The Experiment

December 31, 2010


A few years ago my friends Helene and Jim went a year without buying anything new. Jim calls that year “the most memorable thing I’ve done in my life,” and it seems like Helene has been anxious to try it again since the year ended. Crazy, right?

We didn’t think so. This fall my friend Melissa mentioned that she wanted to try to go a month without buying anything new. I immediately upped the ante. A month didn’t seem long enough. Three months? Melissa suggested.

As it happens, I’ve done three months. In 2008 I went with a like-minded group to see Helene and Jim talk about their yearlong experiment, and for January, February, and March 2009 the group of us gave up buying all but necessities—i.e., food, shelter, soap, deodorant, etc. To be honest, it wasn’t that hard. It didn’t drastically change my behavior, and I wanted more of a challenge.

So, finally, Melissa and I agreed on six months (beginning January 1, 2011) with the option of continuing for the full year. Helene is joining us as our mentor. Another friend, Bernice, might do it too.


We’ve laid some ground rules, the primary being “no new unessential stuff.” No new clothes, no new appliances, no new shoes, no new books, no new cars . . .  If we find that we are desperate for an item, we can try to find it used. And we can repair and maintain items we already have.

What we can buy are groceries, essential toiletries, and work- or school-related essentials. We are not depriving ourselves of wine. We are not cutting trips to restaurants. Buying experiences—tickets to ballgames or the theater—is generally OK. But Helene assures us we’ll become pickier about the types of restaurants we go to and the types of entertainment we choose.


I think the primary motivation for all of us is to lessen our personal environmental footprints. Participation in the consumer economy creates a lot of waste (see Annie Leonard’s The Story of Stuff,, so limiting our purchases should reduce the overall amount of resources we use and trash we generate.

For me, the biggest challenge won’t be forgoing a new sweater or a pair of shoes or even a shiny new tart pan. It will be giving up the little luxuries I currently take for granted. My parchment and wax paper supplies, for example, are very much depleted after the December’s cookie-baking marathon. I will surely run out of both in the next six months. So, do I wash and reuse what I have left or just go without? (I figure I’ll just go without. Butter for greasing is not off-limits.)

Along the same lines, my boyfriend and I are considering throwing a Valentine’s Day dinner party a la Julia and Paul Child. If we do, I won’t be able to buy red construction paper to make hearts for guests to wear. Sigh.

Of course, I realize any dinner party will be equally fun without the paper hearts and other cutesy touches—and that brings me to the another motivation we experimenters share. We are hoping that eliminating unessential stuff from our lives will allow us to focus on the important things: family, friends, good health, good food, the experience of life. We’ll see where these next six months take us.