Frugal year pays off richly in wisdom


In the latest personal finance tell-all, author Judith Levine bares not only her salary (about $45,000 a year), but also the emotional arithmetic behind her decisions about money: Q-tips are a luxury, organic French roast coffee beans are a necessity.

Her book is yet another unit in the simplicity aisle of the American superstore, between the simpler-living magazines chock full of product advertisements and the pricey home organization systems designed to declutter our lives.

Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping (Free Press, $25) is a diary of Levine's venture into the voluntary simplicity movement in 2004. She and her partner, Paul Cillo, gave up prepared food and restaurants, buying books for pleasure, movies, cable and ice cream.

"You learn in about 10 seconds the line between necessity and luxury is a fluid one," Levine said. "You could spend a lifetime niggling over which are which."

The official written rules of the experiment were a publicity venture to attract interest to the book, Levine said in an interview. Her initial pledge was simply to buy the necessary and shun the frills.

There was no buying of clothes (save for two minor lapses by Levine; Cillo held firm), no yoga or personal trainers. No new shoes. Just to stay socially connected, they went to a restaurant with friends and watched them eat (yes, the friends were miffed).

"Once you make the big decisions, the small ones fall into place," Levine said of her year of frugality, during which she saved enough to pay off nearly $8,000 in credit card debt. "I didn't end up longing for things."

Still, after the year was up she shopped for new clothes for her book tour until the credit card company called to inquire about unusual activity in her account.

This is not to say the year was for nothing. Along the way, with all that free time from shopping, the couple got out to the public library and discovered how many of our public institutions are in desperate need of repair. They took up environmental causes and contemplated how the planet is affected by their consuming decisions.

Here Levine blends a quite political rant with her continuing struggle to be a more thoughtful consumer. It may be off-putting to some readers to consider her contemplation of Karl Marx while she thinks about finding the perfect claw-foot bathtub for a home renovation. To others, it may be refreshing and familiar to see that kind of multitasking.

Some people are starting to pay attention to the effects of rampant consumerism, experts said.

"I think the awareness is growing, if not the reaction," said Norm Mindel, a financial planner in Schaumburg, Ill. He said he sees more clients expressing concern about mounting financial debt and the burdens of having so many possessions. Few, however, do much about it.

"People have a fundamental difficulty understanding how much it costs to live," Mindel said. And he's not talking about uneducated, poor people. Affluent professionals making salaries well into the six figures have just as much trouble in the face of the call to consumerism, he said.

Levine says her own foray into spending less eliminated the impulse buy on a personal level, and doing without made her a more attuned citizen.

Janet Kidd Stewart writes for Tribune Media Services.

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