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!


Channing and I headed to the courthouse on Monday this week to get our marriage license. We are now legally obligated to get hitched in the next sixty days. Hooray!

The plan is to get married in a small ceremony in early August and have a party for all our family and friends the following weekend. August is coming up quick, so with Melissa and Helene’s permission, a couple weeks ago I bent the rules a tad by buying party invitations.

I didn’t make the decision to violate the rules (yet again) lightly. Channing and I even toyed with the idea of sending an Evite to party guests in order to avoid the numerous environmental costs of shipping paper via the U.S. mail. But, the thing is, we love invitations by mail. Whenever we throw a party, we send homemade invites to all our potential guests. Unfortunately, Channing’s family is gigantic (relative to mine, anyway), and I didn’t have enough card stock on hand to make wedding invites by hand. So, remembering the plantable Christmas card Nan gave me last December, I began a search for eco-friendly invitations embedded with seeds.

My search led me to a company called Botanical PaperWorks, which sells a variety of paper products made from postconsumer paper waste and wildflower, herb, or vegetable seeds.* They have several attractive wedding invitation designs, nearly all of which were perfect for us, given the venue of our party (the local nature center). Once our guests have marked the pertinent details of the event on their calendars, they can plant the invitation and watch a variety of wildflowers grow. Oh, and we have asked them all to RSVP by e-mail, which should cut our wedding’s carbon footprint a bit.

I don’t anticipate having to buy anything else for the wedding during these last few days of the Experiment—that is, I don’t anticipate buying anything new. I am hoping to find a vintage white dress to wear to both the ceremony and the party (and whenever I want thereafter). I finally started looking for this dress last weekend while I was in Maryland checking out a master’s program at the Tai Sophia Institute. I visited three consignment shops and came up with nothing—well, except the realization that there are consignment shops nearby with a pretty great selection of lightly worn everyday clothes. That’ll be good to know next time I want to replenish my wardrobe.

So, I haven’t had luck in brick-and-mortar stores yet (I’m planning to visit another three in Virginia this coming weekend), but I have found a couple of possibilities on Etsy. Not only does Etsy offer a pretty amazing selection of vintage dresses, it also hosts a few vendors who make clothes from repurposed fabric. It’s amazing what you can find on the Internet. I have my eye on this one dress in particular, but it’s made to order and I’m not sure the vendor can finish and ship it in my six-week timeframe. Better, earth-wise, to find something off-the-rack at a store nearby (or in a friend’s closet) anyway, right?

Once July rolls around, and the Experiment is officially over, Channing and I will be purchasing wedding bands. (The wedding band purchase is actually the primary reason I wanted to wait until August to get married.) This week I found an ethical jewelry vendor online: Brilliant Earth. All of their wedding bands are made with recycled metals and conflict-free stones. I have to say I’m pretty jazzed about this find.

Other than the invitations, the dress, and the ring, I don’t anticipate having to purchase anything for the wedding outside of the No Stuff Experiment’s parameters (stay tuned for the lowdown on our fabulous caterer, though). And, we are asking our family and friends not to give us gifts—our kitchen is well stocked with appliances already, we have plenty of linens, and honestly, our condo is so small, we couldn’t fit much else in it anyway. (To appease the insistent gift-givers, we have set up a registry. The only item on it is help with a down payment on our first home—mostly because I have not yet figured out how to register for sparkling wine or donations to charity.)

*Is it buying something new if the product is made from waste?

Exception to the Rules

April 22, 2011

When do I make an exception to NSE rules?

When the stuff comes with the promise of lifelong companionship.

This weekend, diamond ring in hand, Channing asked me to marry him, and despite his flagrant violation of my no-gifts pledge,* I said yes, ring and all.

The ring is pretty and sparkly, and I love it. Still, I feel conflicted—but not about breaking the rules. I read chapter 1 of The Story of Stuff only a few weeks ago and learned all about the processes of extracting rocks and metals from the earth. The gold mined for my ring—just my one little ring—likely created twenty tons of hazardous waste. And the diamond was likely mined in an open pit—that is, a huge swath of land cleared of trees and inhabitants and layers of earth until the ore is exposed. Processing the ore involved enormous amounts of water and chemicals, as well as workers potentially laboring under oppressive conditions.

The bit of good news about the diamond is Channing bought it from a company that actually has ethical sourcing information on its website. The company, Blue Nile, adheres to the Kimberley Process, an international initiative to stop the flow of rough diamonds used by rebel groups to finance wars against legitimate governments in places such as Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, the Congo, and Zimbabwe. The bad news is the Kimberley Process, which has been around for eleven years, is probably not 100 percent effective, especially when it comes to cracking down on human rights abuses at diamond mines. Also, the Kimberley Process certification system is flawed. Several of the initiative’s African member-states have weak internal controls and cannot accurately track the origin of their diamonds. Yet those diamonds may enter circulation with conflict-free certification.

I talked to Channing about all this on Wednesday and asked him what to write. He said, “Write that you’re conflicted, but you’re going to keep it.” Well, of course I’ll keep it. It is the most meaningful thing I own. Channing spent a lot of time picking out the rock and the setting and arranging covert deliveries and pickups. I’ve never been so surprised by a gift in my life. A week later, I am still in shock. The ring is special to me, and I will treasure it. (And, by the way, I’m pretty darn excited about getting married to this guy. He is the most accepting and generous person I know, and he never fails to amuse me.)

I’m telling myself that my diamond came from one of the conflict-free countries that supplies Blue Nile—maybe Australia or Canada—so that I worry only about the environmental damage it caused. Also, I will definitely make careful decisions about jewelry in the future. We do have the issue of wedding bands to confront.

On that note, let me say we’ve already started brainstorming a “low-stuff” wedding celebration: consignment shop wedding (sun)dress, locally grown food, no registry, no gifts, etc. I should have a lot to write about in the next few months.

*Shortly after he presented the ring, Channing said something like, “It isn’t an heirloom and I didn’t get it at a pawn shop, so you have definitely broken the rules.”

The Kindness of Friends

April 15, 2011

If you recall, in January I wrote a couple posts about taking donations. The rules of the No Stuff Experiment are we won’t accept gifts of new items, but we will take surplus, clutter, or used items off others’ hands. In the intervening months, several folks have offered me their unwanted stuff, and I’d say I’ve made a decent haul.

Mary was the first to approach me with an offering: two sheets of red construction paper. With this paper, Channing and I made darling Valentines for each other. We wore them while enjoying a dinner of bœuf bourguignon (Julia’s recipe, made with part of my first batch of beef stock) and watching Love Happens, starring Aaron Eckhart and Jennifer Aniston (don’t let the idiotic but hopeful title fool you—this movie is a real downer).

Shortly after the construction paper donation, I received a (reusable) grocery bag full of surplus yarn from my friend Laurin. I taught myself to knit in 2010 (it was my new year’s resolution), and by the end of the year, aside from yarn needed for two overdue Christmas projects, I had only two or three balls of a very funky mohair in my yarn stash. I was pretty bummed about having to give up my new hobby until I could buy more supplies—and I made my dismay known to Laurin when we saw each other in January. She took the hint graciously, and by mid-March my yarn basket was filled to the brim. Scarfs for everyone this Christmas!

Not two weeks later, I received a garbage bag full of unwanted fabric from Channing’s mom. What a surprise! In the bag were several yards of medium and heavyweight cotton, including a fabulous red giraffe print (oh, the possibilities). What I couldn’t use I donated to the Virginia Green Baggers, a group in this area that makes cloth shopping bags and gives them away for free.* As thrilled as I was to have a bunch of new fabric, I was nearly as excited about the extra garbage bag. We have started averaging about three weeks between trips to the dumpster—trying to make our box of trash bags last. Now we have a little more wiggle room.

The most recent donation was more of a loan. I started playing ultimate frisbee again this spring, and my team wanted to show some spirit by purchasing and wearing matching bright pink knee-high socks during the games. I let the captain (who is actually the guy who taught me how to play ultimate in college twelve years ago) know that I had taken a pledge not to buy anything new for six months and politely declined to join the sock order. But, as luck would have it, his fiancée had a pair of these bright pink socks that she was willing to give me for the season. Now, I know it sounds gross to borrow someone’s socks, but they have been washed (and, I assume, properly sterilized), so I will be wearing them the next time I play. If I get some kind of foot fungus, you can say, “I told you so.”

I am grateful to have been on the receiving end of so much generosity, and at some point I’m sure I will repay my four benefactors directly. In the meantime, though, I have paid it forward. I gave my sister a pair of old running pants, which she wore last weekend in her first half marathon. I gave away some CDs, two grocery bags of plastic food storage containers, a set of pots and pans, two glass baking pans, assorted kitchen utensils, and my 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style to some happy Freecyclers. Plus, in February Channing and I made a big donation of clothes, shoes, and other odds and ends to charity. It’s just good karma. Let the giving continue.

*Full disclosure: I sew for this group, and it is special. We borrowed the idea from the Green Bag Lady in Tennessee (with permission, of course). We use only fabric we receive by donation—usually from folks with a fabric surplus but sometimes from people who want to see their old (clean) sheets and curtains and pillowcases repurposed. No money exchanges hands. We’re all volunteers, we accept donations of fabric only, and we’ll give anyone a bag for free, as long as they sign a pledge to use the bag instead of paper or plastic.

When It Rains Indoors

March 16, 2011

Some serious unpleasantness struck the Kimmelhorn household last week. Around 2:30 on Thursday morning, we awoke to the sound of a steady stream of water dripping from above the bedroom closet door. Only the one area of the bedroom appeared to be affected, but on further investigation, we also discovered a puddle forming along the back wall of the living room downstairs. Yikes! Thirty panic-stricken minutes later we finally determined the source of the flooding: our upstairs neighbors’ busted water heater.

Eventually the deluge behind the walls subsided, and we were able to get some sleep. When the sun rose Thursday morning, we assessed the damage: Upstairs and down, the carpet, though soaked, appeared to be salvageable. Some obvious wet patches had appeared in the ceiling in our bedroom and in the living room. And, aside from some dampness on the arm of our couch, all of our furniture was fine.

Clearly, it could have been a lot worse. Well, tracking down someone to help us was a bit of a chore. Our landlords had left for Morocco the day before and had not told us whom to contact in their absence if we had trouble. But, eventually we got a handyman out to the house to appraise the situation and determine a course of action. By Saturday afternoon we had carpet padding air-drying on the deck and three of the loudest fans on earth targeting the remaining problem areas.

Nearly a week later, the incessant noise from the fans has us both on edge and things still aren’t quite dried out, but I’m counting my lucky stars. The last time this condo flooded (late fall 2007), our landlords gutted the place. They bought new carpet, new drywall, new appliances, and new light fixtures. This time around we should be able to save almost everything from the landfill. The ceiling will need some patching, and the landlords may want to replace some portion of the carpet padding, but Channing and I have escaped this mess with all our stuff functional and intact.

Keeping the rules of the experiment in mind, I’m not sure what we would’ve done had a dresser or couch been ruined by the flooding. Found a used replacement on craigslist or in the Old Lucketts Store? I would’ve had a hard time convincing Channing that we could make do with someone’s leftovers—or that we could make do without a dresser or couch at all. And what if the landlords had had to replace the carpet? Could I have convinced them to choose something repurposed or recycled? What choice would I have had as a tenant?

Channing’s Thoughts

While the deluge remains an unpleasant distraction from the tranquility of home, it has brought my attention to a few things that make our lives more pleasant that I would not have otherwise noticed. First, when it doesn’t sound like an airplane hangar, our home is very quiet. Yes, we can sometimes hear our neighbors, but despite being surrounded by other people, it’s one of the quietest homes I’ve ever known. Second, I have no interest in owning a condo. From what I’ve been told by owners, condo fees are a headache, but dealing with a neighbor’s busted water heater is an altogether different beast. I’ll never want to handle both. Third, the event caused us to change the layout of our bedroom (to accommodate one of the fans). I like the new arrangement, and it gives me reason to go through a chest that holds many of my clothes. I’d like to Freecycle the chest so we have more room, and I think I can give away or donate many of the clothes inside.


Lessons Learned (So Far)

February 25, 2011

People who know I’m doing this experiment are always asking, How are things going? I have yet to come up with a good answer. Aside from the workplace gift-giving pickle, I haven’t run into any problems. I felt a little twinge when Channing and I drove past Ann Taylor on the way to the movie theater this weekend, but other than that, I haven’t missed shopping. So, maybe it would be best to focus on a few things I’ve learned these first eight weeks:

1. Making lasagna does not require aluminum foil (in fact, very few things do).

I made a pesto lasagna for a birthday celebration last weekend and baked it uncovered. Mark Bittman’s recipe from How to Cook Everything actually doesn’t call for covering the dish, and his suggested cooking time is super short—25 minutes at 400 degrees. The top layer of noodles was a touch dry, but no one complained because the lasagna was downright delicious. Isn’t anything with pesto?

Interesting note: I’m not using foil for much of anything right now, but I still feel the need to hoard it. When my colleagues and I went to Cosi for the boss’s birthday, I took the foil they wrapped my bread in home with me. It’s sitting under the sink with my one or two other foil scraps not in use. In fact, I keep reusing the same one piece (to store onion leftovers). It’s pretty worn out at this point and probably leaching all kinds of nasty things into my onions.

2. Pumpkin pie ice cream is awesome.

In my continuing effort not to waste food, I finally cut open one of the pumpkins I have had stored atop my fridge since November. The first half of it went into a roasted squash dish with beans, (local greenhouse) tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and onions. Despite the aromatics, the dish wasn’t that great, and the pumpkin in particular was bland. So, I decided I needed to bake the rest of it into submission, spice it up—and then turn it into ice cream. Best idea ever.

3. If I stay out of the stores, I don’t buy anything.

This lesson is a bit obvious, sure, but still worth noting. A couple weeks back, Channing and I were in Fairfax to see The Fighter at Cinema Arts. After the movie, we went across the street to the Record and Tape Exchange in hopes of exchanging some Christmas vinyl Channing had picked up from Freecycle last summer. The exchange was denied (the employee we spoke to had been forbidden from accepting Christmas music), but Channing decided he wanted to browse anyway. So, of course, I ended up browsing with him. It turns out, in addition to loads of used vinyl and CDs, the Record and Tape Exchange deals in DVDs, including full seasons of Gilmore Girls. If I were not hyperconscious of my spending at the moment, I would’ve dropped fifteen bucks on season 5—which then, after one or two views, would’ve sat on the shelf with my copy of season 3, collecting dust. (Hmm, maybe I should take season 3 to the Exchange.) I think it’s best for now to avoid temptation altogether and stay out of the stores.

Gift Giving Woes

February 13, 2011

I ran into some trouble with the experiment this past week—at work, of all places. My colleagues were planning a birthday celebration for our boss, and as is customary in our department, in addition to buying the birthday boy lunch, they wanted to decorate his cubical and give him a gift card. Clearly the gift card posed a problem for me.

In general, gift giving will not be difficult during these six months. I’m a big believer in giving homemade gifts and have a sizable stash of fabric scraps and pattern books. And for those who wouldn’t be pleased with a new apron, handbag, curtain, pillow cover, or set of place mats, I have the option of giving experiences. Over the last few years, I have become a fan of experience gifts, especially for people like my dad, who can never manage to write a Christmas list of more than five items (two of which are inevitably underwear and socks). I’ve taken people to Shakespeare plays downtown, to jazz concerts in the National Gallery of Art’s sculpture garden, and on tours of the National Arboretum. I’ve given tickets to concerts, baseball games, and beer fests, and gift certificates for cooking classes. And I’ve made dinners, picnics, and birthday cakes galore.

When Helene and Jim went the year without buying anything new, they organized a homemade gift exchange for their family in lieu of their usual Christmas extravaganza. Helene made use of the stash of yarn in her closet and knitted a scarf. One person made a birdhouse; others made jewelry; several baked cookies and cakes; one gave a painting; and one gave plant cuttings from the garden. I’ve heard Helene talk about the exchange a number of times; it was one of the most memorable experiences of that year. And it just goes to show that the possibilities for gifts abound outside of the shopping mall.

This week, though, I failed to come up with any viable alternatives. My boss is moving into a new house, and he’s in the process of cleaning, painting, repairing, and buying appliances. My colleagues wanted to give him a gift card to Home Depot, and the suggestions I offered—movie theater tickets, restaurant gift card, gift card to the driving range or batting cages—weren’t nearly as thoughtful or practical given the circumstances. So, I gave in. They bought the Home Depot gift card, and rather than contributing to that purchase, I put in extra toward lunch. (I also baked three kinds of chocolate chip cookies for the in-office celebration—yum!)

I’m pretty bummed about how this turned out. The birthday festivities ultimately went off without a hitch, but I compromised my principles and I feel like a total scrooge. The thing is I love birthdays, I love excuses to celebrate, and I love giving and receiving gifts. The experiment isn’t an exercise in stinginess or ungratefulness. If anything it is meant to teach us to be more considerate of and generous with the people in our lives—who in nearly every case bring us greater happiness and fulfillment than the stuff we own does. But although I can rationalize the Home Depot gift card purchase (as I did above) by saying it was the thoughtful, considerate choice in this scenario, the excuse still doesn’t sit right with me.

Clarification (2/14/11): Ultimately, I did not contribute to the gift card. This morning my colleagues and I totaled what was spent on the birthday celebration, including the costs of the lunch, the gift card, and (to my surprise) the cookies. I paid my share of the expenses out of pocket for cookie supplies and, in fact, will be partially reimbursed. This technicality makes me feel a little better—at least I have a clear conscience about sticking to the pledge. But it sure would’ve been nice if I had been able to come up with a good moving-related alternative to the big box store gift card.