‘Let It Go’: Author Cait Flanders on the Cycle of Consumerism and Her Year of Less

Jane Switzer
by Jane Switzer March 1, 2018 / No Comments

In two years, Cait Flanders paid off $30,000 in consumer debt, lost 30 lbs., and quit drinking — and that’s just where her story starts. After the B.C.-based writer found herself sliding back into mindless spending and barely saving money, she took a hard look at her habits and asked herself, “Could I live on less?”

In 2014, Flanders challenged herself to a year-long shopping ban where she could only buy gas, groceries, toiletries, gifts for others, and certain replacement clothing. Her memoir The Year of Less (Hay House, $25.99) is a month-by-month account of her quest to consume less of everything, including purging 70% of her belongings, learning how to repair instead of replace, realigning her budget with her values, and completing a month-long television ban. 

Named one of the 7 Nonfiction Books to Change Your Life in 2018 by Vogue, the book is more than a self-help guide to weight loss, debt repayment, and sobriety. Undermining Flanders’ experiment is serious upheaval in her work, relationships, and family life, which forces her to confront her triggers instead of binging on alcohol, shopping, and food. “Whenever you’re thinking of binging, it’s usually because some part of you or your life feels like it’s lacking,” Flanders writes. “And nothing you eat, drink, or buy can fix it.”

For those inspired to try their own shopping ban, she includes a guide at the end of the book on taking inventory and decluttering, replacing costly habits by being resourceful, paying attention to spending triggers, and appreciating what you have. 

Ratehub.ca spoke with Flanders (the first-ever editor of this site’s blog, BTW) by phone from Squamish, B.C.

After you paid off your debt, how did you find yourself slipping back into old habits?

I will never regret getting out of debt, but one thing I wish I could have done differently is that I was so aggressive in my approach. I just wanted to get down to zero, and I was doing anything I could to make it happen. But I was also really hard on myself during that time. I think the problem with the way I did it was I didn’t actually take the time to learn any lessons about why I got into debt. I never really understood what my spending habits were, or how much I was overspending, or anything like that. It’s not that surprising to me that I did go right back to spending. I didn’t go into debt, but I was lucky if I was saving 5% of my income. I was basically still living paycheque-to-paycheque. Not only was I super aggressive and hard on myself, but I also deprived myself so much during those two years that when I did get out on the other side, it just felt good to be able to have some fun again. I was justifying it for a year until I said, “I can’t do this anymore.”

You talk about growing up in the “Pinterest generation,” where things need to be new and matching. Does social media fuel the cycle of consumerism?

I definitely think it adds to it. We’ve been surrounded by media and messaging for decades, but social media means we’re plugged in at all waking hours of the day. Especially things that are visual, whether it’s images in a blog post, on a website, or on Instagram or Pinterest, we’re seeing the best of the best all the time. Not only do we think we should have that, but people make it look easy and make it look like when life is organized and beautiful, everything’s just great. At the end of the day, not only is that not always true — things can look really nice, and life can be not great — but it’s also just not the most important thing in life. I’ve had matching furniture, and things all looked a certain way, but at the end of the day none of that actually made life any better. Just the fact that we’re seeing it at all waking hours every single time we look at our phones, tablets, or computers, it’s certainly adding to the idea that this is something we should be aspiring to.

Part of your shopping ban was unfollowing social media and unsubscribing from emails and newsletters, right?

That was honestly one of the most important parts of it. Even now, I continually ask myself “Why would I even feel like I should follow a retailer?” I don’t think buying stuff or spending money is bad, but the only point of following a retailer is you’re going to see more stuff you think you should buy, and potentially spend more money on stuff you don’t need to spend money on. I remember a few different times feeling almost bad about unfollowing companies, as if I had some sort of loyalty to them. That doesn’t make any sense — a store doesn’t actually have any loyalty to you. I can still love brands but not need to follow them on social media. I love Patagonia, but I don’t need to follow Patagonia on social media because all I’m going to see is stuff I want to buy.

“One of the reasons I used to buy things is because I thought they were somehow going to make me or my life better, or make me more interesting. Part of the decluttering was really letting go of the idea that I’m somehow going to become those versions of myself.”

You not only stopped shopping, but you decluttered and got rid of 70% of your belongings. Is this a step you’d recommend for people doing their own shopping ban?

I don’t think it’s the most important step, and if anyone were to do it I’d say you could do it at a much smaller scale — no one needs to get rid of 70% of their belongings. But the reason it was important is at the same time as not buying more stuff, I was actually able to get a really clear picture of all the stuff I had bought over the years that I had either never used or bought for all the wrong reasons. It seemed to be a continual thing. One of the reasons I used to buy things is because I thought they were somehow going to make me or my life better, or make me more interesting. Part of the decluttering was really letting go of the idea that I’m somehow going to become those versions of myself. Obviously I buy things now, but I buy them for who I am when I’m actually going to use them.

It’s not that you have to get rid of everything, but I think it can create a lot of awareness around things you’ve spent money on in the past, and mistakes you don’t want to make again. Even if it’s not decluttering, the step of taking inventory was even more important because it created so much awareness for me around shopping. Every time I wanted to make an impulse purchase, I could just think, “Nope, I actually own 50 books I’ve never even read.”

You talk about things like shopping, food, and alcohol as the “rules and rituals” binding some of your friendships. What did giving these things up show you about your personal relationships?

When I gave up drinking… you lose friendships in that. You’re not going to do those same things, so some people maybe don’t want to spend that much time with you anymore. The shopping was interesting — in the beginning, I had a few friends who were just kind of confused about the whole thing. They would not invite me to dinner, thinking I couldn’t go out. I told them, “No, I totally could have done that!” It confused some friends at first, but what was interesting was I finally started asking more friends if they wanted to go for a walk, or go for a hike, and still go for a meal here and there. I would still go out for breakfast probably a couple times a month. I still went out; it was just different. I find most of the time that if you’re willing to be the one who suggests a cheaper or even free option, people are actually pretty on board with that. Everyone wants to save money, we just think we should be going out and doing these things.

The biggest thing I noticed overall was by the end of the year, I found my friendships felt deeper. The conversations seemed to change a little bit, they went so much deeper that year. When I got to the end of it not only did I understand myself better, but I felt like I had connections that were deeper and longer lasting than I could remember in a long time.

You call yourself a “compulsive binge consumer of everything.” How are you consuming things now, and do you think you’ll ever be able to live in the middle of the road?  

I think I am in the middle now, just in the sense that I obviously consume things, and I buy them when I need them. As you grow up, your interest changes. At the end of the book, I talked about how I was never wearing makeup anymore. Now, it’s been a couple of years and I’ve actually started wearing a little bit. The biggest thing for me is who you are today isn’t who you’re going to be forever. When I do want to buy something, it’s coming from a genuine place of “I’m actually going to use this thing.” It’s not from a place of “I think this is going to make life better,” or “I think it’s going to make me better in some magical way.”

The biggest change on a regular basis for me is I just don’t browse. I don’t go to the mall, or walk along a row of shops, because when you walk around thinking “Maybe I’ll find something,” you probably always will. Maybe you’ll actually use it, but the act of browsing is always looking for more rather than just using what you have and only buying things when you actually need it.

“One of the reasons I used to buy things is because I thought they were somehow
going to make me or my life better, or make me more interesting.”

After your year of less, what do you value spending money on?

The biggest thing for me during that year has not changed — it’s travel. The one thing that has changed is now I care less about doing smaller trips, and I’m feeling much more inclined to save for one big trip a year. During that year I went on a ton of trips, but they were all short or for reasons like a wedding or a weekend with a friend. Now I would rather pool my money into one big fun trip. That also extends to going back home. I moved away from Victoria since writing the book, so it costs me money to go back home. But it’s really important for me to see my family and friends back there, so I make sure that’s in the budget to go there every second month, even if it’s just for a handful of days. So definitely family and travel over anything else.

What’s the last purchase you made?

I bought new hiking shoes probably a month and a half ago. My pair were about five years old and had gotten to the point where they were no longer waterproof. I went shopping for that, but I walked into the store, I tried on probably six pairs, and bought something mid-range. I don’t care what the brand is, it has to fit my foot the best and be the most comfortable. And then I walked out with that purchase. I walked in, walked out, just got that.

That’s why I say buying stuff isn’t bad — I’ve used them more than 10-15 times since then. I bought a pair that I could also use for snowshoeing, so I can use them for all kinds of things.

It can take several attempts to break a bad habit or kick addiction. How did you get back up after falling down?

The biggest thing — and I still think about this to this day — is to not be hard on yourself. I was always hard on myself whenever I broke those rules. It’s like when you decide to do a diet, and on one day you eat the bad food instead and you’re so hard on yourself. The biggest thing for me was taking each moment like that as a learning experience. So asking myself a lot of questions like, “What’s been happening? How am I feeling right now? What’s life looking like these days?” and really take it as a learning experience, and then just let it go after that.

Something I think about a lot now is the idea that if you set yourself to do it for like a month, if out of 30 days 29 of those you didn’t buy something you didn’t need and one day you did make an impulse purchase, that would still be an A in school. Twenty-nine out of 30 is amazing, but instead we always focus on the negative and feel like we’re failures and say these really awful things to ourselves. I had to finally learn to take it as a learning experience, ask myself a lot of questions about it, and just carry on. You just have to let it go.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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