When I was in my 20s, I seemed to have some really big dreams for myself. On top of aspiring to be an avid reader who could get through two books a week, I wanted to be a landscape photographer, a graphic designer, a scrapbooker, a painter, and an amazing home chef and baker. I also wanted to be the type of person who biked to work during the week, hosted dinner parties on weekends, and practiced yoga every single day.
I say I "seemed" to have some really big dreams for myself because, when I looked around my home, I could see objects in every corner that would help me achieve any one of them. But most of those objects quickly became nothing more than home décor, an accumulation of pieces that matched and were styled in a way that anyone who walked through my front door might have thought I was actively using each one. The truth, unfortunately, was that they were just accessories I didn’t need for a life I wasn’t living.
I thought I wasn’t good enough, but this stuff would make me better.
Aside from watching (too much) television and partying (too often), I didn’t have many hobbies back then. I spent my weeknights on the couch, my weekends at the bar, and the rest of my spare time wondering either what mistakes I had made when I was drinking, or why there never seemed to be enough time or money to live a better life. I wanted to have more freedom and see the world and be able to say yes to things that excited me. But I couldn’t afford that life. So instead, I bought things that I thought could make my current life a little more interesting—and in turn, make me more interesting than I felt I was.
The downside of impulse buys.
That’s where my habit of buying things on impulse and styling my home with them stemmed from. There were books I thought smart Cait should read, clothes I thought professional Cait would wear, projects I thought creative Cait could tackle. Classic novels, little black dresses, art supplies, and more. At one point, I’d put thousands of dollars on my credit cards for this stuff—stuff I purchased with every intention of using but only because I told myself it would somehow help. I thought I wasn’t good enough, but this stuff would make me better.
For years, I had purchased every single object without ever second-guessing my decisions. But in the weeks leading up to my 29th birthday, I started to notice them. That’s all I was doing: noticing. I finally noticed that I wasn’t using most of the objects in my home. I noticed the price tags on some of the clothes and the shoes that had only been worn once. I noticed the expensive camera still sitting in its original packaging and the juicer looking pristine on the kitchen countertop. It all looked good, but it didn’t feel good. Instead, every time I noticed something in my home that was just collecting dust, I started to feel guilty.
At first, the guilt stemmed from realizing I was probably never going to use most of these things. It made me feel like I either wasn’t making the time to use them (so I berated myself for wasting my time), or I was letting them go to waste. Then I felt guilty about how much money I had wasted.
Lessons from a yearlong spending ban.
In the summer of 2014, I decided I was done feeling guilty. The money was gone, and I had paid off each purchase. These were sunk costs, at this point, and I just had to let them all go. But I also decided to let each of these items physically go—by donating and selling them—and that I had to stop shopping altogether for a while.
That’s where the idea for my yearlong shopping ban came from. I was done wasting my money. I had enough stuff, but I never felt like I had enough money. Instead, I was living paycheck to paycheck, I wasn’t happy, and I knew there had to be another way. So I decided to not shop for an entire year and, at the same time, declutter and purge everything in my home that I didn’t need, use, or truly love.
There are so many stories I could share about the experience. Some months were easy. And some months were really, really hard. Harder than I ever expected. I went through personal losses that taught me why I had always turned to shopping and drinking. In those months, I realized that I didn’t know what I was doing when I had originally made all of those purchases. I didn’t walk into a store and think, "This is beautiful, and it would make people think I’m so much more interesting or like I’ve reached a certain level of success." But I did walk into stores looking for things that might make me feel better.
Throughout the year, I got rid of 70 percent of my belongings, saved 31 percent of my income, and didn’t buy anything unless I needed it. The most important lesson I learned in the process is that we can't buy better versions of ourselves. By not being able to shop for the person I thought I should be, I finished the year knowing and finally accepting who I really was. I may not be as talented as some of the people around me, or as smart as some of my favorite authors, or as put together as the women I see in professional settings. But I am here, and I have a few hobbies now, and I always try to be a good person—and that is enough.
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