Buy Nothing Year: Changing how we spend

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.

Deliberate consumerism

“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

Relationships

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.

Time

Julie explains:

“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.

Appreciation

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.

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Robb
Robb
6 years ago

This is awesome. And I can imagine the negative comments that must come in from people who don’t understand and find this threatening. But sometimes to really take a step back and recognize the ways we get stuck in a rut, you have to take a big step in the opposite direction for a while. What a great learning opportunity! Life is all about being aware of your perspective, and something extreme like this, whether temporary or permanent, can be so valuable in the long run.

I tip my hat to you both.

Matt @ Your Living Body
Matt @ Your Living Body
6 years ago

Could you imagine….a year without consumerism?

Lis
Lis
6 years ago

I’m all for cutting back on spending – truly! The idea of not spending money on anything seems very daunting! The one thing that rubs me the wrong way is the idea that that they may have to rely on the ‘generosity’ of their friends. I can only hope that they’re relying on, and therefore pointing out, the overabundance of food we typically purchase and let go to waste. I hope that those around them aren’t paying out extra to support them. In every other case, I applaud them and wish them the best of luck!

Anne
Anne
6 years ago
Reply to  Lis

Yes, excellent post and great project, but I caught that, too.

Kostas
Kostas
6 years ago
Reply to  Lis

If relying on the generosity of friends is how one survived, how many truly could? Times are so tough for many people, as you stated, are these friends spending extra out of their own pockets to help their friends? If not, great, if so, then they have become a financial burden of sorts to their friends.

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Kostas

It’s probably my fault for the wording, but I think interpreting the ‘generosity of friends’ in this way is missing the point entirely. Geoff and Julie aren’t planning to thrive on their friends’ money; at least in my interview with them, the examples they gave were more about trading (see ‘other resources emerge: relationships’). So they’re accepting but also giving generosity. In the interview, Julie gave another example of how a friend is helping her with a project for ‘free,’ in exchange for her doing web work for him. And I think that’s the point of that aspect of the… Read more »

Lauri
Lauri
6 years ago

Buy nothing for a year including food just doesn’t sound right when have to “rely on friends” to feed u what u won’t buy for yourself.

Aryn
Aryn
6 years ago

This is where I have a problem with these “not do something for a year” plans: when their goal partly relies on mooching off other people. Once they stop buying food, they will: grow their own (great), rely on the food they have on hand (great, but they’ll have to spend more to stock up before they stop buying), dumpster dive (fine), and rely on the generosity of friends (get friends to give them food because they can’t buy it themselves. No, that’s not okay.) I had the same issue with No-Impact Man when he tried to get an unpaid… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Aryn

I understand your your point. But so far, the examples of generosity they’ve experienced and mentioned to me are: 1) a friend giving them food she otherwise would’ve thrown away and 2) trading resources with another friend. So they’re both receiving and giving generosity; I don’t see them taking advantage of anyone. And I think that part of the experiment is less about relying on generosity and more about making do with what you have and not wasting resources. To me, the takeaway here is about avoiding waste and being more conscious about spending.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
6 years ago

Hey! Where did this article come from? Why are there 2 on the same day?

Nooooo….!

Brooklyn Money
Brooklyn Money
6 years ago

This is really interesting. Thanks for doing such a thorough writeup.

Sheri
Sheri
6 years ago

While I think it’s admirable to embark on any kind of project that forces one to be more mindful of their spending habits and their habits in general, I think what turns some people off is that it seems like such a first-world problem. I recall reading a post (was it here on GRS?) on how the people of Belize live in small houses. They do so not because they are virtuous, but because bigger houses are not available to them for whatever reason, and that if they had the chance they would definitely take a bigger house. My point… Read more »

Kathy Kramer
Kathy Kramer
6 years ago

I came away from this article with mixed feelings. I applaud the effort to become less materialistic, because we truly are too fixated on having “things” instead of being happy from inside. And I do agree that we wasted entirely too much in this country, too. The other part is that, because of a health issue, I am not working and because of that, we are on a very tight budget. I’ve had to rely on others to get food during this time, and I guess to me, this part of their experiment, seems like…I don’t want to say making… Read more »

Kristin Wong
Kristin Wong
6 years ago
Reply to  Kathy Kramer

Interesting perspective. And thanks for sharing it. I see your point–it’s sort of like the show ‘Survivor,’ where well-to-do folks go to places where other people actually live and see if they can do it themselves. I think Daniel Tosh has a joke about that, ha. We do live in a world of overconsumption, though. Well, some of us. I once didn’t, but now I do, and I think for those of us who do over-consume, projects like this make us more aware of the disparity. They make us more aware of the fact that we do have many ‘first… Read more »

Oily
Oily
6 years ago

I was OK with this until I read “count on the generosity of friends”. WRONG !!!

If you cant do this on your own, Don’t “Count” On anything from anyone. That just makes you a leach.

Homebythesea
Homebythesea
6 years ago

I like the idea of not spending just because you want to, feel compelled to or just because you can but, yeah, support your local little business and while you’re there if youre on a talking basis with the store owner,suggest they dont spend much either, if everyone did their lives would be cleaner and simpler. Really, no one heard of a 2-5 dollar cup of coffee when I was younger and if you were that foolish with money, you were thought of as a fool and likely, that person felt like one later. That should be the course for… Read more »

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