This article is by staff writer Kristin Wong.
Julie Phillips was planning to move into a new apartment when a massive flood in Alberta damaged her would-be building. Suddenly, she found herself displaced.
“The reason I wanted to move is I wanted to save on rent,” Julie says. “I wanted to save more, I wanted to live with another person. I wanted that camaraderie.”
After searching extensively, Julie grew discouraged.
“I was eating a chocolate bar and drinking a Slurpee, walking through a neighborhood, alone, crying,” she laughs. A friend spotted her. “She was like, ‘Julie, is that you?’”
Word got out about Julie’s desperation. Another friend, Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz, invited her to move into his spare bedroom. But it would mean getting rid of the majority of her Stuff.
Meanwhile, Geoffrey was fed up with not being able to save, despite earning a decent living. In a video chat, he told me:
“I really like shopping. I would spend a lot of time looking for clothes that I really like. Keeping up with designers, looking on Instagram… I had all of these values around consumerism and sustainability and environmentalism while I was mindlessly shopping all the time.”
Geoffrey spent money on books and fashion; Julie loved dining out. Between their overspending and Julie’s massive purging of Stuff, the two came up with an idea: Buy Nothing Year.
Buy Nothing Year is pretty much what it sounds like. In three phases, Geoff and Julie plan to stop spending for an entire year.
“The first phase is to cut out consumer items and nonessential household items,” Geoff explained. “We started that August 3rd, and that’s going to go on for the whole year. And then the second phase starts November 3rd, and that’s when we’re going to cut out services, which include dining out, haircuts, gas, booze…And then the last month, possibly two months, we’re going to cut out food.”
Cutting out food doesn’t mean they’ll be fasting. They’ll just have to rely on what they already have, count on the generosity of friends, or grow their own fruits and vegetables.
“What I want to speak to…is mindfulness,” Julie said.
The goal of Buy Nothing Year isn’t to prove that consumerism is bad. In fact, both Geoff and Julie say they’ll consume again after the project. They started the experiment as a way to help themselves learn to consume better.
“When we purchase something, we often do it mindlessly,” Geoff said. “And without thinking, do we really want this? Or is this an irrational decision in this moment?”
I asked Geoff what’s been the hardest thing to give up. He told me he gets asked that question a lot, and his answer is always different, always changing.
“Which, to me, is really indicative of most people’s desires and wants. We think we need something, we think want something, but as soon as our mind shifts away from it, it’s not really something we want anymore.”
Naomi Krogman, professor and director of sustainability at the University of Alberta, discussed the project on Alberta Primetime:
“It really challenges our definition of success,” Krogman said. “Which is often about what we look like and what we own and how big our homes are and how big our cars are, and [Geoff and Julie] are actually saying, ‘That has nothing to do with my happiness.’”
Krogman added that consumption is important, but it should be deliberate.
“Tie who you want to be in this world, as a human being, with your consumer behavior,” she advises.
It’s only been a couple of months, but Julie told me they’ve already received some backlash.
“Our first piece of criticism actually came from a small business, locally, that contacted me on Twitter, really mad, saying, ‘You picked a really good time to convince people not to buy things, Julie. We’re in a post-flood economy, and local businesses are going under.’ Basically saying, supporting local business equals good citizenship.”
The roommates say the business misunderstood the project.
“We aren’t encouraging people to stop spending money,” Geoff said again. “The focus, especially at that point in the project, was on our behaviors, taking control of our financial situations…We just want to encourage people to be more conscious of what they’re buying.”
Aligning values with behavior
While overspending, Geoff says he was living a “discordant reality.”
“My actions weren’t exactly lining up with my ideals like I hoped they would.”
To put it simply, he wasn’t practicing what he preached.
Going back to the idea of mindfulness, the project not only makes them more deliberate in how they spend their money, but also how they spend their lives — the people they choose to be, the values they choose to put into action.
Money & happiness
During the interview, we came to a realization: Instant gratification is just that, instant. It sounds obvious, but when I think of the phrase, instant gratification, I only think about it in terms of wanting something instantly. But the satisfaction itself is often instant and fleeting, too. A pair of boots I once had to have that are now collecting dust in my closet come to mind. They made me happy. But as quickly as I needed them, that happiness passed.
A big part of the project is shifting focus. Instead of focusing on the fleeting happiness Stuff brings, Geoffrey and Julie are focusing on a more substantial happiness. Many of the things we spend money on are out of convenience. Geoff bought pizza to avoid cooking. He bought gas to avoid walking 20 minutes to work.
Convenience is great, but often it obscures something that’s really valuable. For example, Geoff discovered he really likes cooking and finds it relaxing. He also enjoys walking and clearing his mind before work, taking in the scenery.
“Why did I think these things were so insurmountable? They’re really not. And some of them are quite necessary toward my happiness and well-being,” he says.
(I had a similar realization when I wrote about rethinking luxuries.)
Economist Mark Anielski also weighed in on the project on Alberta Primetime:
“From the science of happiness, the attachments to money and even education are less important than relationships. So I think what Geoff and Julie are doing is saying, ‘We’re going to spend more of our time in renewing and enjoying our relationship with others…’ Money is important, but to a certain level of material goods, happiness doesn’t change very much. So I think they are living the science of happiness.”
Other resources emerge
Geoff and Julie’s project reminded me a lot of Fallen Fruit in that it encourages a sense of community. Because money is taken out of the equation, the two have been transacting based on trade. Julie recently borrowed a dehumidifier from a friend; in exchange, she lent a sewing machine. Another friend heard about the project and knew she was going out of town for a while, so she offered Julie a variety of fruits and vegetables that would have otherwise gone to waste. Come to think of it, not only is the project similar to Fallen Fruit in that it renews relationships, but it also encourages an elimination of waste.
“The amount of time that goes into searching online for things, and finding deals, and going to the store, and trying it on, and thinking about it and thinking about it, and then finally buying it, and then debating if you made the right decision, and then other people being like, ‘No you made the right decision, it looks great!’ That’s so much mental capacity that can be used for other stuff.”
Indeed, they’ve discovered an added benefit to the project: Not only do they have more time, but they’ve also been utilizing their time in a more valuable, enriching way.
Julie referenced Laurana Rayne’s book Conscious Spending, Conscious Life. In it, Rayne explains that taking the time to be more aware of where your money goes helps you appreciate what you already have.
“When you approach your spending with more thoughtfulness, the claim is that you actually appreciate the things you own a lot more,” Julie says. “You’re not just surrounded by Stuff.”
How to stop overspending
As an added bonus, I asked Geoff and Julie for their tips to avoid “binge shopping.”
- “Do a Buy Nothing Year,” Geoffrey laughed. “People can start with one month, or one week,” Julie suggested. She added that starting gradually, making the goal fun and being in control are crucial to the project’s effectiveness.
- “Avoid going to the stores that you like,” Geoffrey suggested. “Maybe purge your inbox of all the sites you go to.”
- “Shift your focus,” he added. “Ask yourself, ‘What’s more important, to have financial independence or to spend my capital on a wardrobe?’”
- Julie said it helps to make a public declaration of your intention to stop spending so much money. “Post it on Facebook, or tell a group a friends.”
Geoffrey and Julie’s story reminded me a lot of J.D.’s. Like J.D., they came to a realization that their lifestyle needed to change. Like J.D., they made a declaration and immersed themselves in their goal of financial independence. They talk about “Stuff” with the same significance that J.D. does. Interestingly, when I mentioned J.D, Julie realized she’d heard about him at the World Domination Summit. I thought this was so cool! And I thought it supported the importance of keeping the company of like-minded people to help us along our journeys.
I captured our Skype interview so you could see it, and check out Geoff and Julie’s full story here. Of course, our usual disclaimer applies: They’ve offered their time and their personal story, so please keep comments constructive and tactful.