I’ve seen a lot of buzz about the second annual Small Business Saturday on Facebook in the last couple weeks. For those who aren’t aware, Small Business Saturday, falling the day after Black Friday, is a marketing ploy by the folks at American Express to encourage consumers to shop at independent and locally owned stores in order to boost neighborhood economies. It’s a pretty great idea, but it does seem a little odd that the day was dreamed up by some folks at a large corporation and has a number of corporate sponsors, right?

Well, regardless, Small Business Saturday overlaps with one of my personal guidelines for the No Stuff Experiment: when buying necessary material goods, like groceries or toiletries, or going out for dinner or to the movies, choose local and independent sources over big corporations.

I haven’t stuck to this guideline like glue; in fact, in the last few months, I’ve been a little careless about it. I’m flying Continental/United to Florida for Thanksgiving tomorrow. We stayed in a Holiday Inn in Huntington for Marshall University Marathon weekend.* I regularly buy dry goods, dairy products, and cleaning supplies from Whole Foods.

But, earlier this month, I renewed my buy-local efforts when I found out that a new MOM’s Organic Market had opened just down the road, in Herndon. MOM’s is an independently owned chain of organic grocery stores that started in Beltsville, Maryland, in 1987. Since then, it has expanded to eight locations, two of which are in Virginia (one more VA location, in Merrifield, is due to open in 2012). For such a small space, the selection at the Herndon location is fantastic, and I found nearly everything on my grocery list (save white vinegar in cleaning quantities and plain cow’s milk yogurt). MOM’s has a decent local wine selection and shelves full of organic nut butters, but what’s even better is they have the Story of Stuff playing on a loop on one of the aisles.

It’s pretty darn exciting when a business that shares your ideals—with the mission “To Protect and Restore the Environment”—opens up your neighborhood. I am looking forward to giving MOM’s my business this winter.

But since I will be in Florida visiting family for the weekend, I will not be stopping by my new favorite grocery store on Small Business Saturday. Instead, it’s more likely I’ll participate in twentieth annual Buy Nothing Day, which coincides with Black Friday and this year has an OWS theme. I wonder if Occupy St. Pete will do something for the occasion.

*Got my PR by 22 minutes, by the way: 4:24:00. Woo!

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Checking In

November 18, 2011

Although I haven’t been writing much lately, I have been thinking a lot about the No Stuff Experiment. This year has been full of what-does-it-all-mean moments. What am I actually getting out of this shopping fast? Am I happier or more productive or more conscientious? (Is being happier, productive, and conscientious inherently good?) Has this endeavor been worth it?

As you might gather from the nature of these questions, my motivation has been waning of late. I’m still anxious to simplify, to limit the number of advertisements I see and the amount of crap I bring into my home or office, but my “I can’t; I’m not buying anything” excuse is starting to feel less enthusiastic and more like a burden.

In the last six weeks or so, I’ve ripped a couple pairs of hose and broken the handle off my flat iron. The flat iron still works because none of the internal wires/cords were severed (in fact, these cords are what’s keeping the handle attached to the iron), and so I’ve continued use it, though this requires a little finesse. But if I were buying things, I would replace both the hose and the flat iron—and I probably will replace them next year—which, when I think about it long enough, inevitably leads me to the question, If I’m just going to replace them anyway, why not do it today? Hence my dwindling enthusiasm.

But yesterday afternoon I came across a Matt Taibbi editorial about Occupy Wall Street in the November 24 issue of Rolling Stone that, despite its clichéd title (but who am I to judge?), reminded me why I wanted to do this thing to begin with. Here’s the relevant text:

Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It’s about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. . . .

There was a lot of snickering in media circles, even by me, when I heard the protesters talking about how Liberty Square was offering a model for a new society, with free food and health care and so on. Obviously, a bunch of kids taking donations and giving away free food is not a long-term model for a new economic system.

But now, I get it. People want to go someplace for at least five minutes where no one is trying to bleed you or sell you something. It may not be a real model for anything, but it’s at least a place where people are free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along, beyond auctioned ‘democracy,’ tyrannical commerce and the bottom line.

OK, clearly this is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Although shopping fasts seem to be more and more popular these days, the No Stuff Experiment is currently a one-woman operation with limited press coverage and influence—even among my own family and friends. Plus, I don’t necessarily agree with everything Mr. Taibbi (who seems very angry in general) has written in his piece.

Still, just as OWS is about more than big banks and modern finance, this shopping fast is about more than limiting consumption. I jumped at the chance to join Melissa in not buying new stuff because I was anxious to step out of my comfort zone, which, to paraphrase Jane Adler in It’s Complicated, wasn’t actually all that comforting. I wanted, for six months (and now one year), to make for myself a place where I was “free to dream of some other way for human beings to get along.” I wanted to do something different, make some sacrifices, find inspiration, and improve my life in some meaningful way.

Even though the No Stuff Experiment isn’t a sustainable lifestyle for me (nor is it as easy as I expected it to be), I have satisfied most of these initial wants. This exercise has forever changed the way I interact with money, the marketplace, aluminum foil, and even the people around me for the better. Over the last ten months, I’ve significantly reduced not just my level of consumption but, more importantly, my desire to consume. Note I wrote “reduced” and not “eliminated.” I still want things, stuff, crap, but at the same time, I’m cognizant of and grateful for the plenitude already around me. My monthly expenses are down, my deposits in savings are up, I’ve paid off all debt and stayed debt-free, and I’ve convinced Channing that rushing into a thirty-year mortgage is not worth it (he actually came to this conclusion on his own, but I think it was my influence).

So, since it’s that time of year, I think I’ll take a weeklong vacation from beating myself up about the Experiment’s relevancy and meaning. Instead, I’ll focus on my rekindled appreciation for the people, experiences, and comforts of my life.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Selling Old Stuff

November 3, 2011

(Skip to “The Guides” at the end of the post for actual good advice about selling your used stuff online.)

I’ve been on a real purging binge since early October, particularly since Fall Cleaning Weekend. I read Elaine St. James’s Living the Simple Life and have since started Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez’s Your Money or Your Life (the 2008 revised edition). Both books just make me want to get rid of everything I own. Forget no new stuff. I am ready to part with all unessential stuff—new, old, what have you.

In this spirit, I decided a couple weeks ago that it was time to unload my tandem kayak once and for all. Since I have no experience with selling on eBay and the boat is too large to ship (economically, anyway), I opted to post an ad on Craigslist.

This wasn’t my first foray into the wilds of Craigslist sales. A few years ago I hawked kombucha starter kits on the site—until I saturated the market (after only two sales). Next I posted ads for a couple twin-size quilts that I hadn’t been able to sell at a garage sale. These ads generated only one response—from a woman who lived a couple hours away and was interested not in actually buying the quilts but in checking out their craftsmanship. I guess the photos and descriptions I posted didn’t make it clear the quilts were store-bought. Ugh.

At any rate, I didn’t have especially high hopes for my kayak ad. And, based on the Craigslist and eBay selling guides I’ve read in the last couple days, my ad didn’t exactly guarantee my chances for a great sale. I did only the minimal necessary research: i.e., I found the description of the kayak on the manufacturer’s website and I read one or two other ads in Craigslist’s boat sales section. I modeled the title of my ad on those of other ads; it included the make and model of the boat, the price, and the location.

Among the other boat listings I didn’t see any ads for comparable kayaks that I could base the price for my kayak on, but I already had a number in mind. While I was preparing for a garage sale a couple years ago, I read something that said you should price all items for sale at around 50 percent of their original cost. That’s more or less the rule of thumb I used. Seemed fair for a boat that is ten years old.

In my ad copy I expanded on the title, and using that write-up on the manufacturer’s website, I outlined the selling points of the boat. I didn’t include a photo, and it turns out I also wasn’t particularly thorough in my description. I forgot to mention the boat’s age and the disrepair of the rudder. But I think I hit the high notes, and I offered the buyer paddles, life jackets, and a cockpit cover at no extra charge.

I received a handful of responses the day the ad went up, but based on my previous Craigslist experiences, I decided to be picky about whom I replied to. Most of the e-mails I received were littered with misspellings, asked for information already addressed in the ad, or were from folks who lived more than an hour away. There was one guy who offered me only 40 percent of my asking price—as if! I wanted to deal with a buyer who was reliable and conscientious (a diamond in the rough in the Craigslist crowd?). I decided to sit on it a few days and kept my fingers crossed for a well-written inquiry.

In the last twenty-four hours of my ad’s seven-day lifespan, I received an e-mail from a woman interested in buying the kayak for her parents for their sixtieth birthdays. She asked if she could see the boat and suggested specific days and times that would be convenient for her to stop by. She even used capitals at the beginnings of sentences and periods at the ends! Overjoyed at this stroke of luck, I responded and set up an appointment to show off the merchandise.

So here’s where I really messed up: I failed to prepare the kayak for sale before my potential buyer came over. When we walked down to the lake, we found that the cockpit cover had come off in one of this summer’s crazy storms, and the boat was full of rainwater and who knows what else. I apologized and assured the woman that I would clean out the kayak if she decided to buy it.

And for whatever reason, she did decide to buy the thing. Amazing. She offered me a reasonable price, gave me a 50-percent deposit in cash to hold the boat, and had her brother come to pick it up (and bring the rest of the moola)—all within five days. It was a ridiculously easy transaction, and I’m a few hundred dollars richer because of it.

As I work through step 2 of the nine-step program outlined in Your Money or Your Life, I will be taking an inventory of my possessions and their worth. Depending on my findings, I could be spending a lot more time on Craigslist and maybe eBay in the next few months. And if so, I’ll start to play by the rules. Below you’ll find the most promising online selling guides I’ve found so far. Happy hawking!

The Guides

Lifehacker’s A Seller’s Guide to Craigslist 
Zen Habit’s A Minimalist’s Guide to eBay: The Least You Need to Know to Get Started
Man vs. Debt’s How I Paid Off $15,000 in 9 Months by Selling My “Stuff” on Ebay
Sell It Now—How to Make Hundreds of Dollars in 37 Minutes