Angela Barton was trying to spend more time writing and less working. She came across a group, The Compact, whose mission is to encourage others to commit one year to not buying anything new, food and life essentials excluded. She decided to take the challenge. After a year, it had evolved from a 365 day commitment to a new way of life. She is now three and a half years into it.
Here is a bit of her story.
What was the beginning of the first year like?
I immediately gave up buying new clothes, household items and non-essential extra things. Doing this makes you see how much excess stuff you have and you want to start getting rid of it. I started looking at my clothes and asking, ‘Why do I need new clothes every year?’ It is because society has convinced us of that and it is completely bogus. It is really easy to get great clothes at clothing swaps or thrift stores. I started this over three and a half years ago and have not bought new clothes since. I would have never believed that would be possible because I really like clothes.
The Compact allows for rules and exceptions. What were yours?
Most Compacters – myself included – make exceptions for bras and underwear, shoes, medicine, and health/hygiene/safety-related items like carseats, life preservers, and athletic equipment. Consumables and expendables would also be an exception to not buying new – food and alcohol, lightbulbs, car tires, etc. After the first year or two I added an exception for books. They are such a huge part of my life, and I wanted to support my favorite authors as well as authors I know. I also occasionally make an exception for a handmade item, but usually only as a gift.
I think one time I bought my niece new clothes because I wanted to and did not have that much time to think of a more creative alternative. A lot of times even with gifts I give experience gifts or I give something consumable like wine. I have posts that are all about the millions of things you can give that are actually really cool and consumable.
You started this three and a half years ago and are still doing it?
Yes. I did not plan on doing it this long, but after the year was over it was what I was used to. It is hard to explain. It is not like after the year was over I thought, ‘I can’t wait to go to Target and buy plastic stuff!’ The idea of going into a department store and spending that kind of money on clothes is just not something I want to do. With appliances and household things we find a lot on Craigslist and eBay. If you saw us we live very normally. From the outside looking in, it does not seem like we are lacking.
Did doing this change your social life at all?
It reminds me of Betsy [Talbot from Married with Luggage] and how she said when they started saving money how the people around them who really liked to go out and spend a lot of money kind of fell away. We do go out to dinner but not a lot. That is another exception.
We also purchase services. I get my pedicure. We would not go away with friends who have a ton of money, but we would go out to eat with them. We found more concerts in the parks and joined museums for the year. I think our social life is even better because of this.
I liked on your website how you said, ‘It is not about being frugal.’
I think a lot of people who read my blog are trying to spend less money on everything. For example, maybe they would go to a cheap store and spend just a little bit of money on something of perhaps lesser quality, whereas I try to buy something nice, but I buy it second hand. It is not about spending the least amount of money to me. It is more about lifestyle and the fact that our society is using all of these disposable items and where is all that leading? It is about being thoughtful of my purchases, but in the end we do end up spending less money overall because of this.
Do you have any idea how much less you spend per year doing this as comparison to before?
I would guess we spend $500 a month less or what comes out to be about $5000 or $6000 a year.
That is real money.
It is to me. It is all relative. I live in LA and there are people with a lot of money here. I equate it to a couple of trips for us. It is a lot.
Has this practice shown you where you were previously wasting money?
Yes, that is the first thing you learn in this. You immediately recognize the wastefulness of ‘one time purchases’ when you start doing this. There are so many options of borrowing, renting or sharing especially with tools and equipment. Every person does not need those kinds of things in their garage. You kind of see this consumer mentality of ‘you are supposed to have this,’ but when you are doing this you just see that you don’t need it. You end up sharing more things.
One thing I really like is when you posed the question, ‘Are people happier when they have more things, more possessions, more stuff? I have never seen evidence of it. So why do so many people pursue that course so relentlessly.’ Why do you think people pursue it so relentlessly?
That is a big philosophical question. I think we are programmed in the US to think that these things will make us happy as part of our consumer consumption culture. If you are not happy you must need a new house or a new car. It is sort of the easiest and first thing that we think will make us happy.
What, if any part of this, was a pain in the ass?
There were times that I allowed myself to say, ‘That is enough.’ We did a really basic kitchen remodel and we were so proud of it. We spent a little over $2000 and I think it looks just as good as some people who spend $50,000. My husband, bless him, had always wanted a particular refrigerator. It is the only consumerism oriented thing I have ever heard him want. He went out, I can’t tell you how many times to look at used models and every time there was something wrong with them and it just got to the point where it was like, ‘Ok, let’s buy the floor model.’ I regretted convincing him that it would be a good idea to spend that much time looking for a refrigerator.
A lot of times when I need to borrow something I go on Facebook and just ask. We went to the beach the other weekend and I went on Facebook to ask about borrowing a beach umbrella. I am not going to buy a beach umbrella to go to the beach twice a year.
Did you find any non-traditional ways of getting things outside of borrowing, Craigslist or eBay?
In LA a lot of things have sprung up in neighborhoods such as neighborhood swaps. There is also Freecycle. That was mostly good for me in giving things away without having to throw them away. I had not heard of it before this.
Freecycle is where you go on their website and say, ‘I have a lawnmower and don’t need it. Come and get it’?
I am curious how your life was before you started to go down this road.
I think it would be more interesting if I said I spent money like crazy, but I think doing this was the logical next step for me. But it was a big next step. I was already thinking about spending less. I saw the Story of Stuff video and that made the biggest impact on me. I did not want to be adding to the problem. I have always bought cars secondhand. I have never had a car payment. This was not a huge 180 for me.
I liked that you said that doing this ‘worked on your entire values system’.
The more you start realizing the amount of resources the United States uses in comparison to the rest of the world and who produces the stuff we use – it gets pretty disturbing. I try not to preach about it, but there is not anywhere near an equitable balance between us and the rest of the world. It is good to think about what you actually need and to stop yourself from thinking about what those around you have. There are those big huge SUVs that are so unnecessary and you just look at them and think they are spending $100s of dollars every few days on gas. It does not matter when oil is going to run out. It is going to run out. Why are these people using our resources in this way?
How was this received?
There are people from the very beginning that I think may have felt offended by this as if I was judging them, but most people said they were inspired and interested. There was the occasional odd reaction, but then I realized that somehow they felt threatened by me doing this.
What advice do you have for someone who might be interested in trying this out?
I would start by reading my favorite blog thenonconsumeradvocate.com. She is really popular in the frugal and non-consumer community. She is a regular woman with two kids in Portland. She started by trying this for a month and she has been doing it for five or five and a half years. I would say start there or just try to do it for a month and see how it feels.
One thing that totally took me aback was when, on your blog, you were talking about the art of borrowing. I had almost completely forgotten about such a thing. It was something we were always doing when I was younger, but it seems the practice has almost vanished from our culture. I can’t remember the last time I borrowed something.
This whole conversation would be funny to our parents or grandparents, but I think with so many people living by themselves or moving to the big city borrowing became less of something you would do. But in borrowing there is a way to feel a sense of community. Our neighborhood borrows and trades a lot.
Do you have any recommendations on how people can be more conscious in the buying process when buying new things?
Try to buy local. Get away from The Walmart stuff. This is always a conversation in the frugal community – how much more do you spend to get something local, handmade or organic? Can you spend $3.50 instead of $3.00 to get something from your local hardware store? I am also a big fan of Etsy and Novica.
Did this give you more time in your life?
In a funny way it did. Not because I was a big shopper, but there seems to be less time thinking about the maintenance and planning of things. I have always hated malls so I would buy clothes out of the catalogs. Then I would spend half my time sending stuff back that did not work. There is a certain amount of time you spend acquiring, storing and cleaning things. You start realizing you have too much stuff. I read somewhere that you spend the first 40 years acquiring and the next 40 years getting rid of stuff.
You can learn more about Angela at: http://myyearwithoutspending.com/