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!

Six-Month Re-Up

June 30, 2011

Inspired by a trip to Mint Condition in Old Town Alexandria this weekend, I have decided to go whole hog: I’m opting in for six more months of not buying anything new.* For one thing, I’m convinced there is enough lightly used stuff out there to fill nearly all of my shopping needs (with the possible exception of underroos). For another, the obstacles that the second half of the year will throw at me—namely, the wedding, my birthday, and the Christmas season—just might make the lessons of the No Stuff Experiment sink in a little deeper.

I’ll confess up front that I anticipate having to make a few exceptions:

1. Wedding stuff: I found a perfect white linen dress at Mint Condition, so hooray! No new wedding dress for me. However, Channing and I do still plan to buy wedding bands (brand new from Brilliant Earth) and I’m also considering decorating the buffet and bars at the party with cut flowers, which I’d like to pick myself at a local farm. All the other stuff at the party (we’ve started calling it the “unity celebration”—makes me laugh every time) will either be a rental or food, so I’m expecting rings and flowers to be the extent of my wedding-related cheats. Well, except for . . .

2. Gifts: Much to my chagrin, I’m going to have to relax my rules on gifts. As many times as I politely request that people not buy us anything, I can’t control the generous whims of our friends and family. Channing and I will probably have to accept a few new material goods into our homes come August. We will do so graciously.

3. Trash bags: Ugh. Channing bought kitchen trash bags a couple of days ago. I didn’t stop him because, frankly, I have not had the time to think up a mutually agreeable alternative. (Is it just me, or are time and convenience the biggest obstacles to living in an environmentally responsible manner?) We use reusable bags whenever we head to the store—grocery or otherwise—so we don’t generally have on hand paper or plastic bags large enough for the kitchen receptacle. Regardless, the damage is done; the bags have been purchased. We started the year with fewer than twenty bags, and we ran out the last week of June. Not too shabby. I figure we can make this recent purchase last equally long, and maybe I’ll come up with a nonplastic or repurposed alternative in the meantime.

Other than these three exceptions, the rules will remain the same: no new unessential stuff. I’m doing just fine without the aluminum foil, parchment paper, freezer bags, and cotton balls. And, I have a new Northern Virginia consignment shop circuit and charitable friends and family to rely on if I find myself needing clothes, shoes, or kitchenware. (My wish list, by the way, has dwindled to only two items: (1) a bike jersey with pockets or a little saddle bag and (2) fingerless bike gloves. If you know anyone looking to unload these items, please send them my way.)

I also have about a dozen ideas for posts bouncing around my noggin and a couple interested guest writers. So, here’s to six more stuff-free months—and a more lively blog in the coming weeks!

*And you all thought this was going to be a wrap-up post. Ha!

The Experiment

December 31, 2010

Who

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.

What

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.

Why

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, http://www.storyofstuff.com), 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.