Opinion

My summer of no new stuff

The pandemic taught me how much I don't need

When the pandemic hit, I started buying things. 

At first, it was stuff I was afraid I might need: I accumulated a truly bountiful amount of toilet paper, mountains of soup cans, Clorox wipes that I had shipped across multiple state lines, and a box of chocolate molten lava cake mix, in case things got really bad. Soon I was just buying stuff to make myself feel better: An overpriced loungewear set (I'll probably be working from home for a while), exercise weights (in three sizes, in case I got stronger!), even a new couch (I'd be sitting on it a lot, wouldn't I?). 

Then something happened that had never happened before in my adult life: I stopped buying things. As the pandemic wore on, although I still aggressively window-shopped, there ceased to be anything I actually felt the urge to own. What would I do with a new dress? I was in quarantine. Who needs fancy outdoor equipment when you don't have travel plans? I didn't even purchase home improvement items beyond the couch, because what I had already was functional enough. On the rare occasion I did find myself wanting something, I was far less spontaneous than I'd been in the past; the anxiety of being a newly one-income household made me reconsider hitting "add to cart." Soon enough, my checking account thanked me — my balance reflected just how much stuff I'd needlessly been spending money on before.

Only more recently, post-vax, have I found myself sliding back into my old spending habits; alas, as I believe Shakespeare once wrote, 'Tis one thing to be tempted, another thing to fall victim to Memorial Day sales. But I'm anxious to stymie losing all the progress I'd made toward a less consumerist lifestyle, so I've devised a bold and somewhat terrifying plan: for the entirety of the summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, I'm not going to spend a dime on any new stuff.

Obviously, I'll still need groceries and necessities, like replacement toothbrush heads and (sigh) ever more toilet paper. But the past year has taught me that spending money on things won't make my life better. Instead, with the disposable income I do have, I want to focus on the activities I couldn't do during the pandemic: traveling, going out to eat with friends, seeing movies in theaters.

I suspect others will find themselves in a similar boat. In the 11 months through January 2021, Americans saved an extra $1.7 trillion, according to one analysis, while retail spending simultaneously nose-dived during the early days of quarantine. "The pandemic has helped me really buckle down and establish a budget as the pandemic proved material items simply aren't important," a 32-year-old New Jersey resident told USA Today. Some analysts even went as far as to worry that Americans' re-evaluation of their priorities meant sales of high heels and bras might never recover.

Today, though, more than 50 percent of American consumers "expect to spend extra by splurging or treating themselves" post-pandemic, a survey by the consulting firm Mckinsey found. You did just survive a once-in-a-generation traumatic event, who's to say you shouldn't live it up a little?

But at the same time, our spending habits have certainly shifted. Speaking personally, I have a renewed desire to shop at local stores, having lost so many great businesses in my neighborhood last spring and summer. I'm craving being in groups and have dipped my toes back into studio fitness classes. My biggest treat to myself? A round-trip ticket to a family reunion later this year.

Indeed, spending on experiences like travel, entertainment, and even weddings is booming. "We have a desire to have those experiences — even if it means swiping that credit card because at this point we're all just crazy in the head," a Utah resident confessed to CNN. "I fully expect to [initially] spend more than I normally would on these activities to make up for lost time." A Pennsylvania woman interviewed for the same article echoed that "I'm eliminating the unnecessary spending" while also planning to take multiple trips this year.

I've learned to appreciate the non-material parts of my life over the past year; time with the people I love has proven to be far more valuable than anything my money can buy. I don't need to bring any more bric-à-brac through my door, so I won't. Whatever I need — at least for this summer — I'll find by walking out that front door instead.

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