personal challenge memoir #5: not buying it

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i gave this book four stars on goodreads, but i definitely think it’s worth checking out some of the one-star reviews over on that website. they made a lot of excellent points & offered critiques so that i didn’t have to in this review. i doled out four stars not so much because the concept behind the book blew my mind somehow, but because i think the process of thinking about the critiques i wanted to make (the same critiques as a lot of one-star reviewers made) was really illuminating for me. as in a lot of the negative reviews, the author annoyed me. i was extremely thankful to not be her friend & not have to deal with her freeloading woe-is-me ways. but i like that the book made me stop & think about WHY i was glad i wasn’t her friend.

okay, backtrack. the idea behind the book is that the author, judith, & her partner, paul, decided to have a buy nothing year. they would commit to buying nothing except necessities for an entire year & they would see what happened, i guess. it’s a little unclear what, if anything, that expected. that they’d save tons of money? that they’d go “back to the land” somehow? that they’d lose their minds one day & spend their entire life savings on potato chips? i mean, the author kind of earned my smug skepticism early on by talking about buy nothing day like it was this really insightful, amazing idea. i am pretty over buy nothing day. i wasn’t even that impressed when i first heard of it, which had to have been sometime in the late 90s. the author further lost credibility with me by such things as: not only attending a bread & puppets event (sorry, sorry, i know people love bread & puppets–i even have a good friend who is IN bread & puppets, but i have this reptilian brain-level hatred of puppets) but actually having a favorite sketch, owning a fourth-floor brooklyn walk-up valued at three times what she bought it for but still having the gall to decry the gentrification that she helped kickstart, essentially bragging about only ever paying a quarter to go to the museum of modern art…i could go on. basically, judith is your typical fifty-something NPR-listening crunchy lefty do-gooder artsy liberal type who is probably a little less hip than she would like to believe. a barbara ehrenreich type, you know, who goes out & exposes the seedy underbelly of the manner in which the overwhelming majority of americans live their lives & then reports on it to hand-wringing well-to-do liberals & makes a whole career of it like she did something really novel & interesting.

despite all of these problems, the book made me think a lot. she & paul never really do settle on what exactly their “necessities” are. they decide food is a necessity, & that they can only make food–not go out to eat. & no packaged foods either. no frozen pizzas, i guess. fair enough. but judith is pretty adamant that professional haircuts are also a necessity–to the point that when she joins a “voluntary simplicity” group, she is very concerned that all the other meeting-goers will be sporting awful home haircuts. hey! i haven’t been to a professional hair cutter in YEARS (unless you count great cuts or the time a hairdresser friend gave me a trim in my living room) & my hair is gorgeous. & she drops a lot of brands, talking about her funky eyeglass frames & winter coat & such forth…though, i speak from experience when i say that these brands are the kind of thing you will pick up on if you live on the lefty consumer/status-obsessed east coast for long enough. i never thought i would sport $500 swedish designer eyeglass frames, but i did, for three years. knowing that, i kind of had to withhold judgment when she talked about her glasses. other people might say, “go to lenscrafters. thirty bucks,” & yeah, that’s what i used to do…but i got sucked into the east coast eyeglasses status culture without even being conscious of it, & totally considered my crazy expensive eyeglasses a necessity. i need to see, don’t i? i didn’t even stop to consider that i could see just as well for a lot less if i didn’t mind having ugly (or just boring) glasses. (& i bought those glasses before i knew about zenni optical, which enables a person to have very stylish eyeglasses for very little money.)

this is what i mean when i say the book made me think. i could look down my nose at judith for spending $55 on a haircut, but what do i spend money on that other people probably could consider indulgent? what do i spend money on that i myself would have considered indulgent ten years ago? ten years ago, i owned one pair of pants that wasn’t part of my issued work uniform. now i own three pairs of jeans that i have bought in the last six months. (this was written a few years ago. as of right now, i haven’t purchased any new clothes in several months. not because i am challenging myself not to. just because i don’t really need anything right now.) indulgent? depends who you ask.

& i think maybe that was the point of the book: making you stop to think twice before you start casting stones. an interesting statistic judith offered stated that 78% of americans feel that americans in general are “very materialistic & spend money recklessly”. but only 7% of americans feel that they themselves are “very materialistic & spend money recklessly”. i certainly don’t think i am materialistic, & i don’t think i spend money recklessly. i live on about $17,000 a year, of which i save approximately 25%. another 15% goes to rent, & 15% to bills. another 20% goes to groceries. that leaves 25%–about $4500 a year, approximately $400-ish a month. where does it go? clothes, books, eyeglasses, medical care that my medicare insurance doesn’t pay for, car expenses, traveling…i’d consider most of it a “necessity” in one way or another. but before my divorce was finalized, i lived on $500 a month plus $200 in food stamps. 80% of my income went to rent, leaving just $100 a month for bills & those “necessities” i now spend $350 a month on. obviously my idea of a necessity was much more specific then. & it would have to get specific again if my income changed suddenly. it’s very interesting to consider all of this when you stop & realize how much energy people put into defending their consumer habits. we could all probably stand to judge each other a little less, & hence act defensive a little less, & hence, probably feel emotionally better about the purchases we make, & in turn, probably make fewer guilt-inspiring purchases. i have to say, living with my partner, who does not look askance at the way i spend my money, has done wonders for my consumer habits. i’m actually less likely to spend too much money on new jeans or books i could find at the library since i know i won’t have to defend myself to him either way.

i’m not saying this is a good book, but i’d be into my friends reading it just so we can talk. it brings up a lot of food for thought, even if it does so in a somewhat unsatisfying manner. & i am always up for critiques of voluntary poverty (gah).

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