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 hike.
Our topic of conversation shifted just as quickly, ranging from our work and hobbies to friends and relationships.
“What’s next for you, Cait?” It was a simple enough question from one of my oldest friends.
“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.
When I was a teenager, my parents thought I saved the allowance I earned for babysitting, but I never told them I spent most of it on alcohol and drugs.
By the time I finished college and moved out of my parents’ house, they had taught me all the basic rules about how to manage my finances, but I never told them I’d been in debt since the day I got my first credit card.
My dad got sober when I was 10, and he always knew I drank socially, but I never told him I drank alone or that almost every first sip eventually led to me blacking out.
And my family saw me eat well and hike a lot, but I never told them how often I ate chocolate in the car or ordered pizza when I was home alone.
I wasn’t just lying to my family about these things — I was lying to myself, mostly about what all of it was doing to my physical and mental health.
The higher my credit card balance was directly translated to how little sleep I got at night. The more I drank, the worse I felt about myself.
And the longer I pretended these things weren’t happening, the worse it all got.
After months of ignoring my credit card statements, I finally looked at the numbers in May 2011 and realised I was maxed out with nearly $30,000 of consumer debt.
To make things worse, I only had $100 left in my cheque account and $100 left on one credit card, all of which had to last for six weeks until I would get my next pay.
At the time, I was also the heaviest I’d ever weighed (95kg on my 170cm frame is considered obese).
And, at 25, I had just moved back into my parents’ basement after attempting to move across the country for work and drinking away my entire savings in only eight weeks.
The weight of the debt on its own was crushing. I cried myself to sleep for weeks, feeling as though I’d lost my chance of having any kind of strong financial future.
But some of the tears I shed were for the other things I knew I was going to have to change. I’d attempted to quit drinking before, but had never lasted more than a few weeks.
In the two years that followed, I paid off all my debt, took control of my health and quit drinking for good (after a few more failed attempts).
I won’t pretend any of it was easy. I just did what worked for me, and was grateful to have people to stay accountable to.
After those two years, I should have been set up to live a much happier and healthier life. Instead, I went right back to some of my old ways.
I didn’t start drinking again, but I did start spending almost every extra cent I had. It seemed harmless, at first. Spending an extra $5 here and $10 there. Walking into stores for one or two items and walking out with five.
But the dollar amounts climbed quickly as I began justifying the cost of going out for brunch more often and buying new books whenever I wanted them.
After two years of living on an extremely tight budget, it felt good to have some freedom and flexibility again. What didn’t feel good was never being able to reach my savings goals, and then having to explain to readers why I hadn’t.
During those two years, there were months when I put up to 55% of my income toward debt repayment. I did whatever I had to in order to get my balances down to $0.
When that day finally came, I felt freer, lighter, and like the world had opened so many new doors for me. For the first time in my life, I could set real savings goals, like putting aside 20% of my income for retirement.
It was doable. But it was still harder than I expected. For the first year I was supposedly “freer”, I continued posting my final numbers at the end of each month, and I was lucky if I could report that I had saved even 10%.
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 fuel for my car. 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.
I would start this challenge the next morning: July 7, 2014 — my 29th birthday.
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. 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.
It’s only with this information that you can see the full picture and understand why the year of less was so important.
It challenged me. It turned my life upside down. And then it saved me.
Extracted from The Year of Less, by Cait Flanders, January 2018, RRP $19.99, Hay House