How buying less can help you do more

Have you ever wondered how shopping impacts your life?

As I was reading The Year of Less by Cait Flanders, she discusses her experience of embarking on a year long shopping ban, where she doesn’t let herself buy anything except essentials and a few predetermined items. In this book, she talks about the revelations she had throughout the year, including how interconnected her life was to spending money and the huge impact that came from spending her money more intentionally. It really highlighted the impact consumerism has on our life, and how we can do so much more when we choose to buy less.

Photo by Harry Cunningham | Accessed on

Main impacts

These are the ideas that resonated with me the most:

  1. The power of being intentional with your time, effort, and money
  2. Shopping as a habit and coping mechanism
  3. Interconnectedness of shopping with the rest of your life

See sections below for more details.

The power of being intentional with your time, effort, and money

I really liked how her goal of spending less made her so much more intentional with her time, effort, and money. I think the abruptness of the change, how she cut off all excess spending at once, made all the ways that she would typically spend money more obvious.

As she couldn’t go shopping to pass the time, she was more deliberate in how she spent her time, and would find other activities to do with her friends. She was also very intentional about removing any marketing or advertising that she could, such as unsubscribing from emails and store accounts on social media. Obviously you can’t get rid of all ads, but even just decreasing the exposure was a great way to spend less.

Another thing that made her more intentional was her list of what she could buy. She could buy a few predetermined items and she could replace something that broke or got damaged. This caused her to focus on buying when you need something, rather than based off of messages from sales and marketing. Also, she found that when you can only buy one version of a thing, such as one hoodie, you are more likely to spend more time to find the perfect one. This also ensures you find one that you will actually love and wear all the time, rather than grabbing something subpar that was available and/or on sale.

Being deliberate with what you buy, and only buying what you love and need, both limits the amount of things you have and need to take care of, but also makes sure you’re surrounded by things that you actually love, use, and want.

I found this really resonated with me because I love to go shopping, and absolutely love buying things on sale. Her discussion of being more intentional made me aware of how much I do buy things and helped my shift towards being a bit more intentional with what I buy. I do find that I am more conscious when I’m shopping (and how often I go shopping) and I’m trying to buy just what I need rather than whatever I like. But this will definitely be an ongoing process for me. It takes time to shift your mindset and habits.

Shopping as a habit/coping mechanism

As she stopped her spending so abruptly, she couldn’t help buy notice how often she would typically go shopping and how it had become a habit or coping mechanism for her. She even compared it to other addictions, as you can use it to numb or distract yourself (”treat yourself”, “you deserve it”, etc.) from a situation or after something bad has happened. This was quite powerful as she had previously overcome some strong addictions, so she could easily see the similarities.

At the beginning, she found that she would often crave shopping or buying something. Since she couldn’t give into the craving, it forced herself to question why that was her reaction. She found she was often trying to make herself feel better, though a bit of dopamine; numb or distract herself; or pretend that buying things could create a new life for herself, such as buying clothes for a new job or redecorating her house after a breakup.

I think a lot of us do the same thing. It’s this idea of retail therapy. Even though retail therapy is portrayed in movies as buying expensive shoes and clothes, it often manifests in different ways. We have a bad day and decide to go online shopping, or we feel like to be a specific person, we need to own certain things. And to make it worse, our society also reinforces and justifies our endless shopping by saying, “oh just treat yourself”, or “you’ve worked hard, you deserve it!”

Her shopping ban helped her understand why she had that reaction to a situation or why she felt it would help. It was often an instinctive habit or reaction, rather than an intentional use of money and time. It was only once she stopped it altogether that she was able to notice the extent of it.

If I’m 100% honest, I feel like I can see a lot of myself in her description. I sometimes go shopping to make myself feel better, and I sometimes buy things because I’m having a bad day. Since it resonated so strongly with me, I’m able to notice when I’m acting in the same way and can reduce how often I buy things as a reaction, and move towards being more intentional with my shopping. A key step in changing any habits is to first notice it and what sparks that reaction, so that you can change your reaction to that situation.

Interconnectedness of shopping to the rest of your life

Another thing she noticed was how many people cared about her shopping ban and how much it seemed to affect other people. She compared it to when she stopped drinking or eating meat. Everyone had something to say about it and it seemed to make everyone else defensive or feel like they had to justify their own choices. She was really surprised by the strong reactions and doesn’t understand why people seem to care so much about other people’s choices. She doesn’t care what you do with your money (or what you eat and drink), why does everyone else seem to care about her choices?

It also really affected the way she spent time with her friends and family. It was no longer enjoyable to go walk around the outlet malls or go window shopping together. She described it as being the only sober person at a party. But she found that people were happy to do different things, if you could suggest activities to do together (walks, etc.), and were usually quite happy to spend less money. Shopping has just become so habitual, that often it’s the first thing people think of doing together and can seem like a big deal to do something different.

There was, unsurprisingly, a huge impact on her finances. She was able to save so much more each month and spend more on what she wanted to do, like traveling. She also needed less so she spent less, which gave her a lot more freedom for how to live her life. Since her monthly spending went way down, she realized exactly how much money she needed, which was a lot less that her current income. This allowed her to save a lot at the beginning and also made leaving her full time job less intimidating because she knew exactly how much she needed each month. It also ensured her money wasn’t disappearing into black holes of things she didn’t need or use. Everything she owned she used or needed, and all her money was accounted for.

For me, this aspect of the book highlighted how consumeristic our society is, and how much of our society relies on these trained instincts to spend money. Marketing and advertising works, as it preys on these habits we’ve developed and our desires. I feel like I was already fairly critical and conscious of these influences, but I think what stood out for me in this book is how much society reinforces these messages through our interactions with each others.

Another thing that I’m more and more aware of is how easy it is to spend money. A common discussion around habit forming is to make the habits you want to develop as easy as possible (reduce friction) and make it difficult for you to spend time on the habits you want to break (increase friction). But with all of these online shopping or delivery platforms, they reduce all possible friction by saving your credit card info and address, so that you can buy an item with only a couple clicks. From a business perspective it makes so much sense, as they reduce friction people spend more money; but for us trying to spend less, it makes it more difficult to increase the amount of friction around shopping and be more intentional about what we buy.


I really enjoyed hearing about her experience of going through a year long shopping ban and all the lessons she learned through the experience. She helped highlight areas that are relevant to others and ways that you can incorporate her lessons learnt into your own life. If you’re interested in understanding more about her shopping ban journey and other lessons she learned, I would recommend reading her book! You can also check out more of her work in the links below.

Let me know if you would ever go on a shopping ban or if this has cause you to question any of your spending habits.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!