“What hole are you trying to fill with all that shopping?” the stranger across the table with the spliff between his slender fingers asked me.
I stared back in confounded silence. In the early afternoon I had landed by chance at the only backpackers’ hotel in Barraba, in New South Wales (population less than 1000 at the time); an old house converted by its owner into a hostel so he could make some extra dosh to buy his pot.
Internally I was having a lot of conflicting emotions and didn’t know which one to share with the owner as he watched me awkwardly sip my cheap red cask wine in an effort to stall for time, and gather my senses.
“Pardon?” I asked. I had never ever considered my spendthrift ways were a symptom of a greater, deeper problem. I had barely thought about my behaviour at all, although by the age of 22 I had been in terrible financial strife that was too big for any bail-out. Now, at 28 and on a solo driving holiday to find myself, I was the only company of a dirty, skinny man in a holey short-sleeved button-down shirt at a table for 14.
He’d offered me wine and a joint, and I’d declined the joint because I wasn’t that comfortable in his old house with doors that no longer locked. We’d been chatting about travelling, small towns and his mother’s exasperation at his lack of new clothing. He just didn’t see the need to shop, he had everything he needed, as long as his bait and tackle was covered.
“I love shopping!” I declared with a shit-eating grin on my face. I truly did. Even after all my financial troubles and stress, shopping was what made me feel better or happy or excited, or as though I wasn’t separate/different from my friends who had things.
I no longer had credit cards and I did live within my means, but I had no savings because there was too much to buy, and I shrugged that off in this conversation.
I told him I’d started to experience buyer’s remorse a lot more frequently now though, and I thought that change of heart had something to do with the compulsion I had felt, that I needed to get away from my life.
So strong was that feeling that I’d bought a 4×4, put my belongings in storage and was now having this overwhelming experience with a complete stranger. My soul had been missing something it had never had and I’d felt that travelling around Australia by myself would help me find it.
“You know you only shop because you’re trying to fill a hole right?”. I got the impression this was more of a statement than a question.
My first reaction was confusion, followed by defense of myself, then the realisation of what he was actually saying and how profound that sounded, especially after three wines.
“So what hole are you trying to fill with all that shopping?”.
I thought about this conversations several times a day every day for the next two weeks of my trip, travelling from small town to small town, very alone with only my thoughts for company.
I did a lot of soul searching and the answers didn’t come immediately or clearly, and in fact it wasn’t until my mid-thirties during therapy that I finally truly figured out what hole I was trying to fill and why. After that day though, I was never the same, and slowly the urge to spend dwindled and my need to question everything grew.
The road to frugality for me was a long one, which to quote The Hollies had “many a winding turn”.
This is a question that any person who “needs” to spend, or buy things, or have things, and generally consume consume consume, should ask themsleves. Perhaps the answer will hit you like a tonne of bricks and you’ll wonder how you ever could have missed it.
Perhaps it will take months or years of contemplation and Googling and even therapy to find out what emptiness within yourself you are stuffing with things.
The important thing is to ask the question and keep on asking it until the answers start to come.
Frugality, or at least living within your means is an attitude, a lifestyle, and unless you’re fully on board, consciously and subconsciously, it will be a chore. I find frugality to be a joy, and a challenge I get a real kick out of accepting!
It took a lot more than three months on the road alone to find my answers, but it only took one question in a tiny drought-stricken town 550kms from my home in Brisbane Queensland, to completely change my life.