Week 6 of the Monday Money blog posts I host with Emma at EmmaDrew.info and Lynn from Mrs Mummypenny. Do check the links at the end for other brilliant money posts! Plus, find out how to join in if you’re a blogger. We’d love you to add your content.
Ever wondered if you could stop shopping? Or how little you could really live on?
Books about money come in different shapes and sizes. Practical how-to manuals, dry-as-dust investment tomes or evangelical self help books promoting the only true path to financial success.
“The Year of Less” by Cait Flanders is none of those.
Instead, it’s a memoir by the Canadian blogger (CaitFlanders.com) talking through a year in her life. As Cait describes it, the book is about “how I stopped shopping, gave away my belongings, and discovered life is worth more than anything you can buy in a store”.
It isn’t going to beat you about the head with instructions. The nearest it gets is a brief 10 pages of tips at the end. It doesn’t wag fingers or thrust environmental and financial data down your throat, but presents a very honest picture of one person’s experience.
So what is The Year of Less all about?
The Year of Less talks you through a challenge Cait undertook, after realising that endlessly buying more, and earning more to pay for it, wasn’t actually making her happy. Cait has form for successfully completing challenges, having previously paid off $30,000 debt in two years, shed 30 pounds and quit drinking.
This time, she decided to avoid shopping for a year. Think about that – no shopping for a year.
For 12 months, all she could buy were consumables like food, fuel and toiletries, plus a brief list of items that would soon need replacing. Impulse purchases? Out. Daily coffee? Out. New clothes, books, shoes, electronics, items for the house? No way.
At the same time, Cait also ruthlessly decluttered any stuff she already had, and didn’t use or love. By spending less, Cait hoped to become a more mindful consumer. By saving more, she could use the money on things that added value to her life, such as travel.
Why is it worth reading?
A book that says “stop shopping and declutter” sounds like it could be wrapped up pretty quickly.
What makes The Year of Less so interesting is the honesty behind it. Cait doesn’t lecture, but describes what she did and why, while acknowledging that it might not work for others.
Managing money sounds so easy in theory, but Cait describes the messy reality of ploughing on while coping with relationship breakdown, job hassles and depression. She admits when she is scared, confused, surprised, excited and at the end of her tether, ready to quit.
The thoughtful questioning about the reasons behind our purchases, and how to tackle them, are what I found so interesting.
Cait, then in her 20s, is a different generation from me, from a different continent, living a very different single life. Yet in my own efforts to enjoy life while spending less, I found many of her statements really resonated.
Key points from The Year of Less
As I read The Year of Less, I kept nodding along with specific points, or stopping to think about others.
Here are the key points I took away:
1. Save first, spent what’s left over
I agree that if you genuinely want to save money, you need to make it a conscious decision, rather than hoping there will be something left at the end of the month. I’ve written a post in the past with tips on How to save despite yourself.
2. Live on less
Before the shopping ban, Cait calculated she was saving a maximum of 10% of her income – and therefore spending the other 90%.
During the ban, she saved 20% to 30% of income most months, but hit as high as 56% and 53% in a couple of months.
One of the reasons I like The Year of Less is that Cait doesn’t just say: “I could in fact live on far less money than I used to – and save and travel” but then adds very honestly: “I wish I could say this didn’t feel as revelatory as it did”.
Despite writing about money for more than four years, despite paying off all her debt, she says: “I should have known I didn’t need a lot of money to achieve my financial goals. However, I had also always been stuck in the consumerism cycle. I thought I needed to earn more money each year, so I could have more of what I wanted. That cycle meant I was constantly spending the extra money I was earning, rather than saving it, and I still wanted more on top of that. But the ban proved another theory: When you want less, you consume less – and you also need less money.”
Cait fantasised about screaming her discovery from the rooftops of stores and shopping malls, so I’ll help:
“If you’re wondering why you can’t save money, stop buying stuff you don’t need! And trust me, you probably don’t need anything in here!”
3. Avoid impulse purchases
Cait was on a mission to become a more mindful consumer, and really questioned what she bought:
“I wanted to stop making impulse purchases, only to realise I had been foiled by another marketing strategy or sale sign. I wanted to stop wasting money on things I thought I needed, only to come home and find I already had more than enough. And I really wanted to stop talking myself into buying things I would never end up using.
“I wanted to get to a place where I only bought things I needed when I needed them.”
Focusing on what you need, rather than want, is surprisingly hard given we are surrounded by triggers to consume. I had a think about 30 tips to stop shopping.
Nowadays, Cait reckons that every purchase is carefully considered, not done on impulse.
4. Clear the clutter
Cait acknowledges that it may seem weird to start chucking stuff out of your home, just as you swear off buying anything new. But living in clearer, cleaner spaces is uplifting in itself.
As someone keen on saving money and skilled at procrastination, I struggle with shedding belongings, so I agreed with many of Cait’s comments:
“One thing debt and clutter have in common is that as soon as you start letting it pile up, it can be harder and harder to see your way around it.”
I was particularly interested in her exploration of why it can be hard to shed belongings. She mentioned the voice that says “We spent good money on that!”, which can result in hanging on to stuff we don’t like or use, just because it cost money to buy. A good example of the sunk costs fallacy. Cait also touches on how the reasons we acquire stuff can make it harder to get rid of them:
“Staring at wasted money, dreams and opportunities day in day out hurt more. All items had to go.”
5. Question why you buy
One of the most interesting parts of The Year of Less for me was when Cait explored what drove her to buy things:
“The toughest part of not being allowed to buy anything new wasn’t that I couldn’t buy anything new – it was having to physically confront my triggers and change my reaction to them.”
Many of us use different tactics to deal with emotions, rather than facing them head on, whether eating, drinking, partying or yes shopping. Cait acknowledges that her spending decisions are “a lot more emotional than I thought” and explains:“I numbed my sadness with food, and my emptiness with stuff. And I numbed my loneliness by hosting lots of parties at my new apartment.”
I entirely agree that many of our decisions are driven far more by emotion than reason – check out this post about financial FOFO, the fear of finding out: Are you afraid of money?
6. Face up to emotions
One implication of Cait’s shopping ban, therefore, is having to cope with triggers to spend in a different way:
“This was going to be about more than just not spending money – I’d be changing habits and routines I’d spent years perfecting.”
Fundamentally, Cait recognised that ‘retail therapy’, shopping as a way to deal with emotions, didn’t actually work:
“I didn’t shop. I wasn’t going to help. It had never actually helped before, and it wasn’t going to help this time either.”
The supposedly simple act of stopping shopping was difficult to put into practice, but worth the results:
“I announced I had survived the first three months of the shopping ban, but that wasn’t the real thing to celebrate. The real thing to celebrate was that I had felt things and I kept living.”
“Pain – both emotional and physical – was exhausing…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 better life. I wasn’t doing either now, and I was better for it”.
In the end, Cait described one of the greatest lessons she learnt as: “whenever you are thinking about bingeing, it’s usually because some part of you or your life feels like it’s lacking – and nothing you drink, eat, or buy can fix it…Instead, you have to simplify, strip things away and figure out what’s really going on.”
7. Beware of debt
Faced with other people modelling the latest clothes, cars, holidays or lifestyle, it can feel hard to stick to a budget. Yet those purchases could all be propped up by a crushing mountain of debt.
Cait speaks with experience about running up bills you can’t afford, and her previous difficulties with debt:
“In three months I had pieced together my new life. I had an apartment filled with matching furniture, a closet full of new clothes, and a brand-new car. From the outside, it looked perfect – and it had only taken three months to create. Except I wasn’t free, because my new life had cost close to $20,000. It was all paid for with credit, the debt was mine and I could carry the weight of it for many years. There was nothing free about that.
8. No, you don’t deserve it
I cheered when Cait said “treat yourself” was one of the phrases she’d like to see “erased from the urban dictionary and forgotten forever“, along with the acronym YOLO (you only live once).
I hate justifying unnecessary purchases on the basis anyone “deserves it”. Sure, if you have the money, knock yourself out. But not if you can’t afford it. Everyone deserves an amazing life, but we don’t all have the cash to splash, and need to cut our coats accordingly.
As Cait says: “Yes, you only live once. And you should enjoy it. But not if it means breaking your budget and going into debt for it. There’s nothing fun about debt and there is certainly no acronym to change that. I knew that all too well.”
9. Question who are you buying for
Cait’s comments about buying “stuff I wanted the ideal version of myself to use” really resonated with me:
“…everything I had once bought in the hopes that it would somehow make my life or myself better. There were books I thought smart Cait should read, clothes I thought professional Cait would wear, projects I thought creative Cait could tackle…Having these items in my home proved it was possible. I would do it all one day, and become a better person one day…I realised I had spent the first 29 years of my life doing and buying whatever I could to be someone I thought I should be.”
How much do we buy triggered by a dream of the life we’d like to lead, or the person we’d like to be, rather than our own reality?
Every time I buy stuff like sports equipment, or diet cook books, or board games, or craft kits, it’s in the hope I will somehow magically be fitter and slimmer, with more time for projects and family games. I even shove this stuff in suitcases when we head on holiday, only to drag it all back home.
It even affectsb food costs. When discussing how to save money on food shopping, I recommend thinking about what you throw away. I’ve bought exotic okra, fennel and passion fruit, or even humble salad bags, in pursuit of healthy eating ideals. But if it doesn’t match the reality of my inclinations, children’s tastes or time available, it ends up rotting at the back of the fridge.
There’s an entire advertising industry built on bigging up brands and selling dreams. Our clothes and surroundings present an image to the outside world. Look around you. How much of what you can see is genuinely useful? How much was chosen instead to signal who you are, your tastes and interests? Refusing to buy the new, the fashionable, the expensive creates an different impression entirely. Decluttering can mean facing up to who we really are, rather than who we’d like to be.
As Cait said: “I had to accept the fact that I was never going to be the type of person who read, wore and did these things. But that still doesn’t mean it was easy to let go of.”
Cait suggests asking the question before buying anything in the first place: “Who are you buying this for: the person you are, or the person you want to be?”
10. Buy what you need when you need it
When Cait did have to buy replacements from her ‘approved shopping list’, the decisions were driven not by advertising, but what she needed and could afford.
Turns out this was a new experience.
Cait said: “I had never truly felt a need for something, because I had always purchased things to fill future needs that might come up. Like using coupons to buy two bottles of shower gel, even though I already had some at home, because I would still need more one day. Or buying a shirt I liked in four colours, in case I couldn’t find one that fit right ever again. I convinced myself these things would never be on sale again, so I should buy them while they were cheap. Advertisements and marketing campaigns had conditioned me to believe everything was now of never. It never occurred to me to wait until I actually needed something.”
If you want to cut costs, I whole-heartedly recommend just buying what you need right now. Sales and discounts do come around again. Future needs might never materialise. Stuff bought in advance can also sometimes spoil, get lost or go out of fashion. Use whatever you already have, and you may surprise yourself how little extra you really need to buy, as I found for example during my storecupboard challenges.
11. Buying less becomes a habit
One other comment in The Year of Less that really chimed for me was this:
“When I hit the 10-month mark of the shopping ban, I was surprised to find I couldn’t remember the last time I had thought about buying something I didn’t need. None of my usual triggers sparked any kind of reaction”.
After cutting everything to the bone when we first moved to the country, I’ve also found the desire to acquire fades away. I even struggle to give people present ideas when my birthday and Christmas come around.
Sure, sometimes I see photos of things that look great, but it rarely means I actually want to buy something. I remember walking round a shopping centre, with time to kill before a meeting. I knew I needed new clothes, but just couldn’t face the breadth of choice, and left empty handed.
As Cait says: “The ban uncovered the truth, which was that when you decide nowto want less, you can buy less and, ultimately, need less money.”
12. Focus on experiences not things
Cait also found she couldn’t remember most of the stuff she had got rid of, “but I could recall details from every one of the trips I had been on.”
This resonated with me, because I’d far rather spend money on experiences than yet more stuff. Day trips, classes, tickets to the theatre, cinema or exhibitions, family outings – they’re all remembered far longer than any object.
Over the year, Cait found she lived on an average of 51% of her income ($28,000), saved 31% ($17,000) and spent the other 18% on travel ($10,000).
13. Cut costs, expand your options
Questioning how much you really, genuinely, need to live on can bring wider choices about what you do for work, how much you work and even if you need to work at all!
By cutting out unnecessary expenditure, Cait saved enough to travel and started “to live the lifestyle I had always dreamed of.”
By mapping her spending, and working out how little she really needed to cover her living expenses, Cait also had the confidence to quit her job and work for herself, with the erratic income that entails. I’ve also found that moving house and cutting costs meant I could continue working as a freelancer round school hours, and my husband could return to working for the charity sector.
Despite the length of this post, The Year of Less isn’t a big book, at less than 200 pages.
I started it when I was meant to be doing something else, then couldn’t stop reading. I zipped through it the same day, partly because it is well written and easy to read. But some of the concepts will stay with me for much longer, making me question my own purchases and purpose.
As Cait concludes: “My shopping ban coupled with a massive declutter/purge of stuff taught me what I value most in life, and none of it can be bought from a store.”
I appreciate this book won’t appeal to everyone. Cait’s situation may be too far from your own. Anyone struggling to afford even basic necessities, and stretched too far to save a penny, might want to hurl this book at the wall.
But I found it thought-provoking, and do recommend reading The Year of Less by Cait Flanders. You can buy a copy for just over a tenner. But even better, save the money, cut the clutter and borrow one from your local library – as Cait herself has recommended!
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