If you’ve found the abstinence of lockdown a little trying, meet Zoe Jacobs. She decided to not buy any clothes, or toiletries, or books, or gifts, or cards for all of 2019.
Jacobs could buy food. And she was also allowed to chip in for household stuff her flatmates bought. “It’d be unfair on them if I didn’t.”
But everything else was off limits. She wanted a year of making do and using up “the piles of stuff” she had accumulated over the years. A year of what the enforced domesticity of quarantine has encouraged many of us to do: finally use the home hair-dye kit and the baking beans we bought in 2011.
Jacobs, 28, was also keen to change her relationship with money. “I buy stuff when I’m frustrated, or feeling overweight or invisible. I buy to make myself feel better. Could I abandon this way of thinking?”
It helped that she knew a woman who had. Her year of abstinence was inspired by Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers. The Reform movement’s community educator had lived without plastic for an entire year, and then she spent a further 12 months buying nothing at all. And she successfully completed both challenges with two young children in tow.
“Our domestic situations are different, but our brains work in similar ways,” says Jacobs, community education manager at Finchley Progressive Synagogue. “We both like a challenge.”
The first month of her challenge was relatively easy, she says. “January was about managing impulses. If I had a bad day and thought ooh, I’ll buy some hand cream on the way home, I had to stop myself. If I found myself in WH Smith for work and thought, while I’m here, I’ll buy a magazine, I had to hold back. It was weird, but it felt good too. It showed me not only how much I buy, but that I buy to feel better.”
February was also pretty straightforward. But by the end of March her Depression-era resolve was beginning to fray. “I began to really want things. I’d run out of soap and clear nail varnish. My tights had holes, my hair bands had either snapped or been lost, my earphones and my iPad case were broken. I watch television on my iPad so that was pretty irritating.”
A period of what she describes as enforced creativity began. She learned how to darn tights. She began to wash her hair twice a week instead of four times and, when she ran out of conditioner, used cider vinegar instead. She bit on a rubber band until it made two pieces of rubbery string she could used to tie her plaits. And she solved her television problem by propping up her iPad with rubber-tipped gardening gloves laid at a particular angle on a cushion.
The soap issue was solved by opening the many pretty boxes of toiletries she had been given as birthday presents every year since she turned 12 and which she had been saving “for best”. A friend lent her earphones and she lived without clear nail varnish. “I finally bought a new bottle on the second of January.”
And when it came to more crucial things like toothpaste and one-off items such as hiking boots, Jacobs asked for donations or borrowed from friends. She says people really relished helping her out; giving her the bath essence they’d never really liked, but felt guilty about chucking out. Lending her, for a wedding, a nice dress they themselves had worn only once.
“Clothes swaps became a real thing. My year of buying nothing taught me that it’s not weak to ask for help. Money might buy you independence, but we are still interdependent. I think lockdown has reminded us that we are all connected too.”
Or as Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said in an article for the Mail on Sunday about coronavirus: “There is within each of us an ‘I’ that asks: ‘What’s in it for me?’ But there is also a ‘we’ that knows we are all in this together. We feel better when we exercise the ‘we’ rather than the ‘I’. There is compelling evidence that, above a certain income level, we gain more pleasure from giving than getting.”
When she wanted to give to others, Jacobs found herself spending a lot of time in the kitchen. “Home-made chocolates were my go-to gift to friends last year and I got good at making one-portion cheesecakes in ramekins.”
And she was creative about gift wrapping her culinary creations. “On one occasion I was so desperate to find something that would work as a ribbon, I unthreaded a handle on a gift bag I found in the bin. I used the unplaited cord to tie three presents. I felt happy and a tiny big smug.”
She felt less happy when she went for a hospital appointment and was told after an hour of waiting that the clinic in question had been cancelled that day. “I phoned Debbie in tears. I was exhausted, I was feeling ill and I was in town. If went home I’d be caught in rush-hour traffic. I wanted to go shopping and spend money to make the misery go away.”
The rabbi gave her “kind and sensible” advice. “She told me to go and buy one thing that was kind to the planet, kind to its workers and which would make me feel great. I bought a pair of beautiful, fair-trade cotton trousers.”
There were a couple of other blips in her year of abstinence. An emergency bunch of flowers for a friend’s birthday when she realised she’d forgotten to bring the home-made chocolates. A new pair of sunglasses after she’d accidentally stepped on hers. A wedding card after she left the one she’d designed at home. “I did recycle it for a friend’s engagement, though.”
But these were just tiny slip-ups. “Not buying stuff became normal. I became good at being inventive. I was in the zone.” All year, though, Jacobs wondered what it would be like when it was over. Would she dive back into the shops, eager for a bargain, or would she be more thoughtful about how she spent her cash?
“On January the first I went to Next and got hoodwinked by the sales. I found a T-shirt for £4 and didn’t even bother to try it on. When I tried it on at home, it didn’t fit. I felt like an idiot.”
But it was a false start and after it she regathered herself. Since January, her purchases have included a mascara wand, a couple of dresses, some tights and the clear nail varnish. “I now shop with a new level of consciousness about what I want versus what I need. And I do my best to understand the ethical impact of every purchase I make.”
A year of abstinence also dented the pile of stuff in her life, she says. As we begin to emerge from lockdown, I’m sure many of us can relate to this in particular. Sometimes, less really is more.