Sunday, September 1, 2013

One Month of Shopping Sobriety*

It's September 1, which marks a month since I began my self-imposed clothes/shoes/accessories ban. Thus far, I have not fallen off the wagon, despite a couple of temptations I carelessly put in my path. I can report, though, that I have learned a few things about myself during this short stretch.

But first, the carelessness. One Saturday a couple of weeks ago, I was bored here in Norton (not an unusual state, if you've ever been to Norton). Students had not returned yet, it was a beautiful day, and I was by myself, not able to come up with a single interesting local thing to do. In the past, I might have headed off to do some "errands" (which can sometimes be a euphemism for casual shopping, in which I only need to do some practical purchasing like mousetraps or water filters--again, have you been to Norton?--in order to justify the impractical purchases). But I decided to go further afield. I wanted to walk, enjoy the beautiful weather, see people and things I don't usually see. So I decided to head to Boston to walk along the Esplanade. About 90 minutes later (whatever we tell students about the ease of access to Boston, it is not a quick trip if you use public transportation), I arrived at the T stop at the Museum of Science (drove to Quincy, hopped on the Red Line, switched to the Green, thinking, about 40 minutes into the trip that any travel involving the Green Line is a dumb idea).

It was a great walk, though--just what I wanted. Tons of people out there as well, sailing, kayaking, biking, sitting on benches and blankets. I walked from the Museum stop all the way down to the BU boathouse, then back a ways when I decided to cut across BU's campus and over to Newbury Street where I could find a nice restaurant and have an urban dinner before getting back on the T to Quincy.

Newbury Street. The heart of Boston boutique shopping. There's a Frye Boot store, for God's sake. I walked along the sidewalk, glancing into windows with below-average interest. I stopped on the corner across from the Frye store, and wondered what was new in bootwear for this season. And then I kept walking. Found a nice restaurant (Sonsie, for anyone interested) where I watched the Sox game on the TV (the game going on down the street at Fenway, actually, which made for a more-crowded-than-usual Newbury Street) and enjoyed some pasta, and then treated myself to a cone at Emack and Bolio's, passing up a Pinkberry yogurt because, geez, I had just walked a few miles along the river AND had walked past a Frye Boot store, and if I didn't do something extravagant for myself, I was afraid I was going to sizzle to a crisp from self-denial and blow away into the Boston night. Not that anything like that has ever happened, or come close, in my lifetime of justifying to myself any self-indulgent behavior that crossed my mind.

The other temptation I put in my path was spending some time with Betsy, my partner-in-shopping, as we searched for a small, inexpensive backpack for me (a temporary alternative to my heavier briefcase to stave off some back issues; see? I feel the need to justify any purchases I make these days! Which is not necessarily a bad thing) and some sneakers for her. This led us to EMS at Patriot Place, a store where I can always find an article of clothing I "need" and then--what was I thinking?--the Wrentham outlet mall. I'm happy--no, relieved--to report that I found a $20 backpack and Betsy got her new Nikes, and no other c/s/a purchases happened. There was one other purchase, which I'll explain (not justify) only because in thinking about it, I did learn something about myself, or at least reinforce something I've known, to some degree or another, for decades.

I'm kind of a creature of habit about certain items. If I like an item of clothing, something that's sort of a wardrobe "staple" like a good tank top that fits well and feels good, I'll buy it in another color (or two). If I like a pair of boots, practical and heavily-used ones like dressy-but-comfortable, I'll get them in black and in brown. I don't like change all that much because if I make a change and I'm unhappy with it, I will spend way too much time regretting making that change, or worse, comparing what I now have to the near-perfect thing I had in the past. This has led me to stick with the same shampoo(s), the same undergarments, the same breakfast, for years. I think it's also made me risk-averse and boring, but that's probably another blog.

And one thing that hasn't changed in decades? Literally, since I bought my first bottle in 1985 (I remember this because I was rooming with my college friend Heidi Shott, and though I can't remember the specifics, I think she's implicated in what was then an extravagant purchase). Alfred Sung perfume. I liked it, though I was not particularly sophisticated about scents, and still am not. A bottle lasts a couple of years if all you do is one squirt in the morning. Over the years, I have occasionally used other perfumes, but usually only if I had a sample, or got a gift. The change was never permanent. I went back to Alfred Sung. It was indeed extravagant back when I was a poorly-paid social worker and then bottom-of-the-food chain student affairs professional--$40-$50 a bottle. But again--it lasted a couple of years. After a decade or so, it became hard to find. The department stores where it had been available stopped carrying it, but I was always able to find it at an outlet mall fragrance store. I suspect there are a lot of women like me who simply cannot abide a change in such a fundamentally personal product, and we keep those outlet stores in business because we are uninterested in new fragrances being touted and sprayed by the overly-made-up women at the Macy's fragrance and make-up counters.

So that was the purchase--two bottles, actually. A small one for travel and a large one for everyday use. I mention all this not because it's all that fascinating (a perfume purchase). I mention it because of what preceded the purchase. A few years ago, when I was in Ireland, I purchased a bottle of a very nice fragrance, but have never really used it because, well, see above. So when the last of my Alfred Sung was gone, I decided that rather than buy something I didn't need, I would try the Irish fragrance. I lasted about three weeks. In the past, I would have lasted a day and then been out to search for Alfred. But this whole shopping thing has made me realize this: I am a totally reflexive shopper. I shop without thinking about it. I know I shop without needing things, but I never realized how I shop in such a mindless and unconsidered way. Every day I got dressed during those three weeks sans-Alfred, I had a quick exchange with myself about the wisdom and practicality of using what I had, not leaving it on the dresser and buying something else. In the end, my decision to purchase a $45 bottle of fragrance was actually not as easy as it has been since 1985. (It was made easier by Betsy's quick offer to take the Irish fragrance off my hands, as it's her "winter fragrance," she said, and it will not go to waste).

I have had a lot of moments like that in this past month--realizing how often I purchase things I don't really need, and then not purchasing something because of that. It's happened in the grocery store, where I have made a commitment not to buy things unless I'm sure I'm going to eat them (too many fresh vegetables that don't stay fresh long enough). Even the backpack, which to some degree felt like a health-related necessity, took weeks of consideration, of trying other solutions, before I felt like I had worked through the options.

I'm doing this with clothes, too, which gets harder as the school year begins and I reflexively consider new items of clothing that appear in favorite catalogs. But this 6-month deal with myself has given me a framework and some necessary incentive to just walk away, to toss the catalog in the recycling bin, to walk past the Frye Boot store. I have only my own commitment and this blog to motivate me, but so far that seems to be enough. The blog is, I have to admit, pretty darn effective as a motivator in part because some of its readers are people I interact with and who now seem to have a vested interest in keeping tabs on my wardrobe. I actually get asked, on campus, if something I'm wearing is new. I have to explain that it isn't, that I've had it for years but haven't worn it, or purchased it before my shopping moratorium began.

It's all good, I think. I am buying less, not just clothes/shoes/accessories, but food, household items and other non-necessary stuff. And I've actually begun to redefine, for myself, what "necessary" means. Some benefits are obvious (my checking account, for instance, doesn't get emptied as quickly), but others are unexpected, like looking at people and enjoying the warm night air on Newbury Street instead of being focused on boots. Feeling completely justified in treating myself to a tasty and leisurely dinner because I was denying myself something else, which turned out to be a pleasant experience I wouldn't have otherwise had, if my time and money had gone instead to the many boutiques on Newbury Street.

So that's what I've figured out, one month in. I'll let you know, of course, if this gets easier or harder as boots-and-sweater season approaches. I'll also let you know if my friend Linda is successful at convincing me that I deserve a new car, which I totally don't need...or deserve, really...but I might want. And distinguishing between those three things--need, deserve, want--is one of the most valuable byproducts of this experiment, one that will benefit my life, I think, even more than freeing up closet and drawer space.

*Again, I am not making light of other, more insidious addictions. I just like alliteration in titles.