I’m the last person who will ever be a minimalist. For those who don’t know me, I live in a library. I have hundreds upon hundreds of books stacked up all over my flat. The seven bookcases I own are heaving, double-stacked, with books on top piling up to the ceiling (merely out of principle from keeping them off the floor). I have a wardrobe heaving with fashion statements (all of which I adore), and racks of shoes I save for special occasions which occur once a year at most. I keep memorable trinkets, diaries and notebooks from my past. Essay feedback forms from my glorious university days, tickets from theatre plays I loved, and every possible free bookmark I picked up from the counter of a bookshop till. I’m a sentimentalist who loves shopping and, most importantly, being surrounded by books at all times.
Being a clutter-bug was fine when I lived alone: because then it wasn’t cluttered. I had a whole apartment to myself to spread around my books and trinkets, five doors to hang my coats on the back of, two closets just to myself. But when my boyfriend moved in, the proximity between my belongings intensified. My bookcases became shoved to a corner to make room for his computer desk, my second closet became his’, along with a space for his TV and electric guitars. My coats suddenly couldn’t fit on just two doors, and I had to resort to putting clothes into suitcases and vacuum bags. Our kitchen cupboards doubled (nay, tripled) in food, dishes and Tupperware. I told myself it was okay because he thought it was okay. But after a year of living together, I’d had enough and something had to go…no, not my boyfriend: my attitude towards materialism.
By the end of 2018, I realised that I hit my limit. I couldn’t handle any more stuff coming into my life or my home. Whilst I don’t give to receive gifts, Christmas day made me realise that I had spent far too much on other people by comparison to what I’d received. The comparison I made in my head was not out of resentment or ingratitude, but rather, it served as a wakeup call to my atrocious shopping habits. Comparatively, I’d gone overboard, shopped excessively for other people on a freelance income, and found myself disproportionately profuse, all because I had a shopping problem and didn’t have healthy limits.
So, on Christmas day I decided there and then to quit shopping, flat out. 2019 was my year of nothing: no clothes, no books, no gadgets, no extras, no tools, no accessories, etc. I was done with shopping (until the next time I had to buy a gift for someone. However, I was going to spend at least half as much as I would usually do). I realised quitting shopping entirely was the only way I was going to make up for the financial damage I’d done, not just over the Christmas period, but over years of buying.
We choose to buy certain things because they represent the life we’re not living, but are yearning to live.
My relationship with “things” is complex but easy for me to analyse. I grew up with a single, self-employed parent, totally crippled by debt, yet determined to convince me and the world otherwise. She didn’t want to make her child feel poor, so she spoiled me, but even at a young age, I knew we were living beyond our means. She wanted me to feel like all the other girls in school and get everything I needed to fit in with the middle class. I’ll always remember when one girl, who was my best friend at the age of seven, came round to my house after school for tea. She then told everyone at school the ‘gossip’ that I lived in terrace housing (or what a seven-year-old described as, ‘she shared both her walls with neighbours! And her garden doesn’t have a fence, just a wire mesh-thing’).
What made it worse was whilst I loved the gadgets and toys I got, I was buried deep in a sense of shame and guilt. I was told regularly by my parent that ‘If it weren’t for all these toys, I’d be rich!’ or ‘If it weren’t for your x, I wouldn’t be in all this debt!’, ‘before I had you, I was so well off!’ I was the root cause of financial suffering for my mother. From the age of five onwards, I knew I was a financial burden, and that pain has never left me. The only thing I could do was rebel. When I became an adult, I rebelled against Christmas and birthdays. I started to resent them, and I insisted on not being given anything. Nobody listened at first, but by the time I reached my mid-twenties, the sincerity of my plea was acknowledged. However, I still had a materialism problem.
I used to spend ridiculous amounts of money on escapism: new art supplies; stationery and notebooks; new books; new clothes to transform how the world sees me; theatre; art gallery exhibitions. There’s a wonderful second-hand bookshop near the hospital I attended weekly for five months. I always visited it after treatments to perk myself up, leaving with a stack every time. In the past, I was so unhappy in my old jobs that I would wander around bookshops after work or during lunch hours, buying several books to make me feel less alone and hopeless. I never cared for the numbers that popped up on the till. I convinced myself that I couldn’t put a price on emotional contentment. So, I threw away the receipts and kept my head as far away from my bank account as I possibly could.
Psychologically speaking, I conflated materialism with love. My mother isn’t the affectionate type, so to show that she loved someone she bought them nice things. Therefore when I grew up, my only concept of self-love was through materialism. Whenever my depression, anxiety, or stress struck me (and as someone with chronic depression, that’s a daily occurrence), I would show myself some self-love by going shopping. I’d buy a few new books, or a new shirt or dress. I’ve been traumatised by the concept of debt and credit cards, so thankfully I’ve never gotten into debt through my shopping habits. That doesn’t mean, however, that I wasn’t living above my means.
In 2015, Dr Cecilie Schou Andreassen, a clinical psychology specialist at the University of Bergen (UiB), conducted a study on shopping addiction. The project team developed The Bergen Shopping Addiction Scale, which looked at seven addiction criteria including salience, mood modification, conflict, tolerance, withdrawal, relapse, and problems. These items were measured alongside other scales, including the Compulsive Buying Measurement Scale, Mini-International Personality Item Pool, Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale. The study revealed that people who scored higher in personality tests for extroversion and neuroticism were more at risk of developing a shopping addiction. This is because extroverts are typically ‘social and sensation-seeking people’ who may use shopping ‘to express their individuality or enhance their social status and personal attractiveness’; whilst neurotic people are typically more anxious, depressive, and self-conscious, and are therefore more likely to shop to suppress negative feelings.
The main overall takeaway from the study was that shopping addictions were more common among those with anxiety and depression: “We have also found that shopping addiction is related to symptoms of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, and shopping may function as an escape mechanism for, or coping with, unpleasant feelings — although shopping addiction may also lead to such symptoms.”
Once I decided I was going to quit shopping I spent my last few days of the year prepping for the year ahead by testing myself a few days early. I have a strong penchant for clothing sales, so I decided to go into town on boxing day, go around all my favourite shops and resist the temptation of buying something. I remember reading once, many years ago, that holding onto an item for about ten minutes or so creates an emotional attachment with it. Meaning you were more likely to buy that debatable item if you were to carry it around the shop with you. So, I spent a good two hours visiting my favourite clothing stores, picking up items that I liked, holding them for ten minutes, and then putting them back on the shelf before leaving empty-handed. I wanted to confront potential psychological triggers and prove to myself that I can overcome them. After a successful non-shopping boxing day, I decided to spend all the gift vouchers I’d been given for Christmas (and not a penny more) to avoid any temptation in the new year and start 2019 as a no-shopper.
When you tell people you’ve given up shopping, it’s easier to tell people what you’re allowed to buy, rather than the inexhaustible list of prohibited items. So, the things I am allowed to buy include:
- Food. Believe it or not, I can’t survive without that. However, there are new limits to it. I’m banning myself from all snack foods except bourbon biscuits (as a treat), and protein powder (which also serves as a healthy treat).
- Exercise. I love dance classes, and I attend two a week to keep on top of my fitness. Whilst they’re comparatively more expensive than a monthly gym membership, I find them far more entertaining and challenging than the gym. Therefore, I’m choosing passion over financial reasonability here (sue me).
- Vitamin B12 and Flaxseed oil (because I will become very unwell if I don’t supplement myself here).
- Renewals. I’m allowed to renew cleaning products, my moisturiser, shampoo and makeup. I’m, thankfully, someone who doesn’t have an extensive makeup collection. I only own one version of each product that I use — so I will replace each one when they run out, which takes around six months.
- One coffee a week and one dinner a month. I had an incredibly unhealthy social life in 2018; I had to ‘meet someone for coffee’ around six times a week for the whole year. Whilst having a lot of friends is a blessing, it’s also expensive both financially and emotionally. I lost a lot of time in 2018 which set me back professionally and personally and I have decided to reclaim my time and money. Which means I can see one friend a week for a coffee, and my partner and I can go out for dinner once a month (well, obviously, he can go out more times than that).
Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Going no-buy seems pretty extreme, and your argument against such extremity would be for me to establish a tight budget once a month that would allow me some freedom without restriction. If that’s something you can do, then I applaud you and encourage it, but unfortunately, moderation isn’t for everyone, and I am one of those people. I can’t just eat a bit of chocolate or a bit of peanut butter; it’s either not in my apartment, or it’s all in my stomach, full of deep resentment and regret. I can’t just run for a hobby; I have to get into a deep-set competition with my former self and outrace myself every, single day until five years later I’m at the point of exhaustion with severe knee injuries.
I’m an all-or-nothing, cold-turkey kind of woman. I went vegan overnight five years ago and never looked back (no, don’t worry, I’m not a preachy vegan with an ideology I want to subliminally convey to you through this article, please continue reading). I find that when I try to moderate myself I become exhausted to the point of debilitation. I spend far too long asking myself obsessively, “Can I do it today, or should I wait until tomorrow?” “Does this time ‘count’?”, “Do I deserve it?”, “Am I allowed it? When was the last time I had it?” etc. However, doing nothing requires no self-control for me. If I’m banned from something entirely, my morality keeps me in tight check and nothing is up for debate.
Now, stopping buying things is only half of the problem. I still need to tackle the things that I have, which is where the second stage comes in: decluttering. Decluttering is very trendy right now, but I have a confession to make. I haven’t read any of Marie Kondo, nor have I seen her Netflix series. I found watching the controversy she sparked amongst readers and authors on Twitter somewhat hilarious. However, as the meme evolved, I realised many people were taking her advice far too seriously and out of context (and that’s a perspective from someone who HASN’T seen the show). If you’re unfamiliar with what I’m referring to, Marie Kondo has a new Netflix show called Tidying Up with Marie Kondo which is based on the globally successful self-help book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Both revolve around the idea that we can declutter our homes and lives by getting rid of physical things that don’t “spark joy” in us. One episode of the series focussed on getting rid of books. This upset the bibliophilic community who were mortally offended at the idea of clearing out books for the sake of minimalistic aestheticism.
No, Marie Kondo is not telling people not to own books, nor to not own a lot of books. She’s there in the show to help people who feel weighed down and inhibited by their materialism, and who don’t know where to start or why they should start. For those in the fortunate position of owning many books and wishing to tidy their libraries Kondo gave the following advice: “By having these books, will it be beneficial to your life going forward? Books are the reflection of our thoughts and values.” Advice many readers (ironically) misread as Kondo encouraging people to only own books that reflect their personal values (meaning a pacifist couldn’t own a book about WWII, or an omnivore possessing a vegan cookbook). This isn’t what Kondo was implying.
What Kondo means is that we should only keep hold of books that mean something to us; that we shouldn’t keep hold of books we read but didn’t enjoy, or books we doubt we’ll ever read again. We should only keep those which will benefit or have benefitted our lives, be that practicably through knowledge, or through passion and enjoyment. So for me, that means going forward that once I read a book, I’ll debate whether or not it fulfilled me enough to want to return to it, to keep hold of it physically and emotionally, or can be grateful enough to pass it on elsewhere and allow it to continue a journey through another reader who will get more out of it than I did.
Clutter, as I have already discussed above in regards to shopping habits, is about avoiding feelings. Materialism is deeply connected with our feelings of lack and abundance in regards to love, money, attention, validation and self-worth. Materialism helps us avoid dealing with feelings, which means decluttering in terms of Kondo’s style is too much for people. Kondo encourages people to connect with every item they own emotionally, keeping only those which spark joy. For items which don’t, she asks owners to thank them before passing them on — something which many hoarders are not ready to do.
How I’m going forward with decluttering my home as it is, is asking myself with every item I confront: What am I avoiding with this? I know all too well that many of us throw money at the problems we have, but when I take a closer look I see a clear pattern in my old consumerist behaviours which reveal striking personal issues. I bought books faster than I read them because I am afraid I’m unintelligent and ignorant, I bought more art supplies than I used because I was avoiding confronting being bad at art, I bought pretty clothes because I had no confidence in my body and appearance and tried to overcompensate for my lack of self-esteem.
We choose to buy certain things because they represent the life we’re not living, but are yearning to live. Sometimes getting rid of things isn’t the answer either: sometimes, you just have to start doing and stop buying. I have given myself more focussed and dedicated reading time in order to get through all the books I’ve been hoarding for years. Those which do not serve me will be sold to a second-hand bookshop. I started drawing again, with the aim of using up all my art supplies by the end of 2019, without buying any more to replace them until every medium has been exhausted. I started getting rid of small items of clothes like t-shirts and shorts I keep ‘just in case’, but barely wear in Scottish weather.
Whenever I confront a new item and contemplate parting with it, I ask myself, ‘Will this help someone else more than me?’ I find that letting it go on a new journey with the intention of being part of someone else’s journey is better than thinking of it as being thrown away or “getting rid of it”. I’m burdened with a lot of guilt around specific items, such as items which were given to me by people I know who couldn’t afford it. However, I’ve realised that this toxic cycle of receiving and guilt has resulted in me hoarding items that I’ve never used or worn for years when they could have had a ‘life’ elsewhere. 2019 is my year of saving, of growing, of building healthier coping mechanisms and of liberating myself from materialistic and consumerist tendencies. I won’t buy into the messages that I’m not good enough, pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough anymore. I won’t buy into anything anymore.