How Retail Therapy Helped Me In A Pandemic Year
Covid-19 affected my life in unexpected ways, including my shopping habits
Ignoring e-mails about the benefits of minimalism that show up in my mailbox, I have been on a shopping spree lately.
After months of staying indoors, undertaking utilitarian trips — to Ikea to buy long overdue ready-to-hang curtains, or to Skechers to replace worn-out walking shoes — turned out to be surprisingly satisfying.
One evening, after a long day at work (at home, of course), I discovered the secret to efficient shopping. Weeknights are the best time to visit your neighbourhood mall, even better if it’s an outlet mall. No queues outside the fitting room. No crowds at the cashier. I returned home with bags of things that I didn’t really need but were nice to have.
A few days later, I spent a few happy hours browsing through the stacks at Books Kinokuniya, followed by a leisurely stroll on Orchard Road admiring expensive jewellery and watches in well-lit display cases. I didn’t buy much in the end but enjoyed the hum of shoppers walking busily past me, their faces hidden behind masks, their eyes focused on the next destination.
Did I enjoy these outings because they gave me an excuse to spend time in surroundings that looked nothing like my home office? Seemed like a possible explanation but it could not fully account for the unusual behaviour I had begun to express online.
In the last couple of years, I had slowly moved from ordering books from one online platform to embracing the convenience of online grocery shopping.
But now I found myself clicking through websites to order hard-to-find gifts for people (myself included), booking a staycation, and signing up for online classes. I could do all this without having to step out of my home or interact with other humans.
Clearly, the social aspect of shopping could not be blamed for my sudden atypical spending.
To be perfectly honest, the shopping had given me pleasure. But it also made me pause.
Had I become a retail therapy addict? How? And why now?
Mantra of moderation
Growing up in a family with modest means had resulted in a lifetime of second-guessing myself when it came to spending. As a child, I had seen my parents plan and save and discuss every expense, from appliance purchases to their children’s college education.
Their frugal approach was not just an expression of their limited income but also of their philosophy towards life. Moderation was their mantra. The clear line between wants and needs translated to a lifestyle that ensured that nothing was to be acquired for outward appearances alone.
When I began to earn a living, despite having more disposable income and fewer constraints than my parents, I was extremely cautious when indulging my wants, irrespective of whether the object of my desire was an expensive phone or a premium haircut.
The limits on my spending were not dictated by my bank balance, but by the values ingrained in my formative years. It took years of practice to wean myself from my parents’ beliefs and give myself permission to spend on a whim. I still held on to one key lesson — never to spend more than what I earned.
When I saw my credit card bill last month, I was surprised by my new spendthrift avatar. I hadn’t exceeded my budget, but the unusual trend made me curious.
Change can be fast or slow. Change can be triggered by intrinsic or extrinsic factors.
When I look back at my spending habits over the decades, I notice the gradual upward tick that came with more income, but also more responsibility, towards self and family. I didn’t hesitate to buy organic baby food and branded toys, or smart clothes for work. We went out for occasional dinners and annual family holidays but also saved for the children’s higher education and for rainy days.
Up ahead, I can see the approaching plateau, as my children set sail towards their own destinations, and my days of paying for college tuition and Spotify subscriptions come to an end.
What I had not factored in the now, however, was the impact of Covid-19.
The monochrome life
As a researcher working on Covid treatments, the past few months have been hectic. While working from home, there has been no meaningful break, or even distance, physically or literally, from the office.
Life has taken on a monochrome tint. Days and weeks have merged into an amorphous glob. And as Christmas approaches, I think of this year as one in which major life events and milestones went unmarked.
The only people I see regularly are the ones who live within, or in the vicinity, of my home. I miss the serendipitous encounters, casual conversations and unplanned excursions that were integral to my working hours.
The part of me that is nurtured by the fullness of life around me is trying to fill the void with something else.
Enter 11–11 sales. Black Friday. Holiday discounts. And a reason for revenge buying. My closet now holds expensive clothes, a fancy wallet and a quirky poster to capture my travel history. A phenomenon which is the antithesis of my approach to a moderate life.
Year for indulgence
“Collect moments, not things,” it is said.
How can I accumulate memorable moments when life feels like we’re all stuck on an airplane placed on a prolonged holding pattern with no sign of landing in the near future? Add to that the feeling of inevitability, the possibility of imminent mortality, and of the futility of my work.
Acquiring material possessions seems to allay some of my despondency, although I know that objects are only as valuable as the price we place on them, usually through emotional connection.
Even as I cobble together the few items that I can physically collect (Swarovski earrings) or count as noteworthy experiences (Masterclass subscription) in 2020, I recognise that my recent uncharacteristic shopping spree is probably in response to this unprecedented time in history, and cannot directly be attributed to any fundamental change in personality.
This has been a year of adapting and changing with the times. A few months ago, we had a muted celebration to mark my elder daughter’s college graduation, a far cry from what I had been planning for this milestone. In the next few weeks, we are planning to go on a cruise to nowhere, a frivolous holiday to mark a year of no travel.
There are years that call for austerity and years that call for indulgence. The year 2020 has demanded both.
I will try to keep this in mind as I browse festive offers now and re-read the minimalism e-mails next month.
Originally published at https://www.straitstimes.com on December 12, 2020.