Last night I finished reading Judith Levine’s Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping . I’m not spoiling the ending by revealing that after a year of doing without everything except the most basic necessities-food, mortgage, health insurance, utilities, and the like-Levine spent about $8,000 less in 2004 than she did in 2003, and, if I understood correctly, $7,956.21 of that went to paying off her credit card. Savings was not the goal of the project, but, admittedly, I was disappointed by the bottom line.
Levine earns between $40,000 and $45,000 a year, and one-third of her gross income goes toward discretionary expenses, which include food, clothing, entertainment, travel, etc. Let’s face it, Levine was not living high-on-the-hog before her project, and her sacrifices included movies (renting and going to the theater), books (except for a few that she needed for work and which were not available from the library), restaurant meals, and travel (except to attend her niece’s graduation in Montana). Throughout the year, she lapsed only twice; once when she bought a top and cargo pants on the Montana trip; and again in Vermont when she bought a pair of slacks.
I’m no spendthrift, but I know I would have a difficult time abstaining from movies and books. I’d manage with no new clothing and body potions for a year. Impulse buys like the silk Chinese purse that Levine covets, or the lime-green pumps that promise a night on the dance floor, I could avoid. I’d do without the occasional restaurant meal, knowing that my sacrifice was finite. But books and movies? Whoa! (And woe.) Books and movies are educational, I found myself rationalizing. They supply me with ideas and ideals. How can I practice my craft in a vacuum? I bought Levine’s book, didn’t I?
But that’s the point. We all rationalize our purchases, confusing need with want. Like the woman in Levine’s book who “cannot afford to not buy” the $19.99 CD player at Target, I cannot afford to not keep current with the latest fiction and nonfiction titles, the newest theater releases. Right? Wrong? Honestly, the answer falls somewhere between. I buy books rather than borrow from the library because I refer to them often and having to check one out to find a single sentence would be a waste of time. But I also read plenty of books that end up on the shelf collecting dust, never to be opened again. A quick visit to my NetFlix queue reveals that I do rent a large number of documentaries, but also, in the last thirty day, I rented Saw II , Melinda and Melinda (two thumbs down), and three movies that I returned unwatched because I’d already seen them.
If nothing else, Levine’s project forces you to come to terms with your own habits, good and bad, and examine your role as a consumer (or non-consumer) in a culture that attempts, and sadly achieves, to commodify every human experience.