12 December 2007

Consumer Week: The Luxe-less

I haven't finished Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT: MY YEAR WITHOUT SHOPPING yet, but already I'm finding it more thought-provoking than yesterday's book. Like other "I did this, then wrote about it" books (THE KNOW-IT-ALL and A YEAR AT THE MOVIES are two of my favorites), Levine decided not to buy anything in the year 2004 that was not a necessity. Her reasons are similar to those anyone might use to make a budget or cut back on spending: With holiday bills, credit-card debt and aspirations towards a simple life taken into account, Levine believes she could benefit from giving up shopping without having to change her life completely.

Of course, not shopping does change her life, but not in the ways she expects. It's not the big stuff that Levine misses first, the flat-screen TVs or trips to the Caribbean; rather, it's the pair of SmartWool socks that keep her warm in winter or a bounty of cheap purses in Chinatown. When a friend gives her tickets to a dance concert, she's reminded of all the shows she's missed because she wouldn't buy tickets to them. At the same time, she's tempted to perhaps redefine "luxury" for the terms of the experiment -- her partner, Paul, who joins in with the year without shopping, considers wine a necessity, and after everyone else she knows has seen "Fahrenheit 9/11," Levine considers whether documentaries would really count as a luxury. (One non-luxury item: Reruns of "Law & Order" she rushes home to watch.)

This book isn't outwardly service-y (thanks, Anna) but Levine does a great job of explaining how her day-to-day life is affected by this edict which, while extreme, mirrors advice commonly given to people trying to save money. Of course, as this funny-send up points out, how much you have to cut out depends on how much you're spending in the first place. In other words, it's fine if your budget already "laces in the fat" as my mother used to say, but how about when all the fat is gone?

The tone of the book is more kvetch-y than New Agey so far. Levine feels her own small moments of triumph, but she doesn't declare how much easier her life has gotten since she stopped shopping -- although she pays off almost $8,000 in credit-card debt by the summer, which is impressive especially given that Levine and her partner live in New York City half the year. In fact, the decision comes with a raft of practical and ethical problems, such as: Shouldn't a writer continue to buy books as a means of contributing to her industry? (She compromises on buying just the ones she needs for research and can't find at the library.) All of this makes her very relatable as a narrator.

So readers, Paul has wine; what's your last, dearest-held luxury item? Mine would be coffee (not take-out lattes, but ground coffee and the fixings). I could give it up, and it would probably be healthier to do so, but coffee makes the world go 'round! And unlike books, you cannot borrow coffee and then give it back.

Tomorrow: a full review of Judith Levine's NOT BUYING IT.


Elizabeth said...

Coffee totally counts as food, though that raises the interesting question of what kinds of food count as luxury. Personally, I view fresh fruit as a necessity, though it is expensive and lots and lots of people survive without it. What does she eat in her year without shopping, dried beans and rice?

Along those lines, I would miss eating out. As a poor graduate student trying to buy a house, I'm already trying to cut the fat out of my budget, and that one is certainly the hardest: my kitchen is a dungeon, groceries are difficult to obtain, I'm terrible at cooking, and when I do cook, it takes much longer than eating out would. It's very cyclical, too: to save time, I stick to the dinners I 've already mastered (i.e. spaghetti), so I never learn how to cook anything else.

Ellen said...

The way Levine defined luxury in the context of food, IIRC, was
- No eating out, fancy restaurant or Chinatown bun stand alike
- No prepared or packaged foods (falafel mix was an example I remember her using)
- No produce over and above basic supermarket (i.e. no fancy salad blends when there is basic lettuce available)

Obviously there's a lot of room for interpretation in there. At one point a friend of hers takes her out for Chinese food, and she describes feeling both relieved (after all, she didn't buy it!) and guilty for taking advantage. But I think it would be a major adjustment for me to stop eating out as well, if only for the convenience factor (if I'm going somewhere after work and don't have time to go home, I could bring a sandwich or a snack but rarely do).