This is by far one of the best books I have ever read. And I am not one to exaggerate.
As may be evident by the title, this book is all about one woman’s adventures in NOT SPENDING. Along with her partner Paul, she embarks on a year of frugal living, shelling out money merely for food and other (oft-debated) essentials. Written in an inviting journal entry style, Judith (for some reason I feel comfortable using her first name), allows the reader into her struggles of consumer desire, her frustrations as she learns the average consumer’s ignorance, and her confessions of both superiority and vulnerability.
Judith masterfully weaves her firsthand experience with factoids, from personal research (culled from the public library perhaps?!), and interviews, and casual calls to a well-connected network of friends in various institutions and organizations.
One striking example:
“According to the World Resources Institute, “On average, someone living in a developed nation consumes twice as much grain, twice as much fish, three times as much meat, nine times as much paper, and eleven times as much gasoline as someone living in a developing nation.” Among the high-income countries, Americans consume the most. Just 4.5 percent of the world’s population, we use 24 percent of its resources and emit 23 percent of the greenhouse gases that are dissolving the ozone layer. The environmentalist organization Redefining Progress measures this inequality with a tool called “ecological footprinting,” which quantifies how much of the earth’s resources any entity, from an individual to a nation, uses. From the planet’s current population and total resources (measured in acres), sustainable and just consumption allots each earthling an ecological footprint of 4.7 acres of nature. The average American devours 24. Translate that to more familiar measures of consumption, and in 1998 an American used 1,023 kilograms of oil or its equivalent and ate 122 kilos of meat. In the same year, his Bangladeshi cousin burned a thimbleful of fuel – 7.3 kilos – and ate a mouthful, 3.4 kilos, of meat. A kilo of meat takes seven times the resources needed to produce a kilo of grain.”
Keenly aware of the impact an average person has on the world, and yet careful not to raise the defenses of the masses, Judith’s regular spicing in of such facts helps to remind the reader of the purpose of her experiment. Most likely it also helped her to retain perspective, such as when exotic footwear called to her from a store display.
Her thoughts often meander there way back to her appearance, with worries of looking shabby, making her all the more lovable: “I am dressed in faded black Gap Easy Fit jeans, a black ski parka, and J. Crew red-and-orange-striped gloves with the left index finger poking through. I look like a Carroll Gardens soccer mom whose husband was laid off from his Wall Street job. Or worse, an ex-hippie soccer mom who thinks she’s still hip.”
Later on in her journey, Judith still frets over her appearance, but she decides: “I am reclaiming my bohemian identity, in its latest incarnation: counterculturalist to the culture of the counter.”
I want to hug her and tell her that even without the latest trends wrapped around her, she is cool, and would be cool no matter what she was wearing, because of what she is doing. Taking control of her spending, of her ‘consumerism’ and really her life. More people ought to stop and just think. If they did I am sure nobody would look as “cool” as they might have before the analysis of purchasing. Not only that, but I am sure people would stop equating anything meaningful with a monetary amount.
I applaud Judith mostly for her effort. Though I am sure few careers other than writer would allow a person the time to handcraft gifts (Judith fills a small box with cut-out hearts for Paul on Valentine’s Day) or brew their own beer (a new hobby of Paul’s), I think anyone with the right attitude could easily venture into a year of minimal spending.
When the going gets tough, Judith doesn’t really ever back down. In fact, she consoles herself with afirmations that she is ‘doing the right thing’ and actually builds pride in her lack of shiny new things. “I’m not keeping up with the Joneses who drive the big trucks, but the Joneses who grow organic carrots and drive beaters like ours. In our little subculture, not consuming gives Paul and me cachet.” The rationale she comes to? “What I long for is the cheap thrill of the ephemeral, the instantly consumed and discarded mini-relationship with person or thing, the “quickie” that is urban commerce.”
Hello! Oh how I wish more people would realize that.
Her confidence may be the sort that only comes with age and wisdom, but nonetheless she is not afraid of what others will think. Conversely, she is almost challenging others to be afraid of what she will think of them and their assumingly ignorantly spendthrift ways.
At many points Judith’s musings are just plain funny (at least to me). On the same aforementioned Valentine’s Day, as she waits in line at a gas station to buy a newspaper (necessity?), she overhears the clerk noting how “pretty” some red-foil-covered chocolate roses are (doubtful).
Other quirky characters are introduced, such as the unforgettable Richard Czaplinski, “a man famous for occupying an ecological footprint the size of a hare’s.”
When Judith asks Richard why he chose to adopt a very strict and self-sufficient lift, mostly off of the grid, he claims “It’s nirvana,” and he loves it, though he is quick to note that his mission is far from self-serving. “It’s about justice.” If you have a lot, you already have more than your share, he figures. Above a certain amount, moreover, money has to be put somewhere, and if that’s not the inside of your mattress, more likely than not your money will be financing some venture that is unfair to people, unfriendly to the earth, or both. In a bank or stocks, Richard says, “money gets up to no good. It’s filthy lucre.” He laughs, but he’s serious. “My goal is to live at the poverty line.”
The guy sounded happy enough for someone who uses an outhouse and saves soap slivers.
“I bought a pair of leather shoes for a quarter fifteen years ago,” says Richard proudly, “and I’ve been dancing in them ever since.”
At the end of her experiment Judith is a changed consumer if not entire person. “With each purchase elected or forgone, I am reminded of its potential effects on the world’s resources and people, however miniscule those effects might be. Consciousness tugs at the sleeve of personal responsibility. It shouts in my ear: Do something.”
Remember: “…almost nothing that is advertised is actually necessary.”