A Month of Buying (Practically) Nothing

Posted on 07 February 2016 by Joseph

A couple years ago I read a not-particularly-good book I picked up at the thrift store called Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. The merits of the writing and conclusions notwithstanding, the concept piqued my interest. The family of the book swears off the purchase of anything not deemed a necessity. For them, this meant they could purchase nothing but groceries and "essentials", a term meant to capture the things that they need to survive. Essentials are things like toilet paper, medicine, and - if I remember correctly - Q-tips. That precludes everything else, including not only goods but also services. No new clothes, no new appliances, and the like, but also no going to movies, no yoga classes, no dining out, no drinks at the bar. Though I remember the book being pretty banal, the idea seemed like a good one, and I added an easier version of it to my 35 by 35 list - go one calendar month without buying anything.

At the beginning of every year, I try to convince myself that I am not an alcoholic by abstaining from the drink for the first two weeks of January. Some years I do better than others. This year, I realized I could make double use of my drying out, and the barrier to my normal social life that it represents, as motivation for my month of "drying out" from consumerism. Interestingly, I realized this after I had a couple bottles of champagne on New Year's Eve, and declared my intention to my also-inebriated companions.

I woke up the next morning with all the joy that drinking a gallon of champagne brings, slept in until an hour that my college-aged self would have found acceptable, and had a quiet day puttering around the house after finally crawling out of bed. That night, I realized I had completed a full day of both goals: no booze, and no buying anything. I also realized that I needed some rules to follow, so I somewhat arbitrarily chose the following:

  1. Groceries are fine, but prepared food is out. This line is very arbitrary - is bread a prepared food? - but I felt like the judgement line was clear enough. I could buy bread, I could buy deli meat, but I couldn't buy a sandwich.
  2. Short-term consumables are fine, and these comprise my "essentials" list - medicine, toilet paper, essential toiletries, and nothing else.
  3. My existing services would not get cancelled, so the gym was in, Netflix stays, and I don't have to open source all of my Github projects.
  4. Everything else was out. No food or drink at restaurants and bars, no movies, no Amazon, no new services, experiences, or shopping of any kind.

I decided to take individual cases on an individual basis, with the default being "no". In reality, only a couple of issues came up. Could I eat chips or other communal food at a restaurant? (no) Could I buy a new faucet when my kitchen sink sprung a leak? (yes) As an amazing Christmas gift I had received a ticket to a Scotch tasting that fell in the month of my austerity - I decided that was in. I decided gas for the car was OK too, though I tried to limit my driving to necessary trips. After the first two weeks, I also decided that grocery-store beer was fine. Hey, I went two weeks, I can quit any time.

In retrospect, it wasn't really that hard, and I could have extended it indefinitely. The hardest part was the slightly jarring shift in my normal social life, at least for the first couple of weeks. It's a little funny how much of my interaction with friends revolves around getting drinks or food. Instead, we spent time at each others' houses (at least, for the stuff I was invited for - I'm sure they were out having a ball), watching movies, playing games, or going for walks. After the early confusion, it was really nice to be able to simply spend time with people I love instead of having to shout over yet another blown-out bar speaker blaring terrible music.

Another totally unsurprising outcome was that I spent way less money than I normally do, though that wasn't the goal of the challenge. I'd guess I spent roughly half of my normal amount, which is already low by many people's standards. Almost all of the money I did spend went to groceries, as might be expected.

As a sidenote: I've used that saving as justification for buying myself a home theater projector in support of two of my other goals: watching all the films on both the Sight & Sound Top 250 list and the AFI Top 100 list. I did some research and decided the Optoma HD141X was the best low-budget projector for the space I have, and I am unbelievably excited at the prospect of a 107" screen for watching history's greatest films.

Verdict: not a very hard goal, got to spend some quality time with my friends, and saved several hundred dollars. I'd say it's probably worth giving it a shot, particularly if you are a big spender or trying to rein in your soul-crushing commercialism. And it's way easier than the beer mile.

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