My Year of No Shopping

A client of mine sent me an opinion article in the New York Times last year by the novelist Ann Patchett (Bel CantoThe Magician’s AssistantThe Dutch House). The article was entitled “My Year of No Shopping” 

You would think the contents of the article would be pretty straight forward and easy to understand…

And yet it’s not. There is a lot more to this story than you would expect. Let me explain. The article begins simply enough.

Patchett meets a longtime friend at a restaurant. Her friend is wearing a nice coat. It’s black. Sleek. Polished. Form-fitted. It’s the height of cool.

Patchett compliments her friend’s coat and her friend replies she bought it after a year of minimal spending. It was a small reward to herself after a year of good financial behavior.

Intrigued, Patchett decides to do the same thing, more so out of curiosity than necessity.

She makes up her own rules about what she can and cannot spend money on, but it essentially boiled down to no reckless spending for a year.

Necessities only. 

She didn’t restrict herself as much as she could have. She still ate out. She still traveled when she needed to. And she still bought books (she is a writer after all!).

At the end of her spending self-imprisonment period, something interesting happened.

She realized it wasn’t hard. In fact, the opposite was quite true. It was emotionally freeing.

After reading the article, I really connected and was inspired by the mysterious, smart woman in the black coat from the story.

I decided to go through the whole shopping limitation process, by trying it out for myself, to see the influence it would have in my own life.

I’m now over 100 days in, and I’ve already noticed some important things about my recent past self:

Before, my inner child was essentially the one calling the shots. This probably sounds overly harsh, but it’s not.

Here’s the deal. Getting my packages in the mail made me feel like it was Christmas 50 times a year.

I wasn’t buying stuff because I needed to.

Instead, I was buying stuff because I liked the feeling I got when I opened the package. I was addicted to the dopamine rush.

I’d shop and look at things I didn’t necessarily need. I would buy different gadgets, gear or other inessential material things I thought would excite me.

Boredom would drive these habits. When I had an extra 10 minutes of free time in my day, I would find myself browsing through online stores to find deals for various camping gear.

After I stopped my frivolous spending, I saw the true evil of these micro-purchases. Those tiny, reasonably priced purchases didn’t seem so sensible once I no longer bought them.

After no longer making micro-purchases, I noticed I stopped using all of that unnecessary emotional energy. Restricting what I bought liberated me. It allowed me to see the things in life that I truly valued to spend money on such as travel, experiences with friends, a home purchase, etc.

Now, why would I ever go back to my old spending habits?

How often in life have you bought something out of impulse? How many times have you bought something out of pure habit? 

Let’s pretend for a moment that you have a big renovation project you’re working on at home. You just did all of your shopping at a hardware store, and you’re in line to check out. Because you know you have a 20- minute drive back home, as you are waiting in line, you decide to pick up one of those ice-cold sodas. You don’t buy the soda because your body requires it (when does your body ever need soda?). You buy it because it’s part of your hardware store ritual.

It’s a part of your reward process. This is a predetermined Pavlovian response at its finest. The soda didn’t cost that much. Maybe only $1.89.

Certainly not enough to break the bank or make you think twice about purchasing it. But you certainly wouldn’t have bought it if you knew it had put your finances in jeopardy.

Ask yourself, what are the little things you throw money at?

It’s different for everyone…but everyone has something (or many things!).

Whether it’s an iced coffee after the gym, avocado toast during a work break, or even a Friday night shopping after surviving another hard week at your job (retail therapy).

We all have a ritualistic element to our spending habits where we purchase something because we believe we deserve or need it.

That after we do the hard stuff, we can take a little break and do something fun. That we would be happier and better because of it.

For me, it was upgrading my bike. I love biking.

And I was always looking for the next best thing to make a bike go even faster. The people in my life called me an ‘upgrader,’ and that’s exactly what I was.

But with my upgrade purchases, I found that I would also experience Diderot’s Effect, where each new possession created a spiral of additional consumption that would lead me to make more and more purchases.

Did I really need the new gear?


In my experience, after working with hundreds of clients as their comprehensive financial adviser – most Americans don’t realize the impact these micro-purchases have on their financial health.

They’re crippling their financial health with micro-purchases, retail therapy, and ritualistic spending habits.

I observed that people don’t appreciate how much these purchases add up. Those $70 online purchases, the $80 retail store trips, or even the quick $7 coffee shop visits… accumulates in costs.

Again, over the course of a year and a lifetime, these purchases add up, and if you actually sat down and did the math, you’d be astonished to see how much those extra purchases totaled up to.

It’s usually never just one purchase that gets you. Don’t fall into the illusion that each purchase is separate and unrelated. They’re all linked together. They’re all connected because they are all related to human behavior. Emotional purchases prevent you from doing the things you really want out of life— like funding your kids’ college educations, traveling to Europe, or making a down payment on a house.

When we make these emotional purchases, we don’t see the negative impact they have on our long-term finances. We only see the short-term momentary happiness or perceived relief.

I encourage you to go through the no-spending challenge. Start small and try it for a week or a month.

See for yourself the impact it would have on your life if you stopped spending money on unnecessary purchases.

Remember, it’s the small steps we take that may lead to meaningful change.

I promise that you’ll be surprised at how easy it is. Try it for a week or a month.

My financial habits are the compound interest of my financial strategy, and yours can be too.

2651345/DOFU 8-2019