How a Shopping Ban Helped This Author Feel Her Feelings

Jackie Lam — Intentional Living

Cait Flanders, author and blogger, believes that to connect with the “real you,” you may need to cut back in a drastic way.

Flanders has been writing about personal finance, mindfulness, and minimalism since 2011.

Her book debut, The Year of Less, which was released earlier this year and climbed the Wall Street Journal Bestseller List, chronicles the first year of her two-year shopping ban. During that time, Flanders not only puts a stop to frivolous spending, but also nixes alcohol consumption, binge-watching TV, and junk food. In the process, she gets to the bottom of her tendencies to over-consume while confronting difficult things from quitting her day job to her parents’ divorce without relying on those emotion-numbing crutches.

Beautifully written and woven with deeply personal stories, The Year of Less is a brave, honest, and heartfelt memoir that examines how clearing our lives of what’s unimportant can lead to discovering what matters most.

I caught up with Flanders to learn more about what it means to live intentionally.

What was your intention in writing The Year of Less?

When people read it, I want them to recognize that whenever you feel like over-consuming or binging, that usually means something else is going on, and it’s really important to start dealing with that.

You write about not only shopping but binge-watching TV and eating junk food. When you were writing it, how did you overcome any fears you had about sharing those experiences?

You know, what’s interesting is that I don’t know that I was worried so much about what people would think. I know that in any kind of challenge we take on, it’s going to look different for everyone. And what’s going to be hard and what’s going to be easy is going to be different for everyone…

That was really important to me especially on the topic of money…If I’m judging what you spend money on, then people are allowed to judge what I spend money on. And at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what any of us are spending money on. It’s totally personal.

So, it was more making sure that as long as I was telling my story in an honest way, it wouldn’t feel like I was coming down on anyone else for the decisions they had made. Because I have made mistakes too, how can I judge people?

You write about working through a lot of emotional pain without the usual distractions and this line really hit me: ‘Once upon a time, drinking had felt like the eraser for all pain, the same way spending money had felt like the path to a bigger and better life. I wasn’t in the habit of doing either now, and I was better for it.’ What advice do you have for people who are going through the same thing?

Oh gosh, part of me is like, I don’t know if I have the best advice. I laid in bed and cried a lot that year. One thing that did help me was having at least one person to talk to about it.

It’s not like you always need advice, you just need an ear. Especially with the divorce, I started to connect to friends whose parents were divorced and ask, ‘Have you ever felt this way?’ ‘Did this ever come up for you?’ 

So, my advice for people really is to find a community, even if it’s one person who has just a partially shared experience. Even though our problems are our own, at the end of the day, a breakup is a breakup, divorce is divorce. If you can’t bond over every part of it, there is usually something that you can bond over.

It was nice to at least know that I wasn’t alone. One of the only things that we want to know is that we are not alone in whatever it is that we’re going through.

Discussing your shopping ban, you mention how the cycle of guilt and shame leads to over-consumption, and maybe a lapse. For people who want to do their own version of a ban, how can they set themselves up for success?

I didn’t put this in the book—and I’m mad at myself now—but the first thing that I would say is: If you feel like the idea of doing a shopping ban is too restrictive, don’t do one. Start by tracking your spending, instead. I can say that now, because if I really look back at all the changes I’ve made in my financial life it has come from tracking my spending and asking myself how I’m feeling about my money. Eventually I’d get to a place where I’m uncomfortable with my spending and that discomfort makes me want to create change.

That’s wise. Now that I’m thinking about it, people might be intimidated by bans in general.

Totally. From day one I’ve sort of wished I called it something different. If I were to rebrand it, I would say I actually did something more like a browsing ban. I wasn’t allowed to just be browsing around, but I could buy something if I absolutely needed it. There were situations where I needed something and because I needed it, I was able to buy it guilt-free. You just walk in, make the purchase, and it’s over.

But if you walk into a store and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll just look around and see if I can buy something,’ you’re going to find something. We tell ourselves stories about how we’ll use that thing or what purpose it can serve in our life. Every object out there does have a purpose, so you can talk yourself into buying basically everything. So, I had to stop looking [and] really learn how to buy things when I actually needed them.

During your shopping ban, what would you say were your top realizations?

For one, I was a much more emotional consumer than I realized. I was just reacting when something bad would happen. I would go through a break up and I would drink, and I would buy a bunch of stuff.

When I went through things during my ban, people kept asking, ‘If you couldn’t drink and you couldn’t go out and spend money, what would you do instead? What was your fix?’ The hard part was there was no fix. I just had to feel those feelings. I cried that year more than probably any year previous. That is what I needed to do. I needed to feel things, and see that I could survive that, and I didn’t have to numb it out.

The other thing was, I definitely realized that I used to buy a lot of stuff for this aspirational version of myself and rarely for the real me. There were a lot of things in my home that I could look at and be like, ‘Oh, I bought that thinking the more creative version of myself would do that.’ Or ‘this more grown-up or professional version of myself would wear those things.’ Or ‘I would be smarter if I had these kinds of books on my shelf.’

So, not only did I have to let go of the thought that I would ever become that person, but I also had to accept myself for who I was. I had to realize that I might not be creative in that way, or smart in these ways, but I was good enough as I was.

How did that fee when you did the inventory of everything you had, and got rid of so much to reveal ‘real you’ versus ‘aspirational you’?

It was hard in the moment, but it became really freeing. And now it makes purchasing decisions easy because I just buy things as who I am today, and as I need them…I don’t have to go and buy all that stuff anymore for some aspirational version of myself in the future. I can just buy things that I’m interested in right now.

How does what you spend your money on now connect with your values?

During the shopping ban I was finally able to start listening to myself. I asked myself: ‘What are the things I talk about a lot?’ I talk about how I want to travel and yet I never do that. So, why don’t I actually start putting money toward travel? It became a lot easier to say no to a bunch of other things that I might spend money on.

Can you talk about what it means to be intentional? And how did your different bans help you live that way?

I think that year was one big lesson in just learning how to make intentional decisions. It was really about figuring out who I was and what I wanted so that all the decisions I could make going forward actually fit with what I wanted in my life.

Before that, there were so many things that I used to do just very mindlessly that I thought I wanted—or thought I had to do. And it was really the first year where I did some work on myself and figured out who I really was. And then was I like, ‘Oh OK, now I’m gonna make decisions for the real me.’ It’s interesting, I make quicker decisions now than I ever have in my life. It’s so much easier now that I know who I am and what I want.

This interview has been edited and condensed.