When — if ever — do we just stop shopping?

By Caitlin Kelly

Every day, my email in-box (guilty!) fills up with notifications of sales from flash-sites like Gilt and One King’s Lane and Ideeli or from retailers I’ve purchased from before.

I delete almost every single one.

Every weekend, (yes, we still read some of our newspapers in print), a thick, glossy pile of flyers tumbles in a nasty tree-wasting avalanche from within the folds of the Times, each imploring us to spendspendspendbuybuybuybuybuybuy!

Consumer Spending
Consumer Spending (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

Between the easy availabilty of on-line shopping — a boon to the home-bound or retail-underserved — and a consumer-driven culture urging us to buy everything we see, right now, it’s an ongoing challenge not to spend money. Not to buy even more stuff.

The U.S. economy, a statistic that always somewhat horrifies me in its implications of rampant consumption, is based 70 percent on consumer spending — gas, food, diapers, gum, Manolos, trucks, Ipads, whatever.

So if we actually stop shopping, or slow down our spending on consumer goods, the economy slows. If you live in the U.S., and have any disposable income (such a bizarre phrase!) it can feel like some civic or patriotic duty to go spend some more money.

When I worked retail for 2.5 years in an upscale suburban New York mall, I saw the insanity — truly — of holiday shopping firsthand. People staggered into our store already so loaded with bags they looked like pontoons. They pawed through the racks, threw our stock onto the floor and shouted with anger when we didn’t have exactly what we needed when they needed it.


And yet very few Americans, even those with decades of earned income, have saved enough money to ever stop working.

In October 2013, USA Today reported:

A new report paints a rather grim assessment of how prepared we are for retirement. “The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is it Worse Than We Think?” from the Washington, D.C.-based National Institute on Retirement Security, says the typical American family has only “a few thousand dollars” saved for retirement.

“We have millions of Americans who have nothing saved for retirement,” says Diane Oakley, executive director of the NIRS. “We have 38 million working-age households who do not have any retirement assets.”

For people 10 years away from retirement, the median savings is $12,000. “Of the people between 55 and 64, one third haven’t saved anything for retirement,” Oakley says.

I read those statistics and wonder what is going to become of them; not everyone has children able or willing to rescue them.

Fortunately, (partly because we never assumed the costs of raising children), we’re way ahead of that $12,000 figure. We drive a 13-year-old vehicle and live in a one-bedroom apartment and I set aside the maximum for my IRA, even when I’d really prefer to spend that money on a long and fantastic overseas vacation, or some gorgeous new clothes or to take in all the shows, plays and concerts that Manhattan offers us.

Having significant savings is, for me, a much deeper comfort than anything I could buy.

Here, from Harvard Business School, why buying an experience (if you must buy anything at all) wins:

Conventional wisdom says that money can’t buy happiness. Behavioral science begs to differ. In fact, research shows that money can make us happier—but only if we spend it in particular ways.

In their book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, authors Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton draw on years of quantitative and qualitative research to explain how we can turn cash into contentment.

The key lies in adhering to five key principles: Buy Experiences (research shows that material purchases are less satisfying than vacations or concerts); Make it a Treat (limiting access to our favorite things will make us keep appreciating them); Buy Time (focusing on time over money yields wiser purchases); Pay Now, Consume Later (delayed consumption leads to increased enjoyment); and Invest in Others (spending money on other people makes us happier than spending it on ourselves).

I try to adhere to all five of these principles:

Paris - Île St. Louis: Berthillon
Paris – Île St. Louis: Berthillon (Photo credit: wallyg)

— I can still taste the salted caramel ice cream we savored at Berthillon on the Ile St Louis in Paris five years ago.

English: Ile St-Louis - Paris Français : Ile S...
English: Ile St-Louis – Paris Français : Ile Saint-Louis – Paris IV (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

— I’ve chosen to work fewer hours, (which restricts my ability to shop, given that I save 15 percent of my pre-tax income every year as well), to better enjoy my free time and have experiences I value more than buying more things — to take a long walk mid-day or have coffee with a friend or read a book instead of flogging myself into another 10 or 15 hours’ paid work. I ended up in the hospital in 2007 for three days with pneumonia after chasing money too hard, too fast. Never again.

— I tend to hoard gift cards for as long as a year before finally using them, as I did recently with a Christmas 2012 gift card from my husband, (it bought two great pairs of shoes on sale.)

— I splurge on small surprises for Jose whenever I can, whether a book or a pair of colorful socks or a dinner out.

In a season where so many of us are rushing about madly shopshopshopping, it’s easy to forget that a more valuable gift can be as small and essential as a hug, a night or two of babysitting for a weary friend, making a meal for an elderly or ill neighbor.

It doesn’t have to come in a shiny Apple-designed, (cheap Chinese labor made), plastic shell or turquoise Tiffany box, no matter what their ads insist.

 Are you sick and tired of shopping?

37 thoughts on “When — if ever — do we just stop shopping?

  1. Since I usually just spend money on what I need, not really. One way or another, the essentials in life always cost money. Though after buying a wedding present for a friend, I’ll be happy not to go to the store again for a while.

      1. Thankfully the matching mugs and the platter I bought them from Crate & Barrel were inexpensive. Otherwise I might have broken the bank! When another friend of mine gets married in June, I hope I’m a little better off financially.

  2. Buy experiences – this is a principle that I feel strongly about for my family. We try to live below our means so that we can see live music and plays, travel and try new things. We also get to donate to causes that are important to us. I have ambitious goals for 2014 in regards to learning to make do and doing without, but definitely doing, instead of having. I hope you have a wonderful holiday season, Caitlin!

    1. Thanks for commenting, Michelle…so good to hear from you again!

      I so agree with your philosophy. I am heading out tomorrow night to see a play (discount tix) and last night attended a show (with a friend in it — sharing a stage with Garrison Keillor!) as well. It makes me so much happier.

      Have a great holiday!

  3. mylifeinfocusblog

    I spent $27 so far on Xmas gifts. It was just 2 books from Amazon for my granddaughter. I only bought new because she’s teething now. Otherwise, it would have been a consignment purchase.
    Your money or your life.
    I choose life.
    I gave up shopping a decade ago (when I retired early). I only buy what I need and only at the lowest price possible (if I can’t get it for free). I use things till they wear out or are beyond repair, as the replacement of my 19 year old TV is proof enough.
    I never feel deprived. Each time I avoid spending, I tell myself I am making an investment in maintaining the enjoyable quality of life I have come to appreciate and expect.

    PS: I got that Chanel No 5 perfume, for my birthday, as a gift. Hooooooooow did they ever know that’s what I wanted. Ah hem………:)

    1. I love your values. We get so little time to be alive and healthy in life. I do love luxury, so I sometimes splurge. But our savings assure me that the short-term deprivation (if I live long enough to use them) is buying my leisure.

      1. Kathy

        Yes, I am tired of shopping.
        For Christmas this year, I’m making most of the gifts I give, and buying others from local businesses or bartering with crafty friends. It’s been a joy to create special things for my special people.

        Merry Christmas to all!

  4. This five rules are pretty good…I have been “buying experiences” for years. As for needless consumption, my last move put the final nail in that coffin. Moving a bunch of bric-a-brac from place to place is costly; in the thousands of dollars. And of the things that are moved, some break along the way. At first, I felt a great deal of anger, as those movers destroyed a sentimental thing to me. But then I re-evaluated that sentimentality. Things are just things. I also moved to a smaller place, and felt inundated when my things arrived a few days later.

    After that experience, I have noticed a significant lack of Amazon.com boxes on my stoop. This is intentional. The prospect of moving those things again, and the waning pleasure from simply having them, keeps me from adding anything else to the pile. I have in fact, enjoyed foisting my things on other people via Craigslist.

    This Christmas, my wife and I decided not to give gifts. We’d rather save for an experience. My family thinks we are crazy. One unexpected gift has come from that decision: a lack of gift-giving anxiety!

    1. Thanks for sharing this…My wake-up call, and it was a horrible experience, was having to move my mother into a nursing home directly from the hospital, with days to decide what to sell and not being able to keep 99% of it, no matter how much she or I loved it — it would not fit into one small room. I found this heartbreaking and so instructive…I did ship home a fairly large photo portrait of me and her amazing collection of vintage/ethnic textiles.

      We have a garage and three small storage lockers we (I admit) avoid dealing with. This stuff has to GO! It took us three eight-hour days (!?) to pare down once…between two journalists with a LOT of photo and writing paraphernalia. What to do with the Kevlar vest (!?) he wore for six weeks in Bosnia? Not exactly a Goodwill box donation.

      I like your decision to save for an experience. Who’s to criticize if that is what will make you the happiest? I think it shows (no offense to your family meant) a lack of imagination that the only “gift” worth having or giving is in a box. Jose took me to a Broadway show one year (Billy Eliot) and I loved that.

      1. I also have a similar tale: A month after the move, my wife’s grandmother died. And while grandma did her best to pair down her possessions, there was still a lot of detritus to deal with. I took a baby grand piano and her opera CDs….mostly out of nostalgia. Perhaps, now that the piano is staring me in the face, I will finally learn how to play it. Or maybe it becomes the most expensive coffee table in the house. While the move was a tremor, the piano was the real earthquake and wake up call. No more stuff!

      2. One reason Jose and I are trying to get rid of stuff and acquire little more — it is (as you know) a HUGE chore to deal with others’ things. We have no kids to do it for us.

  5. refinedrandomness

    Hello Broadside, I am a reader and admire many of your posts. As it might be off the target a little, I share my opinion, grandma’s days are over as we know it, consumerism is society, we are no longer individuals, but consumerist. From time to time, I listen to the Glenn Beck’s show, and he validates how even shopping experiences have altered the holidays. Seems sic. Just like the false promise of quick remedies and instant healing, so is our society becoming mindless consumers. In the long run, I believe, on the whole it is a means towards dumbing up citizens, saving less and becoming more at the hands of higher playing cards which is in effect is exactly where they want so many of us, emotionally , financially and principally bankrupt….. Just my opinion, thank you for sharing your posts.

  6. I’ll never be sick and tired of shopping – thrift shopping, that is – where the joy is in getting a fabulous find at a fabulous price. But even then I only buy what I like and can use and is quality. I’ve left finds on the shelf when I know I don’t need it.

    And I agree with your statement about the supreme comfort that comes from significant savings.

    1. Thanks!

      How much STUFF can anyone need or want…versus knowing they will not starve if they fall ill or cannot work or actually hope to retire? I struggle hard to save the maximum every year. I asked my accountant how much more in tax I’d pay if I did not — $2,000. That’s enough pain from the government (and for what?) to keep me stuck to my savings guns. 🙂

  7. I have a postal round, and see more and more addressed leaflets I have to bring around each weak towards Christmas. Here in Europe consumerism has leaked it’s way in pretty thouroughly too.

    We simply do not have enough money for a lot of buying, although I do like to thrift-shop. Like Susan, I only buy a great find when I actually need it too.

    The way of shopping that is seen as normal around here – the swooping in and out of shops, seeing, buying etc. tires me very quickly, first of all because it gives too many stimulants to my senses. Bookshops are a whole different brand of shop though. Once, while we walked through Amsterdam, my fiancé very wisely dragged me into a bookshop to relax and get some breath again, during a moment of enormous sensory overload. Somehow there it is way more normal to shop ‘my way’: to take your time, read part of a book before buying it (or not), the whole aura of choosing books to sit with in a comfortable chair later, it just is… different. I love book shops.

    1. Me, too! I just spent a very happy hour in an indie bookshop this week — and treated myself (I rarely do) to two new paperbacks and one as a gift for my husband for Christmas. I agree, it’s a wholly different rhythm and really lovely.

      I tend to avoid crazy, crowded department stores and shop, whenever I do, in smaller independent places with better service and a limited selection. I grew up in Canada and there were many fewer places to shop there then. It just wasn’t something to do for amusement. It costs a lot!

    1. Thanks, you too!

      It’s an odd dilemma — how to give someone a gift they will treasure that isn’t going to make us feel stressed by spending too much money? When I worked retail, I saw truly insane behaviors in our store in the holiday shopping season — and I suspect many people overspend on buying gifts out of guilt or fear instead of being truer to their own financial needs as well as their wish to be generous.

      Hell, I just blew (omg) $75 to send candy to the nursing home staff who care for my mother. Guilty! 🙂

  8. It’s crazy too because it’s not the “big ticket” stuff that gets you its all the little things. $5 here $10 for lunch there…then all of the sudden you’re wondering where all your cash went. At least that’s what happens to me ha!

    1. So true! Hey….thanks for commenting!

      Every time I head into NYC, my wallet gets a LOT lighter. I went to a play last night ($23, bargain ticket) — but the parking was $25 and the tolls $10. And all I “bought” was, really, the play.

  9. Great post, as usual. Our money loves to support the arts, however we can. And fabulous Powell’s (and other independent bookstores) in our fair city. Though we could barely afford it, I might not put off the trip to Ireland too long that I dream of…with heart disease I feel an urgency sometimes to see/share and love even more. Merry Christmas and a fabulous New Year, Caitlin.

    1. Thanks!

      Buying books always feels like a civic act to me somehow.

      Sorry to hear about heart disease (!) — Ireland is worth every penny it might cost you to get there. I attended an Irish play (all-Irish cast) last night in NYC and some of their accents were so thick I strained to understand them. Loved it!

  10. My last three coats ( $4.95, $4.95 and $46.00) came from either a charity shop or a consignment, but I did splash out on new boots today spending Christmas money from my generous and loving stepmom. I bought what I wanted rather than the most practical in foot ware (1/2 price) and I feel very stylish in my new purple boots and coat. I’m usually all about the experience, but feeling sassy walking down the streets in Prague can only add to the experience, right? 🙂

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