My zero waste 7 month shopping ban

I’ve completed two shopping bans. The first was January through April 2018 and the second was July though September 2018. During the first period, I worked about 20-25 hours a week and had rent and bills to pay; the shopping ban allowed me to pay my expenses and save a little each month despite the tight budget. During the second period, I actually spent quite a lot of money traveling frequently, but I didn’t do any shopping. I completed three months of frequent travel and not a souvenir to show for it.

If you’ve never heard of a shopping ban, the concept is simple; you shop for nothing except groceries and continue paying for true necessities like rent, groceries, car insurance or public transit. Shopping for new clothes, one-click buying on Amazon, and the like are off the table. There are various reasons to institute a shopping ban, like paying off debt or trying to get a handle on your possessions while minimizing. For people focusing on their finances, eating and drinking out of the house is usually included.

Me with my miracle sunglasses in Trieste

Me with my miracle sunglasses in Trieste

The relationship between zero waste and shopping bans is simple; if you’re not shopping, you’re not creating demand for new resources, and if you’re not constantly seeking out more to consume, you use what you already have more fully. Moreover, the cheap cost of replacing goods has left many of us with the mindset of “you break it, you re-buy it” rather than repairing. A shopping ban takes away that option. Even as a zero waster who buys virtually nothing new, the ban challenged me. There are a variety of secondhand and thrift stores that I frequently visited in my area. I’m a thrift-o-holic, and the best way to keep me from leafing through the racks is to draw a hard line.

The longest shopping ban I’ve done was 4 months, and I only broke the ban once, when my sunglasses broke and I needed to replace them to drive in winter; the snow reflects such bright light that it wasn’t safe to drive without them. The rest of the four month period, I bought groceries and nothing else. When spring came and I didn’t have any weather appropriate shoes, I ended the shopping ban, and afterwards I made some other purchases, like replacing three year old sneakers with no tread and no life left. I paid for graduation robes and bought some hot weather appropriate clothes for my months in Italy, which were even hotter than I anticipated. Then two months later, when I went to Italy, I brought back the shopping ban.

I began a three month shopping ban that saw me spend on travel all over northern Italy, but didn’t see me purchasing kitschy souvenirs. During this period, another pair of sunglasses broke. I was very disappointed because they were not reparable and second hand shopping in Italy is nothing like secondhand shopping in the US; there are fewer stores, fewer options in stores, and it’s pricier. I went almost two months squinting and wearing hats while I looked in thrift stores in every Italian city I visited before finding a plethora of secondhand stores and a pair of sunglasses in Trieste. I was thrilled, although the sunglasses have since broken. Ooh là là . Shortly after, headphones broke, and I replaced them the next day in Padua because I traveled alone and headphones were indispensable. I learned there aren’t really any ethically made and repairable headphones on the market for regular people. With those two exceptions, I made do with what I had or used things I already had to make what I needed.

Here are some of the things I made or scrapped instead of buying during the ban:

  • A bag to sieve out pulp when making plant based milks like almond or oat milk

  • I repaired and refashioned a silk dress with weakened seams

  • I stored my pasta in these ugly containers I already had instead of buying something glass

  • I used jars from pickles and coconut oil to store food instead of buying more containers

  • I dug out hand-knit hats from relatives I forgot I had instead of buying a new hat

  • I learned to darn socks

  • I went three months without a headband when I lost mine on the flight to Italy

Upon returning to the USA, my shopping ban lifted because the weather was already cold and I had discarded ill-fitting or no longer loved warm clothing earlier in the year. I’ve purchased a variety of Christmas gifts for my family and loved ones. I’ve purchased a wool sweater to replace a cotton sweater, some teaching clothes (since I left so shortly after finished my M.S. Ed that I didn’t do any professional teaching before Italy), and one dress with a long hemline to keep my legs from freezing.

I enjoyed my shopping bans and I plan to begin another shopping ban at the start of 2019 after the holidays are over. A shopping ban may be very challenging for you if you want instant gratification. Waiting for repairs or choosing to make do with something that isn’t quite what you want requires a good attitude. Rather than feeling deprived, I view it as a lesson in patience and gratitude for the resources our lives privilege us to have and lose in the first place. The shopping ban taught me something priceless: contentment. By the end off the four month long ban my graduation for my masters degree approached and my parents asked what gift they could give me. I answered honestly when I said nothing.

If you’re considering a shopping ban, try it out. Save money and learn what contentment means. I would have said I knew before, but feeling free is wanting for no thing. The shopping ban may be just the tool you need to kickstart zero waste.