Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Not Buying It

Judith Levine’s Not Buying It made a splash a few years ago. It appears in a trade paperback edition suitable for book club discussions, including questions at the end of the book. I happen to be in a book club and we read this book. Well, some of us did. Others sneered at it for not being interesting; some members like a meaty story, and the tale of one year in a New York City freelance writer’s life during which she and her husband undertook to not buy luxuries simply did not appeal. Others did not finish the book because from the title they had expected it to be funny. “Not buying it” taken to mean that the narrator will comment humorously on some aspect of our culture. But an utter lack of humor characterizes this book.

What does Levine attempt to show in her diary-entry style posts from a year of trying not to purchase anything but necessities? First, she is honest about her own frailties, about the arguments with her husband over whether wine is a necessity or not, and about how queasy she felt being out and about with friends and not able to spend money. This is a peculiarly acute situation in New York City because little in that town is free. Oh, sure, you could stroll through Central Park or other parks, but everywhere else you are expected to pony up in order to rent a place to sit down. I distinctly remember how unequal I felt going out to lunch with a college friend years ago when she had a job and I did not. I was living on a shoestring, and the ordinary amount she could afford to spend on a hamburger was above my budget. Levine’s personal and professional life in the city was fraught with decisions about spending, or more often, not spending on social entertainment. She even got into an argument with a friend about seeing a movie.

Her half year in the Vermont countryside was easier, because the buy-in to a homemade meal is easier when everybody has a house and a car, and driving over for dinner isn’t a big deal. But she still managed to wring some angst out of petty issues such as her SmartWool socks. They may be wonderful socks; one of our book club members swears by them. But Levine’s obsession with trivial possessions really annoyed me.

Here’s why. She is an influential writer. She has the ability to put her ideas out to a mass market while synthesizing the thoughts of major scholars and thinkers. She is not rich, but compared to all the women who have ever lived, she has vast amounts of disposable income, and enviable personal freedom. And until her year of Not Buying It, she frittered it away on garbage. On trendy new fashions. On expensive trifles. On acquiring too many possessions. Her saga might resonate with other women who have found themselves casually slipping into poor financial habits, daily feeding their amour propre with retail therapy when they could be using their money, and thus their influence, more mindfully. But to me—someone who has known relatively hard times, albeit briefly—reading about a person who is profligate about money is offensive. This woman has been wasting her life and her power.

She seems to get it during the course of the year. She seems to reconnect with the political activism of her youth. And to want to live more purposefully. All to the good. But her book was not well received in our group. We’ve made much harder choices about buying or not buying than she does in her essentially frivolous year of attempting to be non-frivolous. And I don’t think the poverty that forces people to make draconian decisions about spending is likely to show us our authentic selves, as Levine suggests but also does not agree with. Our desperate selves, maybe.

And here’s another funny thing. Levine reports that as a collateral event, her nearly $8,000 of apparently permanent credit card debt was paid off early in the year. She’d carried this debt, adding to it and subtracting from it in the typical manner, for who knows how long. In a year of not buying, and without any overt intention of doing so, she easily eliminated her debt. Where is the “Well, duh?” here? Doesn’t Levine understand that there’s a cause and effect when it comes to random spending? I found this wonderfully naïve for someone who is such a successful elite writer. Almost as naïve as Barbara Ehrenreich was when she bought clothes for her Nickel and Dimed adventure. Levine buys fashionable shoes that Parisians won’t disdain, which is a whole different level from Payless or Nine West.

So, yes, some of my reaction to this book was simply scorn at the upper-middle-class artiste follies of the author. But at least she presented them for what they were, and this made for a very big difference in tone from the typical personal finance book. Levine is not prescribing; she’s describing. Toward the end there’s a bit of preaching about getting involved in civic causes. But basically what happens is that for a year the author had to live as people of lesser means do all the time, making compromises, having to deny themselves luxuries, feeling awkward in financially unequal social situations, and more. It seems to have had a salutary effect on her. Perhaps her story will help others to see their own relationships with commerce in a new and different light. One hopes. I find it extremely frustrating that a newly empowered class, women, wastes that power. Even if only the power to control themselves.

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