June 26, 2018

Three Months of Minimal Shopping

I have now been through almost three months of minimal shopping, and it is only now that the refrigerator is starting to look empty. It seems a good moment to summarize where I have been so far.

The most important change with my reduced shopping is a matter of time and focus. My shopping time is roughly half of what it used to be, and though it is harder to measure things like attention and focus, it seems that the total mind share of shopping in my life has also fallen by roughly half. It is useful to see that shopping can shrink by this much without any noticeable compromises so far.

If the refrigerator is looking empty, it is not really as empty as I imagine. It is still half filled, though most of the items are things like beverages and condiments, things that wouldn’t make up a meal. Nevertheless I still have half of a cabbage, a few pounds of onions, and some other vegetables, so there is no reason to go shopping just yet.

One reason the refrigerator has been so slow to empty out is that I have been putting extra emphasis on eating the food in the freezer. The freezer too is still half full. For perspective, a suburban family of three or four might be using a refrigerator of the same size, and it would take them weeks to go through all the food in a full refrigerator. It makes sense, then, that it might take me months.

As with any other area of clutter, having less puts a larger focus on what I do have. In my pantry, the bags of rice that friends gave me last year look larger now that some of the things around them have been taken away. Adding it up, I have half of my body weight in rice, which also means that if I were to cook it all, it would be more than my body weight in food. I have made more of a point of eating rice as there are fewer other options. My friends gave me plenty of flour too, including an unopened 25-pound bag of unbleached wheat flour. Then there are two three-kilogram cans sitting on my counter (which I purchased in January), one containing tomato sauce, the other, sliced olives. Now that the refrigerator is half empty, I could open one of these cans, transfer the contents to jars (to keep in the refrigerator), and start cooking with it. With so much food in the house already, the only reasons to buy more are to form a complete recipe and a balanced diet and perhaps to save time. I bought almost no groceries during my shopping moratorium in April, and not much more than salad ingredients, baked goods, and fruit juice in the two months since.

If I have been working my way through my backlog of food, it is not the same story when it comes to clothing. I bought no clothing at all in April and hardly any in May. In June I bought 14 articles of clothing, all at low prices. I spent a total of $45. Considering how little I spent, I am thrilled with what I got. For example, after losing weight over the last year I no longer had any white jeans I could wear. In May I gave away my white jeans as part of a stack of maybe 10 pants that are too large for me now. Two days ago, then, I was thrilled to find white jeans that would fit me, in a button-fly style yet, for just $2. At the same sale and the same price I got a black hoodie much like the ones I used to look so good in many years ago before I wore them out and threw them away.

So I am definitely upgrading with my clothing purchases this month, but I am not doing it as well as I might. I have thrown away 14 articles of clothing this month. I am just keeping pace with my purchases. In theory, if I have more clothing than I can use and have just bought fabulous new clothing, I should be able to part with a larger number of old clothing items, especially the things that are worn, shabby, out of style, or otherwise not so fabulous. Perhaps that will come next month.

There is one more shopping category I must mention, since it is my biggest category of purchases this month. I have been buying things to improve my home. I’ll call this the home improvement category, though my use of the term is broader than its usual commercial sense. This recent shopping trend started with my purchase of a sofa in March. I didn’t make any purchase that big in June, but almost. The biggest single purchase was a picnic table, $104. Nearly as consequential, though, was a shelf unit I bought that somehow was selling used for just $2.

Any home improvement purchase requires a concentrated effort to put it into use. It took half a day to assemble the picnic table, and I still have to sand the rough edges and stain it. The shelf unit requires me to clear and remove a café table I have been using in that spot in the living room. I have to decide whether I can use this table in another room or give it away. The whiteboard paint I bought for my hallway requires even more work as I wash and paint the wall. The pace of work I can deliver limits how many purchases I can make in this category. I surely won’t think of another home improvement project until after the hallway is painted and the furniture put into place.

Based on my experiment, the promise of shopping doesn’t quite hold up. You go shopping, in part, imagining that the things you purchase will improve your life. My recent experience seems to show the opposite. I make faster progress in improving my life by shopping less, so that I have more time for the work I need to do.

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