THE idea was born on a trail, as many of mine seemed to be. It was two days before my 29th birthday and my girlfriends and I decided to celebrate with a weekend in Whistler (Canada).
We were hiking around Cheakamus Lake in Garibaldi Provincial Park, where the shade of the turquoise water changed as often as every new patch of clouds rolled by.
Our topic of conversation shifted just as quickly, ranging from our work and hobbies to friends and relationships.
Wendy had recently moved in with her longtime boyfriend and Liz was getting ready to do the same with hers. They were both talking about what was next - buying houses before prices in our hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, got out of control, and considering having kids before getting married. After working as the managing editor at a financial start-up for two years, I shared what insight I had, but felt that was all I could contribute.
While my friends were moving on to the next stages of their lives, I was still working on myself.
"What's next for you, Cait?" Liz asked. It was a simple enough question from one of my oldest friends. Liz and I had first met in eighth grade. We only went to the same school for a year, but a year was all we needed. She lived down the street and we could often be found walking between our two houses to hang out at one or the other.
After all these years, I imagined she might have been hoping I would say I was finally ready to settle down, too.
Knowing me, though, she probably expected me to say I was going back to Toronto for work soon or moving to yet another new city. I was always on the move.
Instead, I shared a thought I'd been sitting on all week.
"I've been thinking about doing an experiment where I don't shop for a while," I replied. "Like, maybe six months or even a year."
My friends were no longer surprised when I made announcements like this. In the previous three years, I had made many big changes in my life, including committing to getting (and staying) out of debt, taking control of my health and quitting drinking. I had also publicly documented these changes on my blog, which I started writing in 2010. After the words "Cool!" and "That'll be interesting!" came out of their mouths, they rushed me with a list of follow-up questions. Now that I had said the words out loud, I felt the intention take hold and the plan begin to form. We talked about what the experiment might look like, including what I would and wouldn't be allowed to shop for.
I didn't have all the answers yet. I never had all the answers, when I started one of my experiments. The same way I didn't know I would be capable of paying off $30,000 of debt in two years or losing 30 pounds in one year, I had no idea that during the next 12 months I would end up living on 51 per cent of my income, saving 31 per cent, and travelling with the rest. I also didn't know I would document so much of it on my blog, or that the stories and lessons I didn't share online would eventually become this book. All I knew was I still wasn't happy with my financial situation and I wanted to start spending less and saving more money. That's where this story begins. That's where most of my stories begin.
When I returned from the weekend in Whistler, I sat down to type up my plans. The rules for the shopping ban seemed simple enough: For the next year, I wouldn't be allowed to buy new clothes, shoes, accessories, books, magazines, electronics or anything for around the house.
I could buy consumables - things like groceries, toiletries and petrol for my car. I could purchase anything I outlined on my "approved shopping list" which was a handful of items I could look into the immediate future and know I would need soon. I could also replace something that broke or wore out if I absolutely had to, but only if I got rid of the original item. And I would still be allowed to go to restaurants on occasion, but I was not allowed to get takeaway coffee - my biggest vice and something I was no longer comfortable spending $100 or more on each month.
At the same time I decided I couldn't buy anything new, I also decided to get rid of everything old I didn't use. One glance in any corner of my apartment showed me I had more than I needed and I didn't appreciate any of it. I wanted to start using what was already in my possession. I wanted to feel like everything had a purpose and that whatever I brought through my front door in the future would also have a purpose. If I couldn't do that, it had to go.
Before I hit "Publish" on the blog post and announced my plans to readers, I added a line that said, "I've made mindful decisions to get out of debt, stop excusing my laziness and cut drinking from my list of hobbies. However, I'm still not the mindful consumer I'd like to be." I wanted to stop making impulse purchases only to realise I had been fooled by another marketing strategy or sale sign. I wanted to stop wasting money on things I thought I needed, only to come home and find I already had more than enough. And I really wanted to stop talking myself into buying things I would never end up using.
I wanted to get to a place where I only bought things I needed when I needed them. I wanted to finally see where my money was going and budget in a way that aligned with my goals and my values. And I really wanted to start spending less and saving more. But it would never happen if I continued to make mindless spending decisions.
I would start this challenge the next morning: July 7, 2014 - my 29th birthday and the beginning of my 30th trip around the sun. And I would go on to share numerous updates on my blog about what I learned during the year of less. It was about the spending, the money. That's where this story begins, and where many of my stories have begun. But there were so many other things I was hesitant to share that year - events that pulled the life I'd known out from under me and left me standing on my own - or rather, left me in bed for weeks, thinking about giving up on all the positive changes I'd made. During what was supposed to be a simpler year where I pursued less, everything I loved and relied on was taken from me, and I was forced to start from scratch and make a new life for myself.This is an edited extract from The Year Of Less by Cait Flanders, $19.99, Hay House, out now.
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