Even after she worked her way out of nearly $30,000 of consumer debt, her old habits took hold again.
When she realised that nothing she was doing or buying was making her happy, she decided to set herself a challenge: she would not shop for an entire year.
My guest today is Cait Flanders, author of a new book called The Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in a Store.
Cait is a self-confessed former binge consumer turned mindful consumer of everything.
Through personal stories, she writes about what happens when money, minimalism and mindfulness cross paths.
Here’s my conversation with Cait Flanders, author of The Year of Less, in episode 322 of Informed Choice Radio.
Martin: Welcome back to Informed Choice Radio. I’m delighted to welcome today Cait Flanders. Cait is a former binge consumer turned mindful consumer at everything, so Cait, welcome to Informed Choice Radio.
Cait: Thank you so much for having me.
Martin: I thought we could start by me asking you to take us back please to June 2011. What position were you in back then?
Cait: Oh, my gosh, I was 25, just about to turn 26 years old, and I … I mean basically in short I was maxed out with close to $30,000 of debt, most of which was consumer. I had about $4,500 that was money I had needed to pay for school, but otherwise all the rest of it was, yeah, consumer debt, so everything from just kind of using credit card like from the time I got them, just using them like they were free money sort of, always thinking like as long as I could pay the minimum payment then I would be fine.
I financed a car at one point too and sort of … I don’t know, just a bunch of things where I ended up like … It’s interesting to know the background, because I think that back then, like in those moments I never knew I was someone who used or like relied on so-called retail therapy, but I certainly was. There were a couple periods of life that I know I sort of put a few thousand dollars on credit, and eventually it all wound up to that.
Martin: Did you think much of it at the time as you’re going out there and buying lots of lovely clothes and shoes and bags and things, or did it just all sort of hit you at once, once you had reached that point of 30,000 in debt?
Cait: What was interesting is I actually don’t … I didn’t buy a lot of stuff per se. I think I was someone who … I said yes to basically everything. I didn’t travel a lot, but basically any time someone wanted to go for dinner or drinks I just said yes. I didn’t question it. I didn’t really pay attention to whether or not I could afford it, if it was in the budget, right? As long as I had credit to pay for it, then I felt okay.
So for a long time I didn’t feel like it was going to be that bad, but then … It just didn’t seem to be a big deal. But I will say in kind of a year leading up to being maxed out I actually … You could say I was maxed out once before that, and what I did was I consolidated couple of credit cards into like a small personal loan. Then the problem was that I just kept using my credit cards.
Like I didn’t lower the limits, I didn’t do anything to sort of actually change my spending behaviour. I just sort of felt like well, I’ve consolidated this. I’m going to get serious about my debt now, and then I still didn’t. I would say I only really knew it was going to get bad, like I was going to be maxed out as far as I could be maxed out probably about three, four or five months like before, because I could tell that I was getting closer to my limit.
I also knew it in behaviours of like I would not … I would no longer look at my actual credit card statements. I would do this thing where I would only peel back the top corner of it and look at the minimum payment that was due because I didn’t want to know how bad it was. Then there just came a day … It was in May 2011 that I was like I need to actually look at this, and the numbers didn’t lie.
Martin: And you were in your mid-20s when this happened, when you got maxed out, so you’d been a consumer, an adult consumer, and had access to credit I guess for five, six, seven years or so? When did you learn about money? What was your childhood experience of money? How did you treat money when you became an adult?
Cait: Oh, gosh, my parents probably hate this, because like I’m one of those stories … My parents always talked about money, so I … Growing up, I have a lot of memories of things like everything from my parents taking me to the bank when I was probably nine years old and opening up kind of my first … I think they were called like a children’s saving account here, so opening one of those.
I remember my dad always talking to me about like once I was earning money you should save 10-20%. My dad used to do this thing where any time something new was written about … So the accounts in Canada are like … For our retirement accounts or anything like that, if he found something about it in the paper he used to cut it out and leave it on the bed for me to read when I got home from school.
My family always talked about it. They always … Even things like I knew how much my parents paid for their house. I knew how much they both earned. I knew how money worked essentially. My parents showed me and talked very openly about this stuff, but I basically as soon as I started working, so I was like 15 years old, I just started … I spent everything. I never saved money. To me, I think like saving money was literally buying something on sale. You know what I mean? You just feel like that’s a good deal. But I wasn’t actually accumulating anything.
I remember the odd time when I was 19 or 20 I would save maybe $100 in a retirement account or something like that, and I remember feeling so excited to tell my dad that I had actually put something in the bank, but I definitely … I did not sort of take all the lessons my parents had taught me. I think I had to learn them on my own.
Martin: And you reached a stepping point I guess where you got maxed out. What did that feel like, and did it serve as a really big wake-up call, that you thought I have to get control of this? Did you sort of take immediate action, or was it something that then took a while to sink in?
Cait: No. I think in being maxed out … And I will say like I had $100 left in my bank account and $100 left on my credit card limit, and I wasn’t getting any more money for six weeks. It was sort of where I had taken a little bit of time off of work, so I wasn’t going back to work and then going to get my next paycheck for about six weeks.
I had no choice. I had no choice but to start paying it off and to get serious about it. It was pretty immediate. Like I remember it felt awful and I actually … In a way I’m … I don’t know. In a way I’m fine with the way that I approached my debt repayment, but at the same time I was really aggressive and really hard on myself.
The way I paid off my debt was just being so obsessed with getting down to zero. I just wanted to become debt free, and so the good part … Yes, I put every extra penny I could towards it and stuff like that, but I also … I had no balance, like no balance in my life. I wasn’t saving anything. I wasn’t giving myself kind of any fun money, and fun literally being like even going out to eat once a week. I just wasn’t giving myself much freedom to do anything other than focus on paying of debt.
I honestly felt like I sort of punished myself for two years. Yeah, I mean I’m glad I paid it off. I think that I didn’t need to be quite as aggressive as I was. I’m sure I could have still done it if I had given myself a little more time or a little more flexibility.
Martin: You document your experiences in your new book, which is called The Year of Less, so at what point did that year of less start? Was that two years after that sort of self-flagellation as it were? Did you immediately get into the shopping ban, or was that something that came later?
Cait: No. It actually did come later. That’s actually been fine too, because it’s been sort of like this common misconception that I did the shopping ban to pay off my debt, but I actually think it’s … It’s kind of interesting that I did it. I actually kind of think it’s interesting that I didn’t start the shopping ban until after I was debt free.
Again, it’s sort of partially stems I think from how aggressive I was during those two years, so I didn’t really learn anything. I didn’t learn what my spending habits were. I didn’t learn what my normal triggers were or what the reasons were, why I was spending. Again, I probably didn’t know I was an emotional spender or did things like retail therapy.
The other thing that happened the two years that I was paying off debt was that I actually quit drinking, so I had … I started drinking when I was quite young and I quit when I was 27. Again, not really thinking the fact that drinking was sort of my like coping mechanism. So then I became debt free. I’m also like newly sober. I was like six months sober.
It’s not that surprising to me now that I basically went right back to spending all my money. I wasn’t going back into debt, but I would set these goals, like I want to save 20% of my income, and then I’d be under every month. I would write these updates on my blog basically justifying why I had only saved like four or five, or six or seven or eight percent of my income. Yes, that was still something, but every month I knew I could do better because I had done so much better when I was paying off my debt.
It didn’t feel good. It didn’t feel good to not be getting towards any of my goals. It also didn’t feel good to be justifying, or to be justifying why it was okay to spend money. After a year of that … So an entire year of being debt free, writing these monthly updates, not feeling good about them, I was just like there has to be another way. There has to be something else to this, because what I’m doing is not working, and that’s sort of where it came from.
Martin: But a shopping ban in itself is quite extreme as well, so that almost feels like you’re punishing yourself slightly if you’re not allowed to shop, particularly if you enjoy shopping and you enjoy retail therapy. What rules did you set for yourself? Was it a total ban from all shopping or were you allowed to sort of do certain things?
Cait: I know, it sounds so restrictive. It’s one of those things where now I just … I’ve kind of been joking about it and realising I’m not a good copywriter, so I really wish I had come up with another title for it, because it sound so restrictive. But it really wasn’t meant to, and truly that year didn’t really feel that restrictive.
The idea was basically that I didn’t want to bring more stuff, so like physical objects, into my home unless I absolutely needed it. That meant like of course I could buy things like groceries, toiletries as you need them. So if I run out of something of course replace it.
Putting gas in my car and also like going to restaurants, that was fine, because I don’t go often and I didn’t feel like uncomfortable with how much I was spending, so that was fine. Gifts for other people, those kinds of things, that was all the stuff I was allowed to buy.
The things I wasn’t allowed to buy were … It sounds restrictive, so wait for the caveat. I was not allowed to buy clothes, shoes, magazines, things for around the house like furniture, and basically it was anything like unless I found my situation where I absolutely needed it, I mean of course then go buy it. It wasn’t about trying to live without. It was really like learning how to just stop myself … Now I say stop myself from browsing and just finding things that I might not actually need.
There was one actually that was probably the toughest, and it sounds so silly at first, but I also added to that list takeout coffee. It sounds silly because some people sort of laughed when I’m like it was one of the hardest things to give up. But it’s not because it was takeout coffee. It’s because that was a daily habit for me, so it’s every single day having to face that habit and then you have to like realise okay, I’m not allowed to get that, so what am I going to do instead?
Nothing else … Because I wasn’t someone who shopped like every single day or anything, but nothing else was that hard. That was the hardest thing, because it was something I literally did all the time.
Martin: It sounds like going from being almost a mindless consumer is being a mindful consumer. Was that your sort of feeling when you were doing it? You just gave a lot more thought to how you were spending your money, the sorts of things you were spending your money on? As you say, you were allowed to spend money if you needed it, so recognising the difference between need and want?
Cait: Yeah, and also … I mean that year I didn’t sort of follow this rule, but you know what you just said about the need versus want? I’m someone now who also really believes that if you just really want something, again knowing you’re going to use it, so if you really want something, that’s also a need. If it can fit into your budget, if it’s something you want in your life, to me that’s a need, in that it’s personal to you. Maybe not everyone else needs it, but you need it.
But it was. I think that year was … What I realised as time was going on, that it wasn’t about buying nothing. It was sort of like before making any purchase I almost tried to visualise it … Like imagine putting your hand out between you and the purchase and hitting like a pause button and just saying wait, why am I thinking of buying this? Do I actually need or want it? Can I live without it for a little bit? Is this something I actually need to own?
I think that was something else I learned, like could I be more resourceful? Could I learn how to fix the thing I already owned that’s like this, or is it something I’m only going to use one time, and if so could I just borrow it from a friend or from family? It was just really like for the first time hitting pause and asking some questions before making purchases.
Martin: This two year shopping ban as we call it, I guess finished about a year and a half ago or so. What happened when it officially finished? Did you find that you’d formed some habits and you kept going in a way, or did you resort back to your old habits?
Cait: No, I think that everything has pretty much stayed. I think that what has changed is more just realising like we change as people, so one thing was like as we get older our interests just change, our hobbies might change. So saying that just because I wasn’t interested in something a few years ago doesn’t mean I’m not interested in it now, and even though a few years ago maybe I wouldn’t have spent money on those things, maybe now I do.
So for me it was just more like I got a lot more into hiking, camping, stuff like that, so I don’t immediately rush out and buy all of the things for that, but as I enter those situations, again it’s like feeling the need, like okay, the last time I went camping it really sucked that I didn’t have this thing, so I’m either going to buy it or I’m going to start borrowing one from someone else.
So I do buy things based on who I am. I think that that is the biggest thing that changed. I’m able to look back at a lot of purchases I made when I was in my early 20s and say that I really hadn’t figured out who I was yet. So I think I used to buy a lot of stuff that I thought would almost like help form my identity.
Some of it too I think was very aspirational, like buying things that I sort of thought a more professional or more creative or just more interesting version of myself might use. Now I don’t buy for that person because I just have really learned how to feel the need first and buy things for who I actually am and what I actually need in my life.
I definitely buy things, and I also want to say I don’t think buying stuff is bad or spending money is bad. If I look back at a lot of the things I’ve done with money, I very much recognise that there used to be a lot of shame wrapped up in it, or just guilt or bad feelings, and I want to strip all that out because it’s not bad to buy stuff, especially stuff that you need. It’s really getting to that place of just saying I know who I am, so it makes spending decisions so much easier. It’s so much easier now for me to say no to stuff that I know is not important in my life.
Martin: The process then of writing the book and reflecting on I guess the whole journey, not just the two years of the shopping ban, but before then as well, what did that teach you? Did you reflect on anything and pick up any particularly important lessons?
Cait: Oh, man, what a great question. No one has asked such great questions in a while. It’s awesome. I think that the biggest thing I learned in piecing it together was really understanding that there were all kinds of things I’ve consumed in life, whether it is literally buying objects, spending money on stuff, to drinking alcohol, eating certain foods, and even things like how much time in my younger life I used to spend just watching television, that I’m now realising as an adult, like realised while writing a book that I was doing a lot of those things because there was something missing in me, whether it was a bit of lack of self-worth, confidence, just understanding of who I was and also what I was feeling.
I think I was always trying to fill a hole and it never worked, and I don’t know that I ever would have seen all of those things, seen how it just all kind of lined up, if I hadn’t first done the ban and then been able to write about it, because even on the blog … I was documenting this stuff on the blog and it was like somewhat insightful, but the posts weren’t that great. I wasn’t as open and honest as I am in the book on the blog.
I think that being able to sit down and really focus on writing it for a couple months helped me see it all come together. It’s also not that surprising to me that after I finished writing the first draught I started therapy, which has been even better for me than … Like the book was step number one almost, so-
Martin: Well, Cait, thank you so much for sharing so much with us today and being so open and honest about your experiences too. Before you go, where can we find out more about you and connect with you online and where can we find out more about the book?
Cait: Yeah, everything you’ll find is just at caitflanders.com. Cait is spelled C-A-I-T, and then Flanders obviously like in Flanders Field. That’s where I hang out all the time, so that’s the best place to find everything.
Martin: I will make sure we put links in our show notes for this episode as well so our listeners can find out nice and easily. Thank you so much for your time.
Cait: Thank you so much Martin.