One truly simple way to get rid of clutter and reclaim your calm

image courtesy of Mike Petrucci via unsplash

I decided to count one morning. Just one. On a single morning, I received 32 sales emails from retailers, all promising amazing prices on amazing things. Let’s say you have some modicum of self control and you swipe left on 31 of those emails, sending them directly to the trash without ever opening them. But the 32nd email is too good to pass up. You’ll just click this once, but you won’t buy anything. Right.

While the great boon of the internet is that it makes things so much easier, the terrible albatross of the internet is that it makes things so much easier, including shopping. The problem is, the moment you shop any retailer’s sale, as you well know, you’re on their mailing list.

The easiest way I’ve found to begin letting go of desire for and attainment of unnecessary things is to stop shopping online. And I don’t mean stop shopping on the weekends or stop shopping except for special occasions or stop shopping except for when Madewell has a 30% off sale. I mean: stop shopping.

The result of the constant bombardment of sales emails and my susceptibility to clicking was that, in 2017, aside from my annual January to February buy-nothing rule, I rarely went two weeks without buying something completely unnecessary online. (This year, I’m expanding my buy-nothing rule from two months to six…more on that at later). When Kate Spade handbags are 70% off and my favorite Garnet Hill flannel sheets are 40% off and table lamps at West Elm are 30% off and those knee high brown suede boots are 50% off at Nordstrom plus 10% cashback from ebates.com plus 5% back when I use my Chase Freedom card plus another 5% off back when I connect my Freedom card to Apple Wallet, they are practically free! While it may be true that I have knee-high black leather boots in my closet, brown leather ankle boots, and black leather ankle boots, I don’t have this very basic closet staple: knee-high brown boots.

How have I gone this long without knee-high brown leather boots? Pracitcally everywhere I look, someone is wearing them with her skinny jeans, and why wouldn’t she? They are as basic, practical, and essential to any complete wardrobe as a button-down shirt and a black blazer. When I see the brown leather suede boots on sale for for 50% off plus 10% off plus 5% off plus another 5% off, I realize that there is a glaring hole in my wardrobe. I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. That glaring hole is knee-high brown boots, so here is my credit card.

But I’ve forgotten my password on the retail site, so first I must change my password. I have to check my email for the link to change my password. I have to save my new password to my computer but not to the cloud. When the retailer asks if I would like to save my credit card info for future use, I decline, because even I know that’s a no-no. Saving my credit card for future use will only make it easier to click buy next time, and also, it is unsafe. Also, I tell myself, I will not be in this position again any time soon, because once I have these knee-high brown suede boots, my wardrobe and my life will be complete, and I will not need anything else.

The only thing that keeps me from financial and organizational disaster is that I return at least 75% of what I buy online when it arrives at my home and I try it on and realize I definitely don’t really need it or even really want it. Good for my bank account in the moment, bad for time management and anything resembling productivity. If you’ve ever returned anything you bought online, you know what a time suck this can be. Even the stores with the absolute friendliest and freeest return policies, like Zappos, still require you to package the return, print the label, find the tape to affix the label, get yourself to the post office, and stand in line. Even if the post office lady says, “Are you just dropping off?” you say, “I need a receipt,” because that one time you were too hurried to get a receipt, the company claimed it never received your return, and even after four calls to customer service, more than two hours in an online chat with the company, and another half hour wasted on a chat with your credit card company, you were still out $185 but they would give you %15 off on your next purchase to make up for your troubles. And that’s for the easy returns.

And here is the Homer Simpson reality that most of us choose to ignore: despite the fact that we get these emails every single fucking day, something in our brain tells us that if we don’t click through this time, we’re going to miss out. The sale will be gone tomorrow. We will never have the chance to get those Italla juice glasses from Finnstyle for a song or the Sephora value set for $25 off of the sale price, plus we have all those insider rewards points saved up we haven’t been using so we should definitely use those, and anyway, although we do have half a drawer of moisturizer and eye creams, what we really need is an eye cream with hyalauronic acid and Vitamin C instead of retinol, and once we have that our skin care supply will be complete and we will be as beautiful as we know we were meant to be.

And so we click, and so we buy, and two hours of our Saturday are gone, and we realize we’ve yet to feed the children, who are on their ipads, calling from their bedroom, “Hey mom, can I buy this game? It’s just $1.99,” and because it’s just $1.99 and we are otherwise occupied, we say, “Okay, just this once,” but they know and we know that “just this once” will happen again tomorrow or the next day. And just as we have no idea what is in our closet, because there is so much of it, our kids have no idea what games are on their ipad, because they have so many of them.

When you let go of online shopping, you are letting go of the contiual loop of temptation that bombards you from email and native ads. You are letting go of lost hours, so many lost hours. You are letting go of the stress you immediately feel after you’ve clicked buy. You are letting go of the guilt, that nagging and truthful voice that tells you, the moment the transaction is finished processing and another debt has been added to your credit card: “I didn’t need that, I really didn’t need it.” You are letting go of the time you spend breaking down the boxes for recycling. You are letting go of the time you spend printing out return labels, cutting them to size with scizzors, finding the tape, going to the post office or UPS. You are letting go of the time you spend in online chats with customer service. You are letting go of the hours — so many hours — you spend decluttering and trimming down your possessions, because you truly believe that for every item that comes into your home, you must send an item out, and most of the time you almost come close to honoring that very sensible mantra.

When you stop shopping online, you are getting off the roller coaster that keeps you off-balance far too often: up when you buy the item, down when you realize you just bought the item, up when the package arrives, down when you try it on, up when you think, ‘Oh, I’ll just return it and get my money back,’ down when you are stuck in traffic going to the post office or the actual store to return it, up when you walk through the store and think, “While I’m here, I might as well look at this sale!” and on and on infinitum.

When you let go of shopping, you regain your time. You regain calm.

You regain the knowledge — which has been there all along, no matter how much to try to suppress it — that you do not need any more things, that you look fine just the way you are, that no new pair of shoes or new shirt or new bag or new lipstick or new sofa or new set of dishes or new side table will fundamentally change who you are.

And if none of that helps, every time you are tempted to shop, ask if you already have what you are buying. The answer is almost certainly yes. You already have clothes: you are probably wearing them right now. You already have a side table: your coffee mug is sitting on it. You already have a coffee mug. Don’t think in overly-specific terms: “Do I already have brown boots?” Think instead of the way you might think if you had just arrived in a new city with $500 to your name, no bank account, no job, and a keen understanding of your actual needs: food, shelter, and clothing. In which case you would ask, “Do I already have a pair of shoes?” Yes, you do.

Letting go of shopping online is the fastest, most painless, most radically useful way to stop desiring material things you don’t need. If you already have everything you really need, then I beieve you will find this to be true:

The less you buy, the less you want.

I will add one caveat here, or two wrapped in to one or maybe three wrapped into two. I do not recommend that anyone stop buying food or books (or, if books aren’t your thing, music). We have to eat, and we have to read or otherwise sustain our soul, and we should never feel guilty for buying sustenance for our body and soul. And, of course (caveat three) we have to clothe our children, who grow out of their clothes and shoes at a rapid rate, and for whom we should provide lovingly and without question to the best of our ability, obviously. But whenever possible, we should shop for these things in person, not online. Going to your local grocery store or local famers’ market or local bookstore or children’s clothing shop puts money in your local economy. That is a good thing — good for you and good for your community. Food and books are consummable in the most immediate and satisfying way. You eat the food and it is gone, it has been used well, it sustains you. You read the book and it has altered your thinking, helped you see the world in a slightly different way, provided a window into the human experience, entertained you, made you happy. Read it, enjoy it, learn from it, pass it on.

I’m applying the no online shopping rule to my own life for 6 months, January through June of 2018, but do what works for you. Try it for one month or one week. By the end of the month, you won’t notice how much less you have, but you’ll be amazed how much less you want.

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of seven books, including most recently The Marriage Pact. She blogs about writing at The Caffeinated Writer and about downsizing for Paris, among other things, at The Reluctant Parisian.

New York Times bestselling author of the THE MARRIAGE PACT and THE WONDER TEST. Books at michellerichmond.com Write with me at https://thenewMFA.com