I was brooding in front of our woodstove one recent evening and contemplating our life. Although we have made many changes over the last several years, it didn’t feel like enough. I wanted to do something more drastic. An idea surfaced from amongst my frustration: we should remove ourselves entirely from the American consumer cycle- we should stop buying stuff. I tentatively brought this new plan up to Bear, who, amazingly, agreed to it.
We discussed several reasons for trying this:
- To Save Money- Although almost everything we buy is used rather than new, and when I read a book on penny pinching I don’t find anything I haven’t already tried, we are in the worst financial shape we have been in since we combined our money over a decade ago. We have our first significant credit card debt, ever. I recently got a raise, and I would like to be sure that the extra money goes toward paying down our debt, rather than disappearing into our routine spending. Although I like my job, I dream about not having to work for a living. That is, I would like to work at what I love, but not have to worry about whether it pays the bills. Saving money so we can get rid of our debt is a step toward this dream.
- To Become More Aware of What We Spend Money On- I want to learn the difference between what I want and buy on impulse, vs. what I absolutely need. We’ve tried different ways to track our spending in the past, which is a basic step in becoming aware of where your money is going, but haven’t had the stamina to record every last expenditure for long enough to recognize our impulse spending patterns.
- To Break Out of the Consumer Cycle- We work to make money, then we use that money to buy things. Then we work more, and buy more. We like to think we aren’t part of this cycle because we haven’t seen the inside of a mall in years and buy mostly used stuff. However, we notice that during garage sale season we still look at shopping as a form of entertainment, and we go a bit crazy impulse buying more than we need (because it only costs $1!). Then some of our new purchases clutter our house for weeks before we find a use or a place for it all.
- To Simplify- I’m tired of having a lot of stuff that I need to take care of, even if it’s stuff that seems worth while. I don’t think I’m a pack rat- I go through my things regularly and get rid of what I don’t find useful or beautiful. But I recently watched a video about the tiny house movement, and the woman who was being interviewed had counted how many things she owned, and I think it was less than 300. I can’t begin to imagine what that number would be for me if I counted every last thing in my house (and sheds, and basement…). I also think of people in other cultures who can carry everything they own on their backs, who would think any American was rich (or crazy) when considering the volume of stuff we accumulate. By not accumulating any more, I hope to find there is room for more simplifying in my life.
- To Use What We Already Have- If we aren’t buying anything new, maybe I will finally use what I have. I will catch up on my pile of unread half-price books, reupholster the chair and love seat with that $250 worth of half-off fabric still sitting in its original box, and finally replace the two boards in our bathroom floor that we had to rip out two years ago to put in the new, water-saving dual-flush toilet.
- To Be More Innovative- There’s that well-known saying from the frugal women of the Great Depression: “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.” I notice this doesn’t include a “buy it” option- even if it’s cheap or used. Why can’t I also be innovative and learn to create what I need from what I already have?
- To Walk Our Talk More- Bear brought up this one. We’ve been trying to make improvements for some time now, and have succeeded to perhaps a larger extent than many of our peers, but the change does not feel like enough. I look forward to a day when I do not waste a lot of my weekend shopping, and when I truly realize that having one more thing won’t make me any happier.
- At first, I did agree readily to this no buying plan. I thought sure, why not? But then I thought, “Oh shit…” how can I build a hidden (aka savings) fund if I have no spending money to save? The last time I built a good hidden fund my allowance was $75 a week.
- I am not always aware of what I’m spending. If I’m not careful I can go through $5 to $30 dollars on munchies in a week.
- Simply put, if we can use it, or seeing it makes us feel better, it’s stuff worth keeping. If we have it just to have something, then it’s crap (of course some crap can be useful after a period of time for fertilizer… but I digress). The trick is figuring out how to use what we have or find a way for someone else to use it.
- The consumer trap starts when we need one or two things to finish a project, so we go to the store and find other things that might be useful for other projects. We spend more money than planned and who knows if we’ll really use the extra stuff?
- I probably have over 100 cookbooks and cooking magazines, only a few of which are actually well-used, yet when we go to garage sales or used book stores, there is always an interesting cookbook or two that I can’t seem to keep myself from buying.
You might be thinking that buying nothing is impossible in this place at this time, and you would of course be correct. We are not self-sufficient, so we unfortunately do need to buy some things in order to survive. These are things we believe we will still need to spend money on:
- Food & other staples from the grocery store (such as the ingredients we use to make our cleaning supplies)
- Cat needs: food, liter, health supplements, vet visits
- Monthly bills, which for us includes: gas, electricity, water/sewer/garbage, local & long distance phone/internet service, house & car insurance, Netflix, the mortgage, my student loans
- Health Care: health insurance premiums and deductibles, medicines, gym membership, massages
- Gas and car repairs
- I was supposed to stock up on rechargeable batteries before this challenge started, but was too busy building this website.
- Wood for the wood stove- this usually costs us around $500. Currently we don’t have a chainsaw or a truck with which to cut and haul our own, and no land from which to take it (although I see it offered for free on Craigslist a lot).
- We currently have only one car. Can we find a way for this to work, or will we need to buy a second one?
- A new chair or couch for the TV room- the one Bear sits on is close to collapsing and I am using a rather hard rocking chair that belonged to my grandmother (but I am reminded of the TV show Little House on the Prairie in which Ma Ingall’s rocking chair was the best seat in the house, so maybe I need to reassess).
- New computer equipment- sometimes our second hand computer parts work, sometimes they don’t so much.
- Bear has given me a $100 budget for buying plants for the yard this year. I don’t think this is very generous, since I am trying to change all of our lawn to garden and grow as much edible food as possible, which helps the grocery budget, but since he agreed to this whole scheme, I guess I have to agree to the $100 limit.
Theresa mentioned that the Buy Nothing challenge would mean we need to stop going to restaurants or buying prepared food, including at work. However, I talked her into giving me a $2.50/week allowance to buy a morning coffee and a biscuit for my lunch, which I get for a greatly discounted 25 cents each at work.
We decided to buy me a role of quarters every month, so I could make sure I didn’t overspend. But then I remembered that coffee is actually 26 cents, so I’d be short a penny every day, unless I skipped a day and used that extra to make up the difference. Or, if I want a large candy bar, it will cost me four days of no work food, or if I want a shake from Culvers I buy no “work food” for two weeks. Decisions… decisions.
I figured something out… $2.50 a week sucks! I shouldn’t buy even one candy bar. To get a coffee every day I have to skip a biscuit because of the tax (I’m short 1 flippen cent per coffee!). And pretty much anything I am interested in eating will cost me at least 2 to 3 weeks of no coffee. That’s not much of an allowance. However… it does total $130 a year… and that’s $30 more than Theresa gets for plants! Ha!… Bitching done (down to grumbling now).
I also snuck in my demand to give ourselves an allowance for unexpected needs, which we decided would be $300 each for the year, which we can spend no questions asked. We will keep track of our totals on a sheet of paper on the refrigerator.
I feel like this is a lot of exceptions to our Buy Nothing challenge, but I realize the exceptions make the whole experiment a bit less psychologically daunting for us.
Ultimately, it’s not really important whether or not we stick to the rules. It’s what we will learn by trying to stick to them, and what we will learn if we decide to break them, that is important. Hopefully, we will learn to recognize our cultural training in over consumption, and learn what it is truly necessary to buy and have. Hopefully we will learn more fully that things do not mean happiness.