buy nothing

Before I Learned to Buy Nothing, I Tried to Purchase It All

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When you don’t know what to do, buy nothing. If there’s anything I’m certain of over the last 36 years, it’s this. The second thing I’m certain of is that younger me wouldn’t have believed a word of that first sentence.

As a serial shopper, I don’t think I could have processed the concept of not spending money. Shopping was equal parts sport and socializing. The thrill of a bargain was evenly matched by the joy of being the first in my friend group to land a luxury item du jour. If I wanted to catch up with family or friends? We met at the mall, of course.

And let’s not even speak about the number of times I tried to use shopping as a salve for some kind of stressor. If you would have told 25-year-old me that we were in a pandemic, possibly headed for a second one while barreling headfirst into a climate crisis with a dash of fascism on the side…and I wasn’t trying to “shop it off”, I would have laughed. Or fainted.  

That’s because before I became a saver, I was a spender. Before I learned to buy nothing, I tried to purchase it all.

From Impulsivity to Scarcity

When I first fell in love with personal finance, I reflected on my situation and determined I had a money problem. More specifically, I felt like I didn’t have enough money. There’s certainly some truth to that, as I was a relatively new teacher with a car payment and a mortgage. To say funds were tight is an understatement.

Eventually, I realized I had an impulsivity problem more than a money problem. Every free dollar that wasn’t claimed by a bill went straight to a store somewhere. Whether it was replacing bathroom fixtures or buying five pairs of the same espadrille (if one color is good, all of them must be better?!), I spent every cent I could as soon as they showed up in my checking account.

As I attempted to counter impulsivity with intentionality, I fell into another money trap: scarcity.  

Even as we sorted out our finances and made huge financial strides over the years, I found myself scared to spend. It didn’t matter how much our investments grew or our mortgage shrank. When I was spending, it was couponing and hoarding.

While I was spending considerably less time at the mall, I was still packing our house full of things–things we didn’t need. Instead of adding to rack after rack of unworn espadrilles, I was lining our basement shelves with bottle after bottle of contact solution that I couponed down to just a few pennies per bottle.

Even though no one in our house wears contacts. Or glasses.

In a massive overcorrection in response to overhauling our spending habits, I was still accumulating things and dealing with money in really unhealthy, albeit new, ways.

It Took Buying Nothing to Feel Abundance

After a closet shelving collapse, I realized something had to give. I couldn’t keep filling up our house with things. So I started to give things away.

I started how most people start: I found low-hanging fruit. Clothes that didn’t fit or gifts I never really wanted. I bagged them up and found some charity to collect them from my porch.

Months into the process of emptying our home, I realized something. Decluttering is an act of giving, so what we give matters. Most of us look at decluttering as a way to get rid of things that no longer serve us. That certainly is a big part of it. But what if we didn’t just give away our junk, treating donation bins like dumpsters we don’t have to pay for?

The first few times I gave away something that someone else truly wanted, I received messages like, “Are you sure?” or “Is this really free?” or “Why wouldn’t you sell this?”

Expensive nursing gear. Collectible video game console. Furniture, rugs, leather handbags, kids’ clothes, and toys. All the clothes and toys. There’s no doubt in my mind that we could have sold some, if not all, of the things we’ve given away; we got something much better than $5 here or $15 there.

We got to experience both intentionality and abundance: two things I’d been shopping for my whole life, and it turns out neither of which you can purchase. Our home is much more carefully curated. It feels more like a sanctuary than a storage unit. And I felt probably the wealthiest I will ever feel when I’m able to improve the life of people in my community.

My Real Life Approach to Buying Nothing

Just like I don’t claim the title of minimalist, I won’t pretend to have an impressive shopping ban streak of any sort. I still shop, even for shoes, from time to time!

But now, I rely on my Buy Nothing group as my first source and turn to other second-hand options after that. It benefits our budget, but it also ties me closer to my community–and hopefully staves off some of the havoc I single-handedly caused in my shopping-for-sport days.

And it also pushes me to give more. There’s a reason Buy Nothing groups encourage everyone to give and receive. Though giving has benefited our family tremendously, receiving helped me appreciate the real beauty of the cycle of buying nothing.

Ripple Effect of Buying Nothing

One person buying nothing might not seem like much in and of itself, but the butterfly wings of that choice can be felt–if not across the world–certainly within a community. It’s a form of mutual aid with a side of eco-consciousness. It’s also reshaped the way I spend and save.

Of course, I can’t claim to have cut ties with consumerism completely. But capitalism has far less of a hold on me than it did. And when I find myself looking out at the world and wondering what the future holds for any of us, buying nothing and giving more feels like the best step forward I can take.

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