From the May 2016 issue of The Rotarian
A friend recently said something to me that was shocking, maybe even a little subversive. She could afford to retire now, she said, because of this amazing reality: “I don’t need to buy anything more. I have everything I need.”
Was this America, home of the free parking with purchase and the brave doorbuster shoppers? The land whose fruited plains are dotted with storage lockers and Container Stores for all our excess stuff?
My friend maintained her love of country but held firm. She has enough clothes; her house is fully furnished. She is done. And, at 64, right on schedule.
Welcome to the Latter Stages of Consumer Life. Because the ebb and flow of that great American pastime of buying things isn’t based simply on metrics like consumer confidence and economic stability. It’s a matter of age. At a certain point, possessions start to seem like a burden, a mess that calls for drastic pruning involving large trash bags or maybe a dumpster.
I wondered on Facebook whether other people were losing their interest in shopping. “Three stages of life: acquisition, maintenance, and distribution,” Amy Andereck Goebel responded. “At age 64, I’ve moved into the distribution phase.”
My friend Roy Plotnick, age 60, uses the library and museum term: de-accessioning. And he’s starting with his own library.
“I have a lot of books,” says Plotnick, a paleontologist. “I’m looking around and saying, ‘Look, I’m getting close to retirement, and I don’t need that in my library.’ I don’t have the space and I don’t feel like spending the money. If I want to read a book, I’ll go to the library or download it.”
And so it goes with the rest of his household spending.
“We’re empty nesters,” says Plotnick of himself and his wife. “How much stuff do we really need? We’ve never been acquisitive people anyway, but at some point you say, ‘Enough!’”
Not all my friends of this vintage are buying in to not buying. Susan Powell, 58, is defiant about when she intends to stop shopping: “Only when the clock runs out and the wallet is empty,” she wrote in response to my Facebook query.
But most of my midlife Facebook friends see a clear connection between their stage of life and their state of shopping interest. “My mother used to say that you spend half your adult life accumulating things you think you need and the second half getting rid of them,” wrote Kate Schallau.
How much of my life have I devoted to shopping? Americans spend an average of three to four times as many hours shopping as do Europeans, according to the Center for a New American Dream, which promotes a nonconsumer culture. Could my time, that most priceless of commodities, have been better spent?
One after another, friends of my vintage are getting shopped out. Joan Campbell, 65, just spent four months doing the drastic purge outlined by Marie Kondo in her best-selling The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and emerged with her shopping ways transformed.
“Every time I go to buy something, I think, ‘Do I really want to give up my open space for this item? Do I love it enough?’” she says. “And if not, I don’t get it.”
The numbers echo the anecdotes. Average annual household spending rises until the decade of age 45-54 and then starts to decline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey. (One major area of spending does go up as people get older: health care.)
The declines partly mirror the declines of income as people get older: People buy less when they earn less. But there’s more to it, says Rodney Johnson, editor of Dent Research’s daily e-letter Economy and Markets, because the decline in spending starts before the decline in income. Dent Research for years has studied CES data on spending by age.
“People tend to grow their spending until about age 47. Then there’s a plateau for a few years. And then it starts to go down,” he says. “It all hinges on having children.”
When kids are in the house, he notes, a lot of shopping is going on. “They need food, they need stuff for school – you just open up the wallet,” he says. But children grow up and leave home – and then people start worrying about retirement.
“I walk around the house and say, ‘Wow, I don’t need all this junk. What I really need to do is make sure I’m not a Wal-Mart greeter when I’m 68,’” he says.
So people cut back their spending. Bath linens, men’s jackets, women’s dresses, nonsubscription magazines – as people get older, they spend less on them all, according to Dent Research’s detailed charts. On the other hand, spending on prescription drugs, safe-deposit boxes, and men’s robes really picks up after age 80.
What are we doing when we’re not shopping? Reading, perhaps: Dent Research found that spending on books through book clubs doesn’t decline much. Cooking, possibly: An analysis of the statistics published in December found that spending on eating at home increases with age while spending on dining out decreases. Travel expenditures don’t necessarily go up, at least not by air: Spending on airline tickets begins dropping around age 60.
Beyond financial pragmatism, though, many of us are experiencing age-related loss of shopping desire. We stop wanting to buy things and start wanting to get rid of them.
“As I’ve gotten older,” says Andereck Goebel, “I feel more and more that there’s a responsibility to not take as much as I can take, because there are many people who don’t have enough.”
Time has brought lessons for me, too. It turns out that I don’t need as many things as I once thought I needed – and that what feels luxurious to me now is not an overabundance of stuff, but an absence of it.
I have reached a happy state of contentment with my furniture, for example. My old dining room table isn’t all I would hope for, but it’s good enough. Indeed, all the furniture I have is probably my last. It’s a realization that fills me not with disappointment but a sense of freedom.
And I no longer believe my life would change if I bought a really expensive purse.
Actually, I do still kind of believe it. I just no longer intend to do it.
I still get pleasure from buying some beautiful item or other; I still enjoy hunting for a treasure. Even as I was writing this column about not shopping, I bought a pair of pajamas and a swimsuit online.
But I find myself drawn to shopping differently – buying less, buying more purposefully, buying quality. It’s a peaceful stage of consumer life, one that promises more time, more space, and more serenity.
And it takes me ever closer to the day I might someday echo my friend’s radical words, which seem to be about more than shopping: “I have everything I need.”
Barbara Brotman is a former writer for the Chicago Tribune whose two-part series chronicling an elderly man’s end of life won the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award.