The idea began in July 2019, soon after I’d returned from a work trip through northern Namibia. There’s nothing like travelling to make you realise you have too much stuff.
I’d recently watched sustainable fashion writer Clare Press take a three-month ‘Buy Nothing New’ challenge on Instagram, and post-Namibia I decided I wanted to follow her example.
“An opportunity to celebrate old closet favourites,” I announced chirpily on Instagram, three weeks in. “Including this jumper I thrifted for $10, and a woven backpack I bought in Borneo a couple of years ago.”
What I didn’t mention in that post was the climate guilt also fuelling the decision, knowing humans consume 80 billion pieces of clothing annually, much of which quickly ends up in landfill. Also, my desire to declutter my closet and my brain. And to reclaim some of the money, time and energy that shopping consumes.
Because I’m aware of my tendency to overcommit and underdeliver, I started with three months. I made a pledge not to buy clothes, shoes, accessories, books or homewares. No kitschy fridge magnets in foreign countries, no physical gifts, not even second-hand stuff. No physical possessions at all, aside from essentials like food, cleaning products and replacement toiletries.
Tactics I used to get through my ‘No-Buy Year’
I’m not a huge shopper (although I can’t resist travel treasures and vintage clothes), but once I knew I couldn’t buy anything, I wanted everything. A new pair of jeans seemed suddenly essential to my working life. How could I finish my latest story in a ripped old pair of Levis? And how could I possibly get through yoga without those fuchsia micro-shorts?
I did some deep breathing and tried to remember what Pema Chodron, my favourite Buddhist teacher, said about desire. Something about watching it arrive, sitting with it, then watching it pass away again.
That’s when I decided to make a list, writing down everything I wanted as soon as the desire arose. That expensive pair of jeans, those yoga shorts, that Pico Iyer book, the unnecessary lip tint… I added it all. Every couple of weeks I’d review the list and – poof! – I no longer wanted the things on it. The momentary high I’d get from each purchase would almost always be outweighed, I realised, by the guilt I’d feel looking at my bulging closet and shrinking bank balance.
What did give me lasting satisfaction was unearthing some long-forgotten dress or top (the yellow silk jacket with the lace collar from the 1870s comes to mind) and wearing it again, as if for the first time. The rediscovery of an overlooked outfit felt like a creative act, and I was shocked by how much I actually owned once I stopped trying to acquire more.
Borrowing from friends was another tactic. A pregnant friend lent me a blue and white gingham floor-length dress that doesn’t fit her right now. I’ll return it once she’s given birth and I’ve tired of the dress. Brilliant.
I also found that each time I wanted to buy something, if I gave something away instead, I got the same dopamine hit.
Gifts were tricky. I gave a couple of ‘vouchers’ for my time – babysitting, mostly – which proved much harder than quickly popping into a store to buy a present. I gave my sister a favourite dress she had admired, which was difficult to part with since I loved it. And when I gave a girlfriend my copy of the iChing, which had been passed down to me, I wondered if she’d appreciate how precious it was or just think I was cheap for giving something third-hand.
Freeing myself from the desire trap
Once three months were up, though, I was hooked. I extended my embargo on purchases to six months, then 12. About halfway through however, the pandemic hit, which made the challenge both easier (less income for shopping) and harder (more time for online trawling). It also made it seem more important than ever to do better for our ailing planet.
About that time, I read an excellent book called The Future We Choose, which talked about something called the South Indian monkey trap – basically a coconut with a hole in it and a ball of rice inside. Monkeys put their hand in to grab the rice, only when they try to pull it out, the hole isn’t big enough for their clenched fist. If the monkeys let go of the rice, they’d be free. But they don’t. They’re trapped by their desire.
This, the book said, is how we behave as consumers. We buy, we use, we discard. Over and over, knowing we’re trapped but being so addicted to the cycle that we can’t let go. We know that what we’re doing is, in part, causing the fires and floods and droughts that are decimating our earth, but we desperately want to affirm our identities through the possessions that advertising promises will improve our lives. Our lives, which are full of so much beauty and magic we cannot see for all the stuff piling up around us.
That, really, was what the ‘No-Buy Year’ was all about: freeing myself from the desire trap. Pausing the constant churn of consumption gave me more time and energy to spend on getting out into nature, doing more for friends and family, having adventures, and reading and making things.
Moving past the want and focusing instead on need also helped me see more clearly how I could help others. It spurred me to crowdfund $1500 for a friend I met in Namibia, and donate to more charities, funnelling my money towards people who really needed it.
What happened after my ‘No-Buy Year’ was up?
Once the year was up, I did buy a few things. But I thought hard about how they were made and what would happen to them at the end of their life before I bought them, and I gave myself time to appreciate them before buying something else. I wanted less, since the ‘No-Buy Year’ had given me greater reverence for the things I had.
I felt lighter, physically and spiritually, and more creative, too. I finished writing my second book, and started a third. I began going to dance classes. Consumerism, I realised then, is really just misdirected creativity; an effort to express ourselves and our values, and to feel and appear original.
In a world hellbent on keeping us stuck in a cycle of doing work we don’t love to buy things we don’t need, taking a break from consumption seems to me one of the most radical and liberating things we can do. As far as New Year’s resolutions go, this one’s a cracker.
5 ways to make your ‘No-Buy Year’ easier
If you’re interested in giving a ‘No-Buy Year’ a go, here are some tips to help you along your journey:
1. Unsubscribe from newsletters and catalogues
We’re desperate to have the newest and the latest, but unsubscribing takes away temptation. Same with buying fashion magazines – it’s easier just not to.
2. Talk about your commitment
Staying accountable is key, so tell everyone – your neighbour, friends, social media followers. It might get more people involved, and there’s nothing like fear of public failure to keep you away from the ‘buy now’ button.
3. Stay off social media
Instagram, especially, is essentially a sales tool. During my ‘No-Buy Year’ I gave myself 30 minutes a day to post and interact, then I’d delete the app until I needed to post again.
4. Fix what you have
Develop a relationship with an alterationist, or learn to sew. Things like shortening dresses or hemming pants give clothes new life, and usually gives you the same hit as buying something.
5. Replace the habit
Write a list of things you love doing. Every time you want to shop, do one of those instead – reading, hiking, cooking, meditating, anything. You’ll be staggered by how much extra time you have.