A few years ago, illustrator and editorial cartoonist Sarah Lazarovic felt like she was buying too much “crap.” So she stopped shopping for a year, then documented her withdrawals and, eventually, all the lessons and tips and tricks she learned about not buying things.
During that time, instead of buying the items she coveted, she made paintings of them. That led to the illustrated book called A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy. It also led to doing that same “covet counseling” for others. She calls her project the “Office of Divestment.” She will draw the thing you want to buy. You get the painting, and you won’t have to buy the thing. A deal.
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn: Tell us about how that works.
Lazarovic: Anyone who is having trouble restraining from buying something is welcome to come for a session. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it also really works. We draw the item in question, talk about why the individual wants said item and whether or not it would be a good purchase. Sometimes we also eat cookies. By creating a little painting of the coveted item, the desire to own said item often floats away. You’d be surprised!
Loeffelholz Dunn: What happened when you didn’t buy things?
Lazarovic: For me, not buying things is about time more than anything else. I started my not-shopping vow when I realized I was frittering away my time browsing stuff on the internet. I’d read a blog, and somehow the writer would link to a product or store, and I’d suddenly find I’d wasted 45 minutes browsing an online shop full of beautiful stuff I didn’t need. It was worse when I actually bought stuff. So what happened for me was that I reclaimed some of that most valued entity—time. Beyond that, I don’t burn with longing; I use what I have. And when I do make a rare purchase or get an awesome clothing-swap giveaway, I really appreciate the piece.
Loeffelholz Dunn: “Covet counseling” has a mental health piece to it. When you studied consumer behavior in the business school at University of Toronto, what did you learn about the emotional aspect of shopping?
Lazarovic: The gist is that we are not rational actors. Economic theory was upended in the 20th century when academics proposed concepts like “bounded rationality” and “prospect theory.” Bounded rationality is the idea that in decision-making we’re bounded by many factors that impede us from making the most rational decision, things like the information available to us, cognitive load, time. Later Daniel Kahneman proposed the idea of “Thinking Fast and Slow,” or that we have two systems of thinking when it comes to how we process things: Very, very loosely, we have an impulsive, emotional response to shopping, and to get away from that we often need to switch off System 1 (emotions) and use System 2 (which is slower and more logical).
Loeffelholz Dunn: What are some of your favorite stories from your covet counseling experiences?
Lazarovic: I did it at a boutique hotel here in Toronto called The Drake, and whenever it slowed down for a bit, servers from the restaurant would come over and ask me to paint stuff. Toward the end of shift change, I painted a lot of food: cheeseburgers!
In general, I love the energy people have when they describe things they want. A friend of my grandmother’s came to my book launch in Montreal and sweetly described her dream coat. I love these stories because people tend to feel guilty about wanting stuff, and I hate that. It’s human to want things, and marketers do a brilliant job of trying to make us want stuff. In telling these stories, people often seem to lose the guilt and embarrassment they feel about wanting, which is nice.
Loeffelholz Dunn: Where’s the social justice in not-buying?
Lazarovic: For a long time we viewed shopping too much as merely a personal thing—bad for one’s own pocketbook and mental health, but fairly contained. In recent years, we’ve learned that the way we shop has deep social justice implications—from sweatshop fast fashion to environmental degradation and climate change.
Loeffelholz Dunn: You have in the past made fun of minimalism. Why?
Lazarovic: I’m joking, but I’m also a little bit serious. Being able to get rid of stuff is a luxury that not all of us can afford, because you have to know that, should you need something, you can go out and buy it at any time. A lot of us have drawers crammed with things we may someday need because we just don’t know. I joke because the people who preach minimalism are often hilariously out of touch with how difficult and time-consuming it can be to have that perfectly curated, minimally appointed apartment. Of course, truly minimalist people don’t fetishize minimalism. They just only buy what they need and live lightly. That’s great, and I strive, with great difficulty, to get there.
Loeffelholz Dunn: Buying has become so easy with online shopping. We can squeeze it in throughout our day. What’s the one piece of advice you would give to the Pinterest addicts out there?
Lazarovic: Never let yourself buy anything right away. If you walk away from your computer for even a few minutes that impulsiveness often dissipates. You can also write down or draw what you want on a piece of paper. Basically, any action that allows you a pause to let emotion fall aside and logic take over. The internet is brilliant at convincing us that we must purchase immediately or risk losing an item. They do this in a million ways (“Only 7 of these sparkly things remaining!”). The key is to remember that this is rarely the case.