I’m just hours away from the end of my year of buying nothing new. But there’s no shopping spree on my to-do list tomorrow. At midnight the experiment officially ends, but it’s safe to say that my family has pushed the “reset” button on our attitudes about buying stuff—and by all indications, the effect will be lasting.
In fact, swearing off new purchases was one of the best things I’ve ever done, and I’m pretty sure it’s the only resolution I’ve ever managed to keep! (Almost entirely…see below.)
This whole thing started with my lofty goal of establishing a triple-bottom-line approach to my family’s consumption habits—prioritizing people, the planet, and our pocketbook over amassing material possessions. So, let’s take a look at how we fared:
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Pocketbook. We’ve never been big shoppers to begin with, but by swearing off any new stuff for twelve months, we definitely freed up some cash.
But before I congratulate myself any further, I should come clean. Admittedly, on a few occasions I did break my own rules. I bought a few new books, 1 CD, a watercolor set and new underwear for my daughter when she was potty trained (!), and one microplane—those thingys for zesting lemons—which, for a small $10 kitchen gadget, felt incredibly self-indulgent—even mischievous.
But, that’s it! And that’s just the point. I can count on one hand the exceptions I made and the times I fell off the wagon. And every decision to break the rules called for serious consideration and even soul searching. And for every one of those little splurges, I went out of my way to buy from small, local businesses.
Despite those rare breaches, the year was easier than I expected. In fact, I found definitive rules liberating rather than restrictive. Other than the occasional consignment shop or thrift store trip, I simply didn’t shop. I mostly avoided temptation (though, it turns out, shopping opportunities are pretty much everywhere). But, I found I just wasn’t interested—partly because I wanted to live up to the challenge, and partly because I simply altered my habits.
In fact, a new found sense of freedom came with a new mindset, especially with the elimination of impulse buys, “retail therapy,” buyer’s remorse, and pointless last minute gifts. I no longer had to fume about frayed seams after the first clothes wash, or agonize about toxic materials, workers’ conditions, or misaligned corporate policies.
Put simply, on one hand my family became extremely mindful about how, where, and on what we spent our money, but on the other we were freed from thinking about it much at all! As side-effects, we became greener consumers, for sure, and also just more conservative with our money.
Planet. While individual action to cut emissions and reduce landfill waste is important—it can certainly add up when enough people get on board—one average middle-class family’s efforts are small in the scheme of things. We knew we wouldn’t be making a big dent. In fact, we knew that we probably could have made a bigger dent with a different year-long experiment—like cutting travel or red meat.
Despite all that, it felt enormously satisfying to be doing something concrete to reign in our carbon footprint, while at the same time making a statement about our cultural addiction to cheap stuff.
Still, in terms of the planet, our resolution was largely symbolic.
That said, I was worried that this symbolic gesture could backfire. But I think it actually worked.
I thought we ran the risk of being written off as too radical or extreme. But we weren’t. I wasn’t cast out from the cultural celebrations that have come to be centered on buying lots of new stuff—baby and wedding showers, birthday parties, Christmas. Instead, I was often applauded for breaking out of the mold.
Most gratifying was the fact that because of my “project,” I had conversations about sustainability and the environmental side-effects of consumerism that would rarely have taken place otherwise. Best of all, these were positive, not the heavy, preachy conversations about the environment that people often shy away from in social settings.
The responses we got ranged from jaw-dropping disbelief (as in, “No way! You’re doing what?! I could never do that!”) to inspiration (as in, “Oh wow, I want to do that too!”), to solidarity (as in, “Excellent, join the club. We’ve been doing that for years!”) It felt good that dozens of friends and acquaintances reported to me that they intended to do something similar—or at least try.
Perhaps best of all, with family and friends who don’t always see eye to eye with me on sustainability issues, my choices about stuff offered a far more productive entrée into conversations about climate change and systemic policy solutions than I ever imagined.
People. The people part was a cinch. Pretty much everybody knows by now that amassing more stuff doesn’t buy happiness. But it turns out that buying less stuff can do wonders for your spirits!
By buying nothing new, my husband and I found we had more time, energy, and spare change for fun family outings. We could be found hanging out at our community library, the park, the zoo, and our own back yard—but not shopping. I think we even spent less time online and more time together in the “real” world.
We didn’t eschew gifts over the past year. For her birthday, my daughter received her heart’s desire—a shiny, purple, (gently used) bike. She loves Goodwill and Value Village, where she’s learning she can “trade in” her unwanted toys for exciting, “new” ones. But overall, we were more thoughtful about gift giving, making things or treating people to something special to do or eat instead of things. Gifts this year included everything from date-nights and spa-days to knitting classes. One friend received a year of monthly homemade pies!
We’ve forged new family traditions this holiday season too, like riding the Santa Train and taking in the Christmas light display at the Bellevue Botanical Gardens (Thank you, Judy and Tom!). And on those big “shopping weekends” (Memorial Day, Labor Day), we went to the woods or the beach.
Truth be told, I pined for a couple pairs of shoes that caught my eye this year. I wore out my favorite pair of wool socks. We made due on occasion, did without. On the few occasions when I thought we needed something that we couldn’t seem to find used, the need tended to evaporate if I let it simmer a while rather than acting on it right away (aforementioned “cheats” excepted—but we didn’t really need those either). Never once did we feel deprived or like we were sacrificing.
On the contrary, we lived more simply, rushed around less, stressed less about where to put everything, and spent more time together. I’d say we lived more richly than ever. We celebrated friends and family with time (and food) rather than things. And it felt great!
Indeed, it’s been a year of expansion, not contraction—and I see no good reason to detour from the path we’re on just because it’s 2013.
So, happy New Year. And if you are in search of a resolution, this is one I highly recommend.