What I Learned When I Couldn’t Buy Things

A few weeks ago, a mutual friend invited my girlfriend and I out to dinner on Saturday night. My immediate reaction was that I couldn’t go.  It’s not because I was busy. I couldn’t go because I’m on a tight budget and I still had rent to pay. The idea of dinner in a restaurant felt crazily irresponsible. So does shopping for anything non-essential.

I didn’t always feel this way. Back in the days when I had a more normal desk job and a regular paycheck, I used to go out to dinner at least once on the weekends. I’d often spend weekend time browsing in bookstores and boutiques, spending my disposable income on beautiful things.

Now, I often spend Sundays catching up on work. Buying coffee out is a treat reserved for weekends. Boutique shopping is mostly out. When I’m tempted to buy something I don’t really need, in the true sense of the word, a quick check on my bank account is all I need to exercise self control.

But I’m not saying this so you’ll feel bad for me. I’m working for myself and happier than I’ve ever been. I find that my work now gives me the chance to express my creativity, and because I’m making things all the time, my desire to consume things has diminished.

But this article isn’t about that. It’s about what I’m learning about myself, now that I don’t buy things very often.

Back to my Saturday night, my girlfriend told me she’d treat me to dinner, and we ended up meeting our friend at a fancy sushi place in the San Francisco Mission District. When we sat down, we started commenting on what we were all wearing (in my case, a cozy, thrifted plaid shirt to ward off the icy cold air that night). That’s when our friend remarked on how casually I was dressed, and, for whatever reason, sent me into a low-grade tailspin of self consciousness.

“I dressed up for you guys,” she said, adjusting her shirt and looking at me.

At the time, it didn’t feel like the comment affected me so much. It was a small aside, which I think was said with little thought or intention. But later that night, as I tried (to no avail) to fall asleep, I kept thinking about it, feeling bad about it, and I couldn’t figure out why.

In fact, I’d been feeling out of sorts for a couple of months, and I couldn’t put my finger on the cause. My confidence felt shaken somehow — like there was a chink in my armor.

Then it hit me. At least in part, I was feeling vulnerable because I couldn’t buy stuff. So many people around me were buying things all the time. And I had stopped being able to soothe myself that way.

Clothing — and all the meaning it carries — has special significance for me. I went to a Catholic school, so I wore a uniform from age 3 to 14. It made life easy, but I longed to express myself with my clothing. I was also tall and chubby for my age from age 9 to 14. During that time, I rarely felt confident in my clothes. When that changed, clothing became a way for me to express myself, to feel pretty, to prove my uniqueness, and to wear all the things I’d never felt comfortable in before.

For a long time I’ve prided myself on having a unique wardrobe: my favorite leather boots from Florence, Italy; bright colored peasant blouses from Oaxaca Mexico; purple winter gloves from a street market near Wroclaw, Poland. Those belongings give me joy. They remind me of the places where I got them. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

But I see that somewhere along the line, clothing and other “stuff” became something more than that, too. When I wanted something, it wasn’t just the thing that I wanted; I wanted to be the kind of person who had that thing. I wanted to be a better, more powerful version of myself. I like being the best version of myself, but I don’t particularly like needing things to do it.

According to a 2011 study by researchers in Taiwan, using brand name products appeared to make people believe they both deserved higher salaries and were more attractive to potential dates.

Studies also show that buying things lights up our reward center the same way that food or recreational drugs can. I know I’ve used shopping for that kind of boost, and I’m not alone. That’s why the term “retail therapy” exists.

That isn’t the only high I get from buying things, though. When I buy something — whether it’s a book, a sweet new jumpsuit or a pack of rare incense — I enrich my life. I’m OK with that part. But the part I worry about is the part that the Taiwanese researchers saw in their study — the part that has to do with how I see myself, the part where I believe I’m more valuable because I have that thing.

What happens when I can’t use items to buoy my self esteem? What happens when I can’t rely on retail therapy? What happens when I have to confront my insecurities by figuring out where they come from and just doing my best to be me?

I’ll let you know.

And if this all seems like navel gazing to you, let me say just one more thing: the fate of the planet relies on everyone figuring these things out. We consume too much. According to this well-researched International Business Guide illustration, it would take the resources of 4.4 earths to sustain the planet if everyone lived like an American. As things stand now, we need 1.5 earths to satisfy our consumption and waste.

It doesn’t feel great right now — nothing like the quick-fix feeling of dropping $100 at my favorite store, but I know there’s deeper joy to be found in making and in the connectedness I can express for the planet this way. On the occasions when I do buy things, I’m turning more and more to ethical companies that pay workers and respect the planet. And, at least for me, there’s no turning back.

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