How To Opt Out Of The Holiday Consumer Frenzy The struggling economy is causing holiday budgets to grow painfully tight. But what if you decided to opt out of the consumer frenzy that marks the holiday season? Farai Chideya talks with Judith Levine, who did just that ... for an entire year.
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How To Opt Out Of The Holiday Consumer Frenzy

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How To Opt Out Of The Holiday Consumer Frenzy

How To Opt Out Of The Holiday Consumer Frenzy

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This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.

How much money would it cost you to buy the partridge in the pear tree or those five golden rings? Every year, investment group PNC Wealth Management calculates the cost in the "12 Days of Christmas" song. This year, the full Yuletide would cost 90 grand. Ouch! But what if you opted out in the consumer frenzy this season, and what if you kept it up for 12 months? That's what Judith Levine did, then she wrote the book, "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping." Hi, Judith.

Ms. JUDITH LEVINE (Author, "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping"): Hi.

CHIDEYA: 'Tis the season of excess. A lot of people are scaling back. Tell me a story of somebody you've heard who's making some changes.

Ms. LEVINE: Just about everybody I know is making some changes. Either they've lost their jobs, or they're worried that they might lose their jobs, or they know that they're getting less credit on their credit cards, and there's just a feeling in the air that it's time to be more cautious.

CHIDEYA: So why did you do what you did, and when did you start?

Ms. LEVINE: My partner, Paul, and I took a year off from buying anything but necessities in 2004. And we started just around now, 2003. It was - the weather it is now in New York City, kind of slushy and cold, and I was walking around New York with a lot of shopping bags, and I dropped one in a puddle, and everything started to sludge out to the corner, and I thought there has to be more to life than this. And I was also thinking about all of the other stuff that everybody else was buying, and where was it going to end up six months from now? Well, maybe in the landfill. So I thought maybe I could make some kind of connection between my own shopping habits, my own feelings about buying things and experiences and these very big problems that we have over-consumption, put personal problems about that and global problems for our environment.

CHIDEYA: I've heard from other experts and economic sources that this may really help us environmentally. I don't want to go off on that too much, but what have you seen in your life? What changes overall?

Ms. LEVINE: Well, I certainly have made some personal changes in my relationship to shopping. Number one is, I really don't buy on impulse anymore. And I always tell other people, if you want to shop less, buy less, wait. Wait five minutes if it's a small purchase, and wait five days if it's a big purchase. Usually, the impulse will pass, because so much of shopping is really an impulse. Another thing in my life is, I save a lot more money. Therefore, I feel less anxious about the future. And I give a lot more away. I give probably 10 times as much away to political causes that I care about and charitable organizations and stuff like that. And I'm not really making any more money than I was before. So I've seen that I, personally, and all of us, I think, collectively, can make decisions about where we put our money.

CHIDEYA: Can I ask how much you make?

Ms. LEVINE: I make about $50,000 a year before taxes. And I am self-employed, so I have to pay my own Social Security and my own health insurance out of that.

CHIDEYA: So when you think about your life, think about someone else who is not on your page yet, but is thinking about, you know, radically, not just mildly, but radically changing their shopping habits. And this year, they decide to do something very small for people in their life, and then they get a few bigger gifts that were like the ones they got last year. What about the feeling of guilt some people have that they're just not - they're not on par by not giving as much?

Ms. LEVINE: Well I think that's a real feeling to pay attention to, because gift-giving is an important way that we show our love, and that we glue our culture together. And one of the rules of gift giving is, somebody gives you something, you should give them something back. But I can tell those people that people appreciate very much a small token, especially if you spent a little bit of time and a little bit of thought on it. What my partner and I do every year is we bake. We bake a lot of biscotti and then we wrap them up looking nice, and we give them to our friends. And everyone is just as happy with that as they would be with the big gift. Now, we don't have children, and it is harder to do, because kids want what everybody else has. But I think even kids can understand, especially if their parents are in tough straits and they live in the same world we do, and they understand that things are hard now.

CHIDEYA: Now, there's a saying from the Great Depression days, "use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." What are some of your favorite tips for doing those kinds of things?

Ms. LEVINE: Well, I am lucky to live with a man who can fix absolutely everything. But you can surely see if you can fix it first. And if you can't, you're no worse off than you were before. So take the toaster apart and see if there's a loose wire in it, let's say. Don't buy a new car. You know, if you want to be chic, you can dress from thrift stores, because those are actually chicer, often, than new clothes. Walk, use public transportation, use your car as little as you can.

These are, you know, small things, but - you know, you said before somebody who is about to make a radical change. And I would advise them not to make too radical a change, because all forms of abstinence - you know, dieting radically or maybe even sexual abstinence - often, you find yourself longing so much for the thing you're missing that you will really go overboard once you get off the wagon.

CHIDEYA: Where do you see America a year from now, in terms of how people change their consumption and maybe their long-term attitudes?

Ms. LEVINE: You know, I'm not sure that we're going to have a great big attitude change. It's really too early to tell. Surely, when people can get less credit and if they have less jobs, they will be spending less. But you know, it's not going to be like the last Great Depression, because the last Great Depression was not preceded by a half a century of consumer culture, in which they really have brainwashed as to want to buy more and more and more things and throw them out and get the next new thing.

But already, people are changing their habits. And so I do think we may buy less, and we may start to think about buying things that are more durable, that can be fixed, that don't obsolesce so quickly. And we may begin to find, as my partner and I began to find, that you're really just as happy without it.

CHIDEYA: All right. Judith, thank you.

Ms. LEVINE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: That was Judith Levine. She's the author of "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping." She was in NPR's New York studios.

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