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How I Stopped Compulsively Shopping

And discovered that life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store

It started as a morning like any other. Shower, make coffee, read a book, then start work. It was slow and quiet. I wasn’t preoccupied with thoughts of clutter. I didn’t crave my former routine of buying take-out coffee. And I didn’t clue into the fact that it was Black Friday until I checked my e-mail and saw one from my favorite retailer with sale prices splashed across the screen.

Buy-one-get-one deals, a 25-percent-off book button, a 40-percent-off book button, and 50 to 75 percent discounts on candles. Red letters for all of it that was big and bold and in my face. Before I could click the button that would send the e-mail to my spam folder, I noticed e-readers were $40 off the regular price—from $139 marked down to just $99. This was perfect. I had committed to giving away an e-reader on my blog the week before but had yet to buy one. For once, my procrastination had (literally) paid off.

And then I heard it.

You’ve never seen e-readers priced that low before.

I knew the voice well. It was familiar, like when you answer the phone and hear a friend you haven’t spoken to in years on the other end, and you’re filled with love and excitement to talk to her again. There was an immediate recognition of the level of comfort between us that allowed me to take some of my walls down and let her words come in.

You’ve never seen e-readers priced that low before. And you need this.

We had history, the voice and I. In fact, I’ve had more conversations with her than with anyone else. She knew me on a molecular level—what it took to feed me, fuel me, make me come alive—and what it took to crush me. I had always trusted that she would help me solve any problem. After all, my own existing e-reader was broken. I did need this, didn’t I?

You need this. And you haven’t bought anything for yourself in so long.

She had also always been my sounding board. Whenever I stood at a crossroads and didn’t know which route to take, she considered both options with me. This time, we were at the most famous junction in the personal finance world and it asked only one question: Do you have the money? I knew the answer, but I still looked to her for guidance.

You need this. You haven’t bought anything for yourself in so long. And you have the money!

My eyes grew wide and I felt a little dance move up from my chest and into my shoulders. It was the same feeling I used to get when I picked up two bottles of wine and knew a fun night was ahead of me—a mix of excitement and anxiety, chased with a shot of adrenaline. I had $700 in my shopping ban account. Of course, I could afford this! I was ready to flirt with the idea, make a move, and dance all night. Only, I wasn’t the same girl who picked up two bottles of wine anymore, so the feeling now made me pause.

She could tell I wasn’t convinced.

And it may never be $40 off again.

That was all I needed to hear, and she knew it. She knew it because I knew it.

I don’t specifically remember what happened next, but I know the order in which it must have taken place. I would’ve had to add two e-readers to the shopping cart, enter my credit card and shipping information, review the order, and hit “Submit.” I know that had to have taken place because that’s what I had done hundreds of times before. It was as familiar to me as getting dressed each morning or finding the part in my hair, which is to say it came naturally. It wasn’t just a habit, it was part of me. But I don’t remember doing it. I don’t remember entering any information or clicking any buttons. The next thing I knew, there was another e-mail from my favorite store—this one confirming my order. I had lost all the seconds in between to yet another blackout and, in that time, I had broken the shopping ban.

The same voice that had encouraged me to make the positive change was the voice that also talked me into going back to my old ways and the voice that later shamed me for it. Yet, because I knew the sound of that voice so well, I had always trusted her. I believed whatever she said and did whatever she told me. And then I took her beating afterward because I felt I deserved that too. This is how and why the cycle of abuse and self-loathing continued for so many years. I always trusted her, because she was me.

Only now, as I looked at the order confirmation in my inbox, I knew I didn’t want to be her anymore. And I really didn’t want to let this slip turn into a relapse.

It had been a long time since I’d made a blackout purchase. Some people call them impulse purchases, but for me, they truly felt like blackouts. Like I had slipped into a coma for 60 seconds and woken up with amnesia and a receipt. Surprisingly, when the confirmation e-mail appeared in my inbox this time, a new voice popped into my head. She didn’t sound like anyone I’d heard before. Aside from being a little panicked, she was cheerful and encouraging.

You don’t need a new e-reader! Yours is perfectly fine! So what if you have to stick a pin in the reset button to turn it on? It works fine otherwise! It doesn’t need to be replaced right now.

She closed with some advice I’d never been given: See if you can cancel the order!

This was a different kind of impulse for me—one that would help me save money versus spend it, and find joy in what I had rather than assume I could buy more happiness. I was nervous it wouldn’t work. I think it was the first time in my life I had attempted to cancel an order, and the thought that it might not be possible to do so doubled my heart rate. But it was possible, and I did cancel it—or rather, I removed one e-reader from the order and still bought the one I was giving away on my blog.

As grateful as I was to have been able to remedy my mistake, I still spent the next two weeks wondering if I had failed. Occasionally, the old voice paid me a visit. She came with only one purpose, which was to try and shame me for what I had done. And she was right, to some extent. I had broken the shopping ban, momentarily, after all. It did feel like I had failed. I’d survived almost five months without making any unnecessary purchases.

Why had I talked myself into breaking the rules now? I was 162 days into the ban. Shouldn’t I have been cured?

I could’ve let the shame set in, felt like a failure, and given up on the shopping ban altogether. But slipping up didn’t make me a bad person. I was not bad. What I did wasn’t bad. I had just slipped up.

The fact that I was able to see what I had done, know the action didn’t align with what I wanted, and change my reaction showed how much progress I had made. I wanted to become a more mindful consumer. I knew I didn’t need a new e-reader. To buy one would have been to act on impulse, and there was nothing mindful about that.

There are always going to be outside influences at play. Advertisements and commercials aren’t going to disappear. I can’t avoid shopping malls or online stores forever. No matter how many accounts I unfollowed, I would always see things on social media. But I could change my reactions to them—and that change had to start within. 

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store by Cait Flanders. It can be found online at hayhouse.com or amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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