what we buy and why.

Relevant Reading

Thomas Hine. I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

Geoffrey Miller. Spent. Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. New York: Viking, 2009.

Juliet B. Schor. Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York: Scribner, 2004.

Juliet B. Schor. The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need. New York: HarperPerennial, 1999.