The Five Stages of Not Shopping

by Max Wong on 2 April 2013 9 comments
Photo: jane rahmy

On January 6, 2007 I joined The Compact, an environmental group whose members agree to “buy nothing new for one calendar year.” (See also: The Compact: Mindfulness and Frugality Through Buying Used)

The goal of The Compact is to take as few virgin resources out of the planet as possible. I joined The Compact out of green guilt — in 2006 I had traveled to Italy three times and Spain once. Although I had enjoyed a spectacular year of travel, my jet-setting lifestyle came at a huge environmental cost. Back home, I decided I had to go beyond recycling and step away from consumer culture to shrink my carbon footprint. (Also, I like to test myself, but that’s another story).

Although The Compact has a lot of exemptions — the purchase of food, safety items, services, downloadable content — it is still a challenge to buy mainly used goods. (Where do you find used shoe polish)? It demands patience and creativity, which is why I am still a member of the compact six years later. The Compact makes every day into an adventure. It’s super fun, and I have learned so much about myself because of it.

When I started The Compact in 2007, I anticipated that I would be frustrated, annoyed, and occasionally inconvenienced by limiting myself to only buying used goods. So I was surprised to note that the biggest obstacle to compacting was not my own impatience, but other people’s emotions.

Because of The Compact, I now have real sympathy for vegetarians. Even people who stop eating meat for health or budget reasons get hostile pushback from certain meat eaters who are sure that all vegetarians are smug, leather-shoe-wearing hypocrites. I don’t know why certain people internalize how I personally choose to conserve resources, but they do.

The second I decided to stop buying new, my shopping habits suddenly became a Kübler-Ross model experiment (think "Five Stages of Grief") with my friends as research subjects.

And so, without further introduction, here are the Five Stages of Not Shopping, and how I dealt with each one.

Denial

Initially, some of my friends refused to acknowledge my commitment to not buying new and gave me Target gift cards for my birthday and holiday gifts. They preferred to believe that I was just poor, because who would voluntarily decide to buy less stuff?

How to deal: I thanked them sincerely and listed all the groceries (a Compact exemption) I’d bought at Target with their gifts. While buying food with the gift cards just solidified their notion that I was simplifying out of poverty, I saw no upshot in complaining about getting presents. Sometimes it’s the thought that counts, even if it’s the wrong thought.

Anger

If I had a nickel for the number of times someone has snorted in annoyance at my reusable grocery bags, even though it takes no longer to bag my groceries in cloth than it does in plastic, I would have tens of dollars.

How to deal: Sometimes, when I am feeling mean, I offer the snorter a tissue for their “allergies,” but generally I just ignore hostility from strangers. What’s the point in getting into an argument with someone too dumb to realize that most big grocery store chains in Southern California offer a five cent credit for every reusable bag? In the twenty years I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I have saved over $2,000 by bringing my own bags.

Bargaining

This conversation usually begins with other people telling me that I am depriving myself because I won’t buy a Starbucks coffee or I am somehow living a less full life because I won’t spend money on overpriced snacks from the vending machine at the office.

How to deal: I explain to people that every dollar I save in Los Angeles is a dollar I get to spend in Italy. I don’t remember every $1 Coca-Cola I drank in 2010, but I remember every cappuccino I drank in Italy during the three months I lived there. Most people will stop hounding you into buying stuff you don’t need if they know you have a goal you are trying to meet.

Depression

That pouty expression my friends make when I ask the waiter to box up my leftovers at the end of a meal gets so tired.

How to deal: Up the ante. Why put my leftovers into a takeout container that will be garbage the second I bring it into my house? Instead of adding more trash to the planet, I bring my own collapsible Tupperware take-out containers with me when I eat out. I can’t control my friends’ irrational dislike of eating delicious restaurant food as a midnight snack, but I can control how much waste my eating habits generate.

Acceptance

My friend Andy recently busted his girlfriend at a dinner party at their home. Apparently she only uses cloth napkins when I come over to eat because she fears that I will spend the entire meal silently judging her use of disposable goods.

Sometimes peer pressure is a good thing. The longer the post-recession almost-recession drags on, the more friends ask me for thrifty, environmental advice that would have gone ignored in better financial times.

How to deal: (Laugh hysterically). Be gracious and enjoy every teachable moment. Being a member of The Compact has been liberating. Because I now question every purchase, I have more money in the bank and fewer things to dust. Why wouldn’t I want to share the magic of Not Shopping with everyone I care about?

Have you faced criticism for saving resources? How did you deal?

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Guest's picture

Q: Where do you find used shoe polish?

A: Golden Isles Georgia, Peaches to the Beaches annual garage sale; First Baptist Church; a can of brand new shoe conditioner with a sticker still on it at $11.95 found in the FREE box at the front door!

Max Wong's picture

Hi Eric--

The owner of my favorite consignment store has polish in every color. She told me to bring in my odd-colored shoes when they need a buffing.

Also, my I've sent my local cobbler so much business, he will generally polish my shoes for me gratis.

Guest's picture
Sharon Lewis

I shop at Goodwill. Not because I have to, but because you can find good stuff there at a great price. I buy $2 t-shirts to wear when I am coloring my hair for instance, or for working in the yard or on the car. I also find one-of-a-kind wine glasses and dishes. I regularly buy single Christmas dishes and bowls in which my sisters and I exchange cookies and baked goods during the holidays. I collect yellow ducks, and find castoff Easter ducks at Goodwill all the time. They have an enormous selection of used books. My family and friends scoff at me or might think I'm poor, but it is my choice and their problem. Same with yard sales. I go for the thrill of finding a deal or something to add to my various collections.

On the subject of recycling, I routinely ask my spouse and child if we can reuse an item "just one more time" before throwing it away or recycling it. Usually it happens, and some items become repeat keepers. Once or twice a year I purge because the clutter of plastic items becomes too much. It's a delicate balance.

Guest's picture

Haha, what a nice twist on the five stages of grief. Fortunately, I didn't have a lot of friends and family pressuring me to shop (but I know when some people get on a budget their friends freak out).

My shopping really consisted of Burger King. But I escaped and now have a healthier heart and wallet because of it!

Thanks for the article!

Guest's picture

Nice use of the gift cards! :) Those things are super-handy, no matter what.

Guest's picture

What a clever article, I enjoyed this so much. I can relate too.

Guest's picture

Wow. One year you say. One year. I'm still in shock. I'm fairly good though- I can go a few months.

Guest's picture
Guest

It's hard to tell from this article whether this is the case, but a lot of people who worship at the altar of "going green" get eye rolls and negative reactions from their friends because of their own sanctimony. What you do or don't do is your business, but your friends aren't your children--the only "teachable moments" are the ones in which they actually ASK for your advice, not the ones where you feel the need to give it unsolicited. Get off your high horse.

Max Wong's picture

I <3 this hilarious meta comment.