Cashing Out is The Huffington Post Alberta's look into lives of Albertans who are trying to make their dollars stretch a bit further. We'll examine people who are spending less, cutting back and bucking the rampant consumer culture in a province where the jobs are abundant and the wages high.
Come next July, Calgarians Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz hope to eliminate the spending in their lives. No nights out, no new clothes -- they even hope to give up trips to the grocery store.
It's part of a "Buy Nothing Year" project, where the two roommates will stretch what they currently own and rely on creative techniques to downsize their mental and material clutter.
It started with a simple conversation. In early August the two friends were getting ready to move in together after Phillips, 28, learned the place she had previously lined up was damaged in June's flood and Szuszkiewicz, 30, offered her a room in his home.
"We talked a lot about our relationship around 'things' and how we just accumulate a lot of stuff. We wanted to be less attached to things, wanted to buy less," says Szuszkiewicz.
With just a few days to downsize her one-bedroom apartment life into one-bedroom-in-someone-else's-home, Phillips had to shed a lot of her possessions -- and with that came some clarity.
"I felt a lot of freedom when I started to let go of things. I began to feel a lot lighter."
Using skills Szuszkiewicz had learned in a university behavioural modification class, the pair began to map out their year-long foray into spending less.
As they approach their third month of spending nothing, they have stopped purchasing consumer and non-essential household items, like clothing and home furnishings. After three months they will cut out services and non-material pleasure spending, like hair cuts, cabs, gas, dining out, transit passes and alcohol. For the final two months of the project, the roommates will eliminate food spending, relying on food shares, dumpster diving, growing food and their own creativity to fill their bellies.
"Part of the reason we're having phases in the project is so that we can stick to it," says Phillips.
"If you try to change too many things at one time you're more likely to fail or lose motivation."
Phillips and Szuszkiewicz's project, while unfathomable to many, is part of a growing trend. For more than a decade, people worldwide have been considering how much they work, where their money goes and their relationship with consumerism.
It's a trend commonly referred to as "downshifting," or the practice of voluntarily adopting simplicity in one's life. According to Slowmovement.com, downshifters are working and spending less while making more time for communication, loved ones and volunteerism. The end goal is to make more conscious decisions about where time and money are spent, hopefully leading to self-understanding and a satisfying life.
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Similar to "Buy Nothing Year," people are undertaking a variety of projects that force them out of the consumer habits often given little consideration. Google "Buy Nothing New," "Buy Nothing Day" or "International Downshifting Week," and one will find thousands of examples of people trying to enjoy a more simplistic life and escape the rat race of obsessive materialism.
It's a topic Laurana Rayne sees as increasingly important in Alberta's consumer-driven society.
Rayne, author of Conscious Spending. Conscious Life: An Uncommon Guide To Navigating The Consumer Culture, said there's an apparent trend toward scaling back in our culture.
"People, most likely in middle age, hit a point of thinking, 'Is this all there is? I did everything the culture promised, I bought all the stuff, I did everything I was told. So why am I not happy? Why am I feeling stressed? Why am I feeling burdened? I really want off this treadmill.'"
The level of consumerism in today's society wasn't always there, says Rayne. In the past, if people couldn't afford something they simply didn't buy it. But the "buy now, pay later" mentality that started in North America in the 1960s is largely attributed to the introduction of personal credit cards.
Add to that upscale emulation -- the desire to imitate people who have more money than we do, and the aspirational gap -- the difference between the cost of what we want and the amount we can actually afford -- and you see how people are increasingly getting caught up in the work-spend cycle, says Rayne.
"The problem today is that you can get what you want with borrowed money," she says, adding people are increasingly filling that aspirational gap with money that doesn't really belong to them.
Phillips experienced the aspirational gap first-hand when she decided to go back to school, but continued to live life as though pulling in a regular paycheque, paying for nights on the town with borrowed money.
Her decision to downshift, however, is helping her pay down those debts faster than she thought possible. Before "Buy Nothing Year" she anticipated paying down that debt by early 2014, but by scaling back purchases, she's almost paid it off already.
Now she's trying to make her personal time the new currency in her life.
"I've been thinking a lot more about my time; who I'm spending it with and how much a portion of my time is worth."
While most have been supportive of Philips and Szuszkiewicz's project, they admit they've had varied reactions from friends, family and the public.
Szuszkiewicz thinks that may be due to people's lack of self-reflection in a culture so obsessed with consumerism.
"People, in general, are used to living a certain way and having a certain set of ideas and a narrative that justifies their lifestyle," he says.
"People haven't really had the opportunity to step outside of themselves and reflect on their behaviours and actions and allow themselves to live another way and have a comparison for the world they live in. So, when they first hear about us, it subverts their reality and they react really strongly to the idea."
Rayne says individuals can benefit from deep, personal examinations of their relationship with money.
"It's so easy to buy without discernment in this culture," she says.
"It wouldn't be a problem if people were just buying enough, but they're buying more than enough. People have a hard time determining, in their head, what is enough for them."
Laurana says this rampant over-consumption permeates almost all our purchases, from coffee and clothing to cars and real estate -- and it could be taking a toll on our health.
"I think, for many people, having so much stuff is kind of on the periphery of their mental space.
"They know it's there, they know it's their responsibility, but they don't have a good handle on it and it becomes a problem on its own - stress, a weight on the shoulders, perhaps an anxiety or depression."
According to TransUnion’s quarterly analysis of Canadian credit trends, the average consumer debt in Alberta, minus mortgage, is $36,223 -- up 8.1 per cent over last year.
"Higher wages and plentiful job opportunities obviously create more favourable conditions for managing personal debt,” ATB Financial senior economist Todd Hirsch told the Calgary Herald in June, but one must ask if those same wages are creating more opportunities for lavish, excessive and unaffordable spending in the province.
Albertans spend more per year on shelter, communications and transportation than anywhere else in Canada, at $64,453 per household, according to StatsCan's 2011 annual survey on spending habits.
And, according to a survey by the Canadian Payroll Association, 46 per cent of Albertans continue to live paycheque to paycheque in 2013, with 39 per cent spending all of their net pay without saving for the future.
It's a lifestyle all too familiar to Szuszkiewicz. The oil and gas operational accountant was bringing home good money, but quickly burning through it to keep up with two of his favourite things -- fashion and entertainment.
He estimates he would spend anywhere from $600-$700 per month eating out and, often, several hundred or thousands of dollars on designer clothes.
By cutting out the "retail therapy," Szuszkiewicz says he's now saving two-thirds of his take-home income. In a month, when he cuts out services, he says he'll likely pocket between 80 and 85 per cent.
"I thought it would be harder to give up the discretionary spending," he says, "but choosing to do 'Buy Nothing Year' gave me permission not to be wrapped up in that stuff."
"Now I don't care about what people are wearing or what's happening in the world of fashion."
It's exactly this type of inner reflection Rayne says is needed to begin to make changes to our consumer habits. She recommends people look at their lives as if they were a visitor from outerspace, making assumptions on what is important to them based on their observations.
"The thing about observing in this way is that you don't have to take action and there's no obligation to change -- but you will likely learn something about yourself."
It's similar to when Phillips found herself surrounded by boxes shortly after she moved in with Szuszkiewicz, laughing at the mountains of stuff, but that the same time being a bit frightened.
"Change can be really scary," she says about standing on the cusp of the project.
She adds that if she weren't forced to rid herself of some of the excess, perhaps she would not have had the idea to do "Buy Nothing Year."
"Getting rid of stuff forced me to examine my own life. And I think that's part of the problem -- people don't examine their lives. Instead, we follow what our parents did, what our peers do and how society around us functions."
Rayne echoes Phillips' sentiments.
She says for so long parents have avoided talking about money and money management with their children -- a problem that has been trickling down to younger generations for years.
By watching what their parents have done, young people face a disadvantage and it's one that won't end until an honest dialogue about money can begin, says Rayne.
"Parents don't think to explain credit card purchasing to their kids because it's just 'what they do.' So then kids get the idea that using credit cards is just what you do when you get older and they get sucked into the cycle."
She's optimistic, however, that programs like Canada's National Task Force on Financial Literacy are helping to change the conversation in Alberta.
The task force, formed in 2009 and championed by federal Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty, is working across the country in schools, workplaces and with the public to better promote and increase the financial knowledge and skills of Canadians.
A similar program, The Money Project, targets Alberta's youth in conversations about money management.
"We want you to learn and ask questions that enhance your understanding. Connect with your parents or guardians and other people you trust to engage in meaningful discussions about money," they encourage youth on their website.
Although talking about money used to be a taboo similar to talking about sex, says Rayne, she now sees more people becoming concerned with their own financial literacy and speaking out about it.
"Financial literacy has become the new sexy," she says.
And while digging around in a dumpster for food, as Phillips and Szuszkiewicz's plan may force them to do toward the end of "Buy Nothing Year," may not seem sexy or desirable, Phillips said it's more about the journey of the project and the lessons they'll learn.
"It's not just about spending and money, although that's at the root of the project, but there's also these other aspects like the social aspects and the community and sustainability and the living within your values and lining up your actions with your thoughts."
You can follow Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz on their year-long, buy-nothing pledge on their website.
This is the first story in a series examining Albertans' relationship with money and consumerism.