Editor's note: This is part of a series of personal stories on resolutions that worked — or didn't — in 2012.
New Year’s marked the end of my family’s year-long pledge to buy no new stuff, but we’re not headed on a shopping spree. It’s safe to say that my family (husband, 3-year-old daughter and myself) has pushed the “reset” button on our attitudes about buying stuff and I think the effect will be lasting. In fact, swearing off new purchases was one of the best things I’ve ever done.
We saw this as a triple bottom line approach, a way to take charge of our consumption and focus on people, the planet, and profits — or in our case, our pocketbooks.
To clarify, it didn’t mean we wouldn’t buy anything at all, but when we did need something, we’d try to find it used, or we’d borrow or rent. There were some exceptions — food, toiletries, medicine, underwear, and fuel.
We've never been big shoppers to begin with, but by swearing off any new stuff for 12 months, we definitely kept some cash in our pocketbook.
And it was easier than I expected. In fact, I found definitive rules liberating rather than restrictive. Shopping temptations are everywhere, but I found I just wasn't interested — partly because I wanted to live up to the challenge, and partly because I simply altered my habits.
Put simply, on one hand we became more mindful about how we spent our money, but on the other we were freed from thinking about it much at all! As side effects, we became shrewder and probably greener consumers too.
But, when it came to the planet, we didn’t delude ourselves that we’d be making a big dent. Still, it was satisfying to be doing something concrete to rein in our carbon footprint.
And the “project” sparked countless conversations that would rarely have taken place otherwise. It felt good that dozens of friends and acquaintances reported to me that they intended to do something similar — or at least try. The topic of consumerism was a far more productive entrée into conversations about climate change and systemic policy solutions than I ever imagined.
The people part was a cinch. Most of us know that amassing more stuff doesn't buy happiness. But it turns out that buying less stuff can do wonders for one’s spirits!
My husband and I found we had more time, energy, and spare change for family outings. We could be found hanging out at our community library, the park, the zoo, and our own back yard — and not in big box stores! I think we even spent less time online and more time together in the "real" world.
We didn’t eschew gifts over the past year. For her birthday, my daughter received her heart’s desire, a shiny, purple, (gently used) bike. She loves Goodwill and Value Village, where she’s learning she can “trade in” her unwanted toys for exciting, “new” ones. But overall, we were more thoughtful about gift giving, making things or treating people to something special to do or eat instead of things. Gifts this year included everything from date nights and spa-days to knitting classes. One friend received a year of monthly homemade pies!
My family is lucky to have pretty much all the creature comforts we could need — and then some. If anything, we have too much stuff. Still, there were a few times when I thought we needed something that we couldn't seem to find used. But the need tended to evaporate if I let it simmer a while rather than acting on it right away. This never felt like sacrifice.
On the contrary, we lived more simply, rushed around less, stressed less about where to put everything, ate better, and spent more time together. I'd say we lived more richly than ever.
Indeed, it's been a year of expansion, not contraction — and I see no good reason to detour from the path we're on just because it's 2013.
About the author: Anna Fahey is senior communications strategist for Sightline Institute, an independent, Seattle-based nonprofit research and communications center, where she oversees opinion research and distills best messaging practices on tricky topics like climate change and government. Find more of Fahey's writing on Sightline's blog, where a version of this post originally appeared. Prior to Sightline, Fahey received her MA in political communication from the University of Washington.