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I first got the idea for my shopping fast in 2006. It was Boxing Day, the Canadian equivalent of Black Friday, which falls on the day after Christmas.
That day in 2006, I found myself at a grocery store because my family had run out of food. The supermarket that I was at carries a lot of non-grocery products, like clothing, cosmetics and appliances–and I realized there was a big hubbub all around me. People had shopping carts full of super-sized bath sets brimming with perfumed soaps and bottles of bubble bath.
I thought, “Why are these people spending their money on this junk? Is it for themselves? For next year?”
For a lot of people, that perfumed bath set was an impulse buy–it was just too good of a deal. To me, it was needless consumption. And that’s when I challenged myself to go without buying nonessential items from Boxing Day through the end of February. I then posted the challenge on my blog, and invited other bloggers to do it with me–eight people signed up right away.
The Shopping Embargo was born.
The ABCs of the Shopping Embargo
My family’s finances were a lot like that of other people. We had debt–a mortgage and a car loan. We also had savings, and we were saving for retirement and our children’s education. But it wasn’t until I started the embargo that I realized just how often I bought something on impulse.
I wouldn’t describe myself as a hoarder, but I’d be out grocery shopping–and find myself in the toy department, even though I hadn’t intended to buy a toy. At the checkout, I was picking up things that I didn’t need, saying, “Oh, I could use this.”
So my tactic was to get rid of all reminders of what I was missing.
The shopping embargo is about buying only essentials—food, fuel, soap—and leaving out the rest. One of the first things I did was unsubscribe from all retail newsletters. They’re a great way to save money, but they’re also irresistible invitations to buy. I stopped going to the mall, and switched to grocery stores that only sold food.
I also started asking myself a series of questions before I brought something to the register:
- Can I borrow one?
- Can I buy it secondhand?
- Can I reuse something I already have?
- Will I get a lot of use out of this?
- Can I wait a month before deciding to buy it?
We’re so used to whipping out our credit cards to buy something immediately–but when I waited a month, I could change my mind, find a better deal or decide I didn’t need it anymore.
It’s amazing how often I found myself with something in my hand, asking myself, “Do I really need this? The usual answer: No.
How the Embargo Changed the Way I Shop
Because of the embargo, I’ve recognized that I shop when I’m depressed or bored. I’d be sitting at home, and say, “I’ll just go to the mall. Oh, wait, I can’t! I’m on a shopping embargo.”
By not spending time at the mall, I’m doing better, healthier things with my family, whether it’s going swimming or just hanging out and reading.
My kids were 5 and 7 when I started doing the embargo–so they were young enough to go along with it because I said so. “You can tell me about stuff that you like,” I’d say, “but we’re not buying it because we’ve made a promise to not go shopping.” It’s amazing how quickly they’d then forget about it!
Some critics say that I’m just delaying my purchases. But that’s not really true, especially for impulse purchases–you’re not going to go back and buy that trinket. And I’ve never had a list of things that I run out and buy when the embargo is over.
Most importantly, it’s totally touched my finances through the habits that I’ve developed that are part of my nature now. It helped us pay down our mortgage faster, and put more money aside for our kids’ educations. Now I can’t help but shop more thoughtfully.
The thing about the embargo is that people can interpret it however they want. For some, it’s about taming their dining budget. For others, it’s about only buying locally and sustainably. This is ultimately a personal project, and when other people do it along with me via my blog, we cheer each other on.
If I can plant that seed, and help people become more mindful, my job is done.