March 27, 2006 12:00 PM

It’s not as if she were ever what you’d call a material girl. An author living in Brooklyn and Vermont with partner Paul Cillo, Judith Levine owns a 25-year-old TV, and her idea of a splurge is fancy socks. Still, in December 2003, after realizing she’d plunked down $1,001 on holiday gifts, maxed out her Visa and was “tapping the ATM like an Iraqi guerrilla pulling crude from the pipeline,” she decided to undergo “an X-treme trial of nonconsumption”—a year of purchasing only bare necessities. The goal? To determine, says Levine, 53, “whether it’s possible to have a life and an identity without buying a lot of stuff.” In her new book, Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping, Levine reveals what it was like to turn her back on consumer culture.

ONE WOMAN’S STAPLES ARE ANOTHER’S CONDIMENTS Levine and Cillo, 53, a consultant and an indifferent shopper from way back, agreed that prepared food, movies and gym memberships were nonessential; public transportation, internet access and local papers were musts. But there were gray areas. “Our friends would say things like, ‘ Olives, Judith? Are olives really a necessity?'” (The olives stayed.)

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER “I hadn’t read the latest books or seen movies,” she says. “At times it was excruciating; I felt bored and antsy and sort of stupid.”

SO MUCH FOR A SOCIAL LIFE Since eating out was forbidden, “we were sort of a drag,” Levine says. Once, they agreed to meet pals at a Chinese restaurant and just watched them eat. “They were irked.”

IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN “People buy a new electronic thing every 15 minutes, then throw it out,” Levine says. “We have to think of the afterlives of our possessions.” Still, keeping one mascara tube for a year had its downside. By the end, she says, “I had to put on three or four coats.”

THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE REALLY ARE FREE Liberated from what she calls “the work of New York leisure” (waiting for your table, standing in movie lines), Levine and Cillo had time to “hang out and talk,” which improved their relationship. They went to the library, saw free films and “felt like our time was our own.” Plus, “we didn’t have one argument about money the entire year.”

CUTTING CONSUMPTION WORKS When their year of living frugally ended, Levine raced out for mascara; Cillo stocked up on Q-Tips. But their buying habits, Levine says, have changed for good. With the $8,000 she saved, she has paid off a credit-card bill. She’s lost a couple of pounds (no more chocolates from the corner deli) and, she says, hasn’t made “a single impulse buy since Jan. 1, 2005.” And she even has some advice for celebs who can’t steer clear of Rodeo Drive: “You don’t really need those $2,000 sheets.”