Cait Flanders is a Canadian writer in her early 30s who, at 29, after paying off all her debts, decided to go a year without buying anything. Not because she needed to save much, her career was going well, she was stable, but she wanted to know to what extent buying things played a part in her life and documented this journey on her already successful blog where she talked about personal finance, getting out of debt, living an intentional, frugal, and minimalist life.
“If you don’t replace a bad habit with a new one, it’s likely you’ll ‘relapse’ and go back to your old habits.”
The challenge of buying nothing worked so well that she decided to extend it for another year, and her most intimate impressions are in the book “Year of Less: How I Stopped Shopping, Gave Away My Belongings, and Discovered Life Is Worth More Than Anything You Can Buy in Store“.
I took so long to write a review of this book that Cait released another one, “Adventures in Opting Out: A Field Guide to Leading an Intentional Life.” So, this post is a 2-in-1; here are my impressions of both of the author’s works:
In the first book, Cait outlines the rules of her year without shopping – she could buy food and hygiene items, for example – and narrates details of consumption desires that you and I have already normalized and that, when put into words, seem somewhat silly or even absurd, for example: “One way to spend money without thinking is to buy two books instead of one to reach a certain amount and get free shipping.”
How many minutes or hours of life do you spend paying attention to meticulous details and making completely stupid decisions about the purchase of material goods? (which, in the end, we don’t even use) I admit I’ve spent quite a few hours.
To stay motivated for a year without buying, the author remembered the things she already had at home and those she had parted with at the beginning of the challenge; many of those items were purchased for what she calls the ‘ideal version of me,’ and the things she wanted to buy probably served the same purpose.
In 29 years, the author says she bought and kept most of her possessions to fit the mold of the ‘ideal version of herself.’ Over time, she realized that she was happier when she didn’t focus on what she could have or what she should be. She decided that her values shouldn’t be based on the things she desired, began to find more value in herself as she was and internalized that she owed nothing to the world. Doing what she wanted to do was enough – I’ve heard that this issue is quite common for women, who never feel complete and feel they have to do more to be valid and accepted.
“The hardest part of not being able to buy anything else wasn’t giving up new things – it was having to physically feel the pull of my triggers and change my reaction to them.”
It’s clear in the book that Cait is reinterpreting many aspects of her memories; she believes that the stories we tell ourselves are essential for maintaining our goals. Changing your life or embracing minimalism or any other intentional lifestyle may lead to losing friends and feeling alone.
Another topic that is quite evident in this first book is the time when Cait stopped drinking alcohol. She wasn’t dependent, but she started drinking early and felt that she had made many bad choices because of this habit.
I identified a lot with these passages, especially with the negative reactions of people when she made the decision to become abstinent. Fumio Sasaki also comments, both in his book on minimalism and in his book on habits, on how, despite not being an alcoholic, he prefers to be totally abstinent rather than drinking occasionally.
“Quitting drinking taught me to listen to myself. How to do what is right for me. How to be alone in a crowded room. How to feel my feelings. How to trust that I am resilient and can handle any situation I find myself in. How to build more meaningful relationships. How to be self-aware. And how to let others express themselves too.”
Cait realized that she was taking out her anxieties and unresolved subconscious issues both in shopping and alcohol and, by stopping both, she noticed more clearly even the physical sensations that her anxiety brought and identified two other escape valves: overeating and watching TV.
The Second Book – Changing Life
The second book is a guide to “opting out,” which can be translated as ‘opting out,’ ‘unsubscribing,’ ‘choosing not to be part of an activity,’ ‘voluntarily stopping being involved’… and it doesn’t just tell the author’s story; it’s a compilation of accounts from many people who are willing to share how they took different paths from what was expected of them in their social circles. Questions that arise in this book: ‘having children or not – and at what age,’ ‘buying or renting,’ ‘staying or leaving,’ ‘starting a business or climbing the corporate ladder’…
“I learned several times that every small change you make pays compound interest. It helps you make another change, another paradigm shift, another decision to live in a new way.”
Two years after the first release, it’s clear that Cait doesn’t want to maintain the same blog-like atmosphere in the book, nor a confessional one: she often comments on the importance of protecting her privacy, setting boundaries, and going to therapy. Although she provides some context about her personal life, she does so with the intention of encouraging the reader to explore the nuances of her own story.
You may have heard an inner voice asking to change something, that idea that comes out of nowhere, ‘what if I did this?’. You don’t really know where it comes from, much less what the best path is to follow this ‘calling,’ but one thing is certain: if everyone around you is like you, none of them will have the answer or suggest you make a change; maybe people don’t even think about it, but you think you’d feel much better if you changed clothes or stopped drinking.
The people around you have already gotten used to your ‘current version’ because humans prefer predictable things, both to save energy and to build trust.
The question of taking action regarding the desire for change is kind of difficult; people take a long time to build what they already have, and they don’t know what might happen if they move things around. However, Cait argues that, as long as you make a small plan within your budget, many adventures are not as risky as they seem. “Just adjust the change according to your tolerance level.”
“We keep busy with our routines, go with the flow, do what we always do – in all areas of our lives – and believe the stories we’ve been told, or that we tell ourselves, about how and why things are supposed to be. By sticking to these routines and stories, we don’t give ourselves the time and space to hit the ‘pause’ button, look objectively at our stories, and ask ourselves if this is really what we want.”
Types of Changes
The examples in the book weren’t so radical; there was the case of the guy who wanted to do something different with his business – he didn’t totally change the business plan but decided to test new products.
There was the case of the girl
who, like Cait, stopped drinking, not because she had already been thinking about it as a problem, but simply because someone asked her if she had tried it, and suddenly, it seemed like an interesting challenge.
Sometimes it can be kind of difficult to tell people that you don’t have a specific goal but would like to change one thing or another in your life. The fear of judgment from others is almost tangible, “That would make me look boring, or average, or mediocre, or lazy,” but the idea of **”Opting out” that the author brings is much more an internal decision than an external one: it doesn’t necessarily need to be announced, you don’t need to prove anything to anyone, and the thing to be changed doesn’t need to be something incredible, grand, or phenomenal.
Changing old habits or trying new possibilities can be quite difficult to do alone. “You want someone around who will help you stay on this new path and do what you feel is right,” it’s good to find people who seem to understand what you’re trying to do; they don’t need to be your best friends, and you don’t need to be the one who understands them in return. These people aren’t always very much like you; they just see value in the change and respect your decisions.
Throughout the book, Cait tells about her colleagues who like to hike in the mountains with her, those who are writers too, and many other cases; many of them have routines and lives totally different from hers, but they are good friends and good company for the activities they both have in common – which can be just having coffee and chatting.
“Sometimes you’ll meet someone once, and it will be enough. And sometimes you’ll meet her a second or third time, each meeting better than the last. But not necessarily.”
The author says that the more authentic the path you choose to follow, the more you discover that, no matter how different people are, they may have things in common and can see value in each other. What unites people can be precisely the fact that they value differences.
The book emphasizes that things are ephemeral, both the relationships we have and the conditions of the decisions we make. Letting go, trusting the process, observing changes—these are messages that Cait conveys in various ways. Here are four examples of how things inevitably change:
It may be that you’ve tried something many times without success. After years of trying, you’re almost giving up and lamenting that this isn’t for you. But then, one beautiful day, it works! That was the case with her and alcohol; she tried to quit drinking for years, even told people she was going to quit and couldn’t do it, but at some point, it worked! And now she’s abstinent. She didn’t try anything different from the previous times; the commitment was the same, but this time, it ‘worked.’
It seems like you’re not going anywhere, that your decisions were wrong, or that life doesn’t make sense, but after a few months or years, you realize that everything is fine just the way it is. “Opting out is not a race. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone, and it doesn’t have to be a continuous struggle. You have the reins to continue at every step of the way.”
There’s a conception, which she considers Western, that you should think about the next steps: what will be the next goal and what will be the next measure of success… she doubts a bit about the usefulness of this progressive and Cartesian view “there’s no ultimate goal. You’re doing it because you want to and because you can. This is your life.”
She puts self-knowledge as a continuous process:
“It may take years for you to discover who you are and what life can be,” and something that doesn’t always need to make sense and be explained all the time “as if you had to justify that you’re changing your path and tell every detail of your new plan.”
And what seems to be a key point of the book is the question that a successful relationship doesn’t have to be one that lasts forever. “Instead of being afraid, maybe we can try to remember that our time together will always be temporary.”
Currently, the author no longer has a blog (in fact, she deleted all the content she had), but she maintains a conversation on her podcast, “Opting Out.“