Recently, a number of overconsumers have decided to make radical changes in the course of a year and then write about their experiences. Mary Carlomagno did it in Give it Up: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less, which we reviewed in Vol. 1, Number 2, March, 2006. She chronicled giving up one commodity—cell phone, shopping, chocolate, etc.—each month for a year. Judith Levine did something similar in Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, a report on the decision that she and her husband made to give up buying anything non-essential for a year. Now, Alexis Hall, a media relations officer in Scotland and former broadcast journalist, has done it too. With In the Red: The Diary of a Recovering Shopaholic, she documents a year-long experiment in vastly reduced consumption.
The rules were simple: she’d buy no new clothes, shoes, or accessories, unless it was an absolute emergency. She’d limit food and transportation to 5£ per day and limit other incidental purchases to absolute necessities. (She calibrates the word “necessity” this way: “limo hire never has been and never will be a necessity, but when you start looking like a Shetland pony, the haircut falls into the necessity category.”) A second pledge was to pay off as much of her ₤31,637.84 debt as she could—without putting anything on an existing credit card or opening any new ones: “This year, what goes down has to stay down. I’m the financial equivalent of a recovering bulimic.” And somewhere along the way, she decides to wear every single unworn, long-time inhabitant of her closet before the experiment ends. (Her reconnaissance doesn’t end until the very last month, when she notes on Day 323, that she’s still turning up clothes she’s never worn, not even in the changing room of the shop they were bought in, and “shoes that have never done a decent day’s walking in their life.”
The book is humorous and playful and imaginative, as well as deeply serious. To economize, Hall changes her mode of transportation to a scooter—which, she tells us, affords her “a vroom with a view.” When tickets to a Woodstock-like concert prove unaffordable, she and long-time partner Kevin find a low-cost, high fun way to experience it anyway: they get out their camping lantern, set up their tent, and watch it on television! Roughing it in their living room, they have a great view of the stage and don’t have to stand in line for the bathroom.
By experiment’s end, good company and conversation have trumped shoes, feet down. Lest it seem easy, however, we also see how in a split second Hall’s powerful intentions can be interrupted by irritability, murderous thoughts and glances, jealousy of Kevin’s new clothes, and occasional slips. What saves her, it seems, are a prodigious capacity to laugh at herself and the world, a creative playfulness, the love of her dog, friends, and family, and the comfort of living in a space that’s no longer crammed with mess and clutter. By day 140, “money, or the lack of it, is no longer the first thing on my mind when I wake up in the morning.” Gradually, she realizes that “I’ve been so preoccupied with what I can have next . . . that I haven’t been able to enjoy what I already had.” The openness and wit of Hall’s account makes In the Red compulsive reading for any shopaholic wanting to stop.