Starting today, people across the globe will give up something for Lent. (For example, Newt Gingrich won’t have any dessert. A colleague of mine is giving up meat.)

My family is fasting from consumerism. Not just for Lent, but all year long. And what better time than the day after Mardi Gras to write about how we’re faring.

Maybe we’ll inspire someone to join us—if not for a whole year, then at least for the 40 days of Lent!

The rule

There is basically just one rule: No new stuff. That includes packaging. If we need something, we’ll find it second-hand.

Inevitably questions arise along the way:

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    • Do cut flowers count? I decided they do and won’t be buying any.
    • What about disposable tissues vs.  handkerchiefs? We will use the Kleenex we already have in our house. But, I won’t buy any more. And, I’m feeling very sophisticated these days carrying pretty handkerchiefs in my pocket (Thanks, mom!)
    • What about magazines? A new part to repair something you’d otherwise have to replace? New shoes (with tag) on the shelves at Goodwill?

    On a few things, the jury’s still out.

    Caveats and disclaimers

    There are things I am still buying new.

    I am buying new food as well as some essentials, like toiletries and medicine.

    There are some new things I can’t swear off no matter how much I wish I could. Fuel is one. We rely on our car (although I try to bus or bike to work), use electricity for all the usual stuff, and heat our house and cook with gas. That’s not changing anytime soon. But we can conserve.

    We also buy landfill diapers. We admittedly haven’t been able to manage exclusively using  cloth diapers, but we do try. And we’re potty training our toddler as we speak!

    Finally, we’re making exceptions for stuff we need for our livelihoods. I will use paper and other supplies at work—sparingly. And as a builder, my husband won’t be able to avoid buying new materials altogether. But whenever possible, he will go for used, scavenged, or recycled.

    I am not going so far as to refuse gifts of new things—that would be rude. But friends and family are encouraged to give used presents, food, or experiences instead.

    Slowing down

    A big part of this experiment is about slowing down, taking the time to consider whether we need something or not, and prioritizing where we spend our money.

    Online shopping and conveniences like credit cards, PayPal and UPS make it easy—I’d say, too easy—to buy just about anything, anytime. Greasing the skids even more, I memorized the entire 16 digit number on my credit card (sick, I know!)

    I’m cancelling that credit card.

    I am slowing down in other positive ways too. My family is going to the library more often. On Saturdays, instead of going to Ikea or Fred Meyer or some other shopping errand as we often did, we’re more likely to go to the beach or the zoo. We’re thinking ahead about gifts that show friends and family we love them—what we can make them or fun things to do with them—rather than dashing out at the last minute to buy something they really don’t need.

    I’ve also gained some perspective on my buying habits. For example, I’ve noticed that I used to “sneak” stuff at the grocery store. There are all kinds of sundries in supermarkets nowadays—kitchen items, gifts, toys, clothes. How many little odds and ends had I smuggled into our grocery budget?!

    So far it seems like we’re gaining more control of our money and our time. But there are some unfortunate “rebound” effects to be aware of too.

    Saving money in one area of your budget (stuff you don’t need or other efficiencies) could lead to increased spending elsewhere that is potentially even more polluting (e.g. more air travel, saving up for a bigger car, or adding more beef or cheese to your diet).

    There are rebounds on a more personal level too. I find I’m buying myself more treats to eat. Bad idea! If I buy a pastry every time I have the shopping impulse, I’ll be in big trouble!

    It’s not the worst thing that could happen, but there’s also a “thrift store millionaire” effect I’ve noticed, where I sometimes get into “spree” mode just because the prices at second-hand stores are so low and the treasures so “charming.” But, I’ve also found the cure. Simply watching an episode of Hoarders every now and again keeps my Goodwill spending in line.

    Trading retail therapy for retail freedom—and growth

    Almost two months into my experiment, I can say that it’s been pretty easy. The fact is that I’m not changing my lifestyle that dramatically. My family is lucky to have pretty much all the creature comforts we could need—and then some. If anything, we have too much stuff. So far, this does not feel like sacrifice.

    Plus, the fact that my list of caveats is far longer than my list of rules tells you that I’m not even coming close to some of the real, serious, and inspiring sacrifices others have undertaken to cut their waste and environmental impact while saving money and sparking dialogue.

    How about trying one of these for Lent?

    • This Irish guy gave up money entirely. Disillusioned by consumerist culture, sweatshops, environmental destruction, factory farms, animal testing labs, and wars over resources, he switched to a life of freecycling, bartering, sharing, foraging, and scavenging. He also gave this reason: “Nature, unfortunately, doesn’t do bailouts.”
    • No Impact Man is a movie (and a community project) inspired by one father and husband in New York City who set out to make as little environmental impact as possible for one year, including no more automated transportation (including elevators), no more electricity, no more garbage, no more non-local food, no more material consumption. Watch the movie. It’s really fun and gets you thinking (and you can stream it on Netflix). The website also helps you get started on a week-long carbon cleanse to give you the flavor. Here’s the step-by-step guide.
    • For The Clean Bin Project, three roommates in Vancouver, BC, pledged to buy no stuff at all—used or new—and produce zero landfill waste for one year.
    • Many years ago, Sightline’s executive director, Alan Durning, decided to go car-free—while he still had three young kids at home!

    What’s telling is that all these folks go out of their way to stress the fact that their projects are more about improved quality of life or regaining control in a world caught up in consumerism than sheer environmental or political beneficence.

    No Impact Man even described his experience this way, “I saved money, lost weight, gained energy, improved my health, spent more quality time with family and friends, renewed my relationship with my wife, and discovered an overall sense of freedom.”

    I’ve found some new freedoms too. Because the “just say no” rule is definitive and clear-cut, it inoculates me from the steady stream of advertising that used to take up a fair deal of mental real estate. What’s even better is dumping the litany of responsible consumer questions—Do I need it? Do I have room for it? Can I afford it? How was it made? Is it fair trade? Is it organically grown? Ethically sourced? On sale? It’s far easier to simply not buy it.

    Freedom from stuff is also a big part of it. In just a short while, I see that not accumulating new stuff means accounting for, valuing, taking good care of, and making good use of the stuff we already have. I’m using up stuff that I’d long squirreled away and essentially forgotten. I’m clearing out drawers, closets, and our attic. Freedom!

    For many, the Lenten season is a time of deep personal renewal, reflection, and spiritual growth. As Alan wrote six weeks into his family’s car-free experiment, “so far, the biggest bonus of car-free living has been an added increment of mindfulness.” My family’s experiment seems to be setting us on a similar path to expansion, rather than contraction.