Doing Without: Our Experimental Year of No New Stuff
It was the evening after an exciting and chaotic Christmas pageant that I found myself in our dark church for a few moments by myself.
I was putting away each candle under my arm as I moved down the aisles of the church, and I surprised myself when I got to the last candle and hot wax went spilling out of the candle and down toward the floor — the candle was still lit. With dread, I looked toward the floor and to my dismay saw that the wax had landed on my canvas sneakers, a streak of Advent blue against my maroon shoes.
Generally this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me, particularly if it gave me an excuse to buy a new pair of shoes, but this year it’s a big deal.
It’s a big deal because in January of last year, my husband and I decided to take part in an experiment. We decided to go the duration of 2010 without buying any “stuff” except for groceries and household necessities.
What that meant, in short, was that I was going to have to get used to the blue wax on my shoes — at least for a couple of weeks, until I could purchase their replacement. Had this little wax incident occurred in February, I imagine I would have spent some time gleaning wax-removal techniques from our Altar Guild.
There have been some other items over the course of the year that I haven’t been so lucky with. I lost my favorite black work sweater one weekend when I was out of town. On one mission trip with our youth group, I was forced to wear soaking-wet sneakers to the work project one day because I’d left them out in the rain the night before, and swinging by Walmart for a cheap pair wasn’t an alternative.
Let me back up and explain how this all started. It began not in January, actually, but in May 2007, when I married my wonderful husband and we packed up our belongings into a moderately sized moving van and transported ourselves to the lovely town of Southern Pines.
As with many newly married couples, our collection of furniture and belongings was pretty slim. It didn’t take too long to unload a bunch of boxes and a few scattered pieces of furniture, which left two very enthusiastic homeowners in a three-bedroom house with plenty of possibilities.
I won’t get into the details of how we managed to fill our house so quickly, but I will confess that every room in our house is now in at least its second renovation — be it a new color on the walls, new furniture, new flooring or otherwise. Our closets are bursting at the seams, with boxes and furniture not even two years old stuffed into our inadequate attic space, and you couldn’t put a car in the garage if you were Houdini.
We have been very busy during our first 2 ½ years, and our home is a far cry from the empty rooms that greeted us that first month.
To be honest, though, we’ve been happy this way. The thrill of the renovation, the rush of adrenaline that greets you when the automatic doors swish open to welcome you at IKEA, the friends we’ve made at Lowe’s — it was a wonderful couple of years, even if some part of our home has been torn apart every month since we got here.
A Video Started It
Then my mom came down for Thanksgiving last year, and while we were visiting and sharing what had been happening in our lives, she jumped up a little and said, “Oh! Have you seen ‘The Story of Stuff’? I’ve got to show you ‘The Story of Stuff.’” And before I knew it we were watching her pull up a video online. (If you’ve got some time to spare, you should watch it too, at www.thestoryofstuff.com.)
In the video, Annie Leonard explains the cycle of our stuff, from extraction to production to distribution to consumption to disposal. She points out that we are working more than ever before so we can shop more than we ever have before. She talks about planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence — the phenomenon of buying the shoe with the chunky heel one year because that’s what’s in style, and then the skinny-heeled shoe the next year, and so on and so forth.
I’d be lying to you if I said Jonathan and I weren’t impacted by this video, and we could certainly see how we had fallen into the pattern of mass consumerism, even when the objects we are buying aren’t even remotely necessary. Compelling as it was, though, we kept right on shopping as we always had, and I didn’t give the video a second thought until Sunday, Jan. 9, 2010, when I decided to show the video to our youth group to see what kind of discussion would ensue.
I think it was halfway through the second viewing of the video with the senior high that I felt the idea hatch. In the video, Victor Lebow, a retail analyst in the 1950s, is quoted saying. “Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption.”
As a clergy person I couldn’t help but feel a little alarmed by the realization that I might be doing that very thing. So I decided that something drastic might be in order — not to punish myself or to pass judgment on myself or others, but more as a curiosity. What would it be like — what would I learn? — if I went an entire year without shopping?
Rules of Engagement
Once home after youth group I tentatively pitched my idea to my husband, and to my joy and dismay he quickly and enthusiastically agreed to the plan: no more stuff in the house until 2011. We decided to call it the Stuff Stand-Off 2010.
We jotted down the following rules of engagement:
Groceries and other household necessities (kitty litter, toothbrushes) will be permitted during the year of the Stuff Stand-Off.
Gifts for others are permitted, but there must be an occasion. No more trips to IKEA to buy curtains for your sister and her husband, just because it would be fun. (Sorry, Kate.)
Anything that we use that needs to be replaced is also allowed: paper for the printer, staples, etc.
Anything already in motion stays in motion — e.g., our magazine subscriptions.
If we discover that we really, really need something, we can take it second-hand (if offered) from a friend or acquaintance.
We will gently suggest that our friends and family help us with this effort by not purchasing “stuff” for us, even if it’s a holiday or birthday. If something is given to us that is outside our control or despite our asking, we are committed to remove one item from our house for every item that comes in.
With our rules in place, we toasted to our Stuff Stand-off, eager and excited to see what the year would be like.
A Bit Anticlimactic
In some ways, it would be impossible for me to describe the year in just a few short paragraphs. But in other ways, it ends up being something of a boring story.
At first it was extremely difficult not to shop. I discovered that on bad days at work, my first inclination was to rip up something in my house and redo it. I had to learn that buying T-shirts or other souvenirs was not the only way to mark a memorable and significant experience. I had to get over the fact that some of my pants and sweaters felt frumpy and outdated.
After a couple of months, though, something unexpected happened. We got used to it. We weren’t going into stores anymore, so we didn’t miss the fact that we weren’t bringing anything home with us. And while sometimes I pined for a new pair of earrings, I grew accustomed to the fact that what I owned was what I owned, and I stopped wishing for new things.
We learned to think outside the box. When I had an ordination certificate I wanted framed, instead of rushing off to Michael’s, Jonathan made me a beautiful frame with glass from an old picture and wood we had in the garage.
I started a blog early in the year to chronicle our experience but discovered after a month or so that there wasn’t much to say. We adapted to a new way of living, and while I am still desperate to paint my hallway, we learned to be patient and live with the house the way it is — even to be grateful for it. We started reading more books, playing more board games, and spending more time with friends.
A Year of Discovery
And if you’re wondering if we saved a whole bunch of money, the answer is no. We didn’t.
It took us just about a year to pay off the purchases from previous years, which was certainly a huge help, if a sobering discovery. We also realized that we had more money to give away, which we felt compelled to do, especially because we are aware of what a luxury it is to even take part in this kind of experiment.
Much of the world isn’t afforded the kind of excess that put us in this place to begin with. So without question we are in a better place than we were a year ago.
That said, this doesn’t mean that I’m not desperately excited to shop again in 2011. I’m down to a couple of pairs of pants that I can wear to work where the hems aren’t falling out or there aren’t holes in awkward places. And we’ve got several home improvement projects lined up for the spring.
But I think what our Stuff Stand-off did teach us is that we don’t need these things the way we felt we needed them before. We will certainly shop again, but we will do it cautiously — purchasing fewer, higher-quality items instead of piling up cheap clothes and furniture that needs to be replaced after just a few months.
When we do shop, we’ll likely be more discerning about what really needs to come into the house. And most importantly, we’ll try not to use shopping or home improvement as a Band-Aid for a bad day.
For that matter, I’ll probably keep my maroon sneakers. They are still comfortable, and the wax reminds me of a great Christmas pageant at the end of an important year of discovery.
The author, the Rev. Meaghan Kelly, is associate rector at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Southern Pines.
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