The Year of Buying Nothing New

You have approximately one million different travel mugs at home. I know this because I have previously owned approximately one million travel mugs. You buy one, it works OK, but you think maybe you’d like one with a handle, or a new one without a handle, or one from a coffee shop you visited on a vacation, or one that has a spill-proof lid (for real this time, not like the last spill-proof lid that wasn’t). Then suddenly you have a cupboard full of them in your kitchen.

You also have several pairs of pants you haven’t worn in over a year, or maybe at all, maybe a jacket you bought but never really liked after you brought it home. A chair you never sit in, some kitchen appliance that you thought was magic for the first week you had it but never used it again, a bike you thought had a place in your life but you rarely ride, a pair of skis a little too fat for most days on the mountain, maybe three extra pairs of sunglasses.

It’s easy for most of us to buy new things, mostly what we see as minor purchases. New stuff is fun, it’s sexy, fresh, and shiny. It’s harder to talk ourselves into not “needing” something, especially in a society that makes it easier to buy a new something than repair the old one.

My friend Britt has declared 2012 The Year of Buying Nothing New. Britt works in apparel design and development at Outdoor Research and is a snowboarder, mountain biker and surfer, and is trying to take a year off from our consumerist society. When I heard she was doing it, I thought it was pretty ballsy and inspiring (and totally reminded me of The Story of Stuff) — so I asked her if she would tell me about it.

What inspired the Year of Buying Nothing New?

It was a few things. First, I have some student loan/car loan debt, so I decided to make paying off debt the higher priority than any new acquisitions. Bit of a punishment/reward system.

A while ago I came across a story of some people who kept everything they couldn’t recycle, compost or reuse. One girl only had a pair of windshield wipers to “throw away.” Pretty inspiring.

I’ve also moved four times in 17 months. So many times I was asking myself, do I really need to keep that? There can be a lot of intention/identity in the stuff we purchase; I’ve been learning to let a lot of that go (both the physical goods and all the associations that go along with them). I just moved into a smaller place that reminds me of the vacations we took on the family sailboat as a kid. Tiny and tight, with only enough space for the necessities and the things I truly love.

So what are the rules? You obviously have to buy food, some gas, maybe a new radiator if your car’s goes out, right?

Necessities and replacement only, so I do have a few “new” things to replace the ones that were truly done. The “Purchased” list is food, toiletries, one wool t-shirt, a travel coffee cup for one I lost, a new windshield for the car, and a helmet for snowboarding because I can’t replace my brain. I’ve got a soft option on art, music and plane tickets/travel but haven’t indulged yet.

Luckily, I’ve got everything I “need.” Even though a lot of it is old, it’s still totally functional. I can do the sports I love … though my wetsuit is currently held together with dental floss and glue.

What are you learning, after almost six months of it? How has it changed your life?

I’m really aware of the sheer quantity of goods in the world. I work in manufacturing, so I think about the life cycle of goods . . . quality, quantity, desirability, durability, disposability. Yes, my livelihood depends on making more stuff (and as I love design, it’s really fun) but I’ll go for quality rather than “this will do” ever again. It’s raised my standards in all areas.

Rather than get dressed from current (new) favorites I try to pull something from the back most days. I knew I was onto something when it felt better to give gear away than get more.

Shopping and new goods can often be distractions, band-aids that cover other issues. It’s refocused my attentions. Rather than think about what I lack: what can I learn? How can I challenge myself?

Also, for a certain kind of person I think minimalism is luxury. Travel and live light.

What’s the hardest thing to not buy?

I do have iPhone lust. I am truly hoping that my old Razr dies soon. All you people that wonder “how did I get by without this thing?” — let me tell you: it’s pretty annoying. More planning, less distraction and a few times getting lost.

Does it come up a lot in conversation? How do you explain it to people? What do they say?

Not really. I’ve chosen to let it be an internal principle, not an external reason/excuse. There are only a handful of friends who know. Some don’t understand denying gratification, and some get it.

I don’t want to come off judgmental. This is an experiment. I feel deeply lucky and believe I have more than I need — this a yearlong pause to reflect on that. Bottom line is that life is about the friends and memories we make.

It’s funny, but I’d been beginning to slip recently. I’ve wanted a new commuter bike but this has just strengthened my resolve to not cave in. I’ll keep riding the 16-year-old GT Pantera till December.


20 replies on “The Year of Buying Nothing New”
  1. says: Aaron

    Go Britt! I like that “rules” are not too extreme; it’s more likely that you’ll be able to stick with it.

    I can’t believe you bought a new travel mug, though. I know a guy that could have given you a used one.

  2. says: Grant

    Cool! I support it!

    Around the first of the year I tried not buying anything for a month (except food and so on…). It was a very powerful practice and I recommend it.

    Thinking about reducing my impact, I’ve tried to buy used – I realize this is a free rider situation, like thrift stores; You can’t buy cool used clothes and gear so simply unless people are buying lots of new stuff. But it’s a step in the direction of sanity. buying used changed my outlook. When you want used stuff your less concerned with getting a supper mega dirtbag bargain.

    There is some stuff I can’t find used though, at least in a hurry. Just bought some Garmont Tower GTX boots this week… As you say, Britt, now I go for quality if I’m going to buy something. And I’m more focused – I’m gonna use what I buy.

    Good luck Britt!

  3. says: Elle

    Ooooh this is awesome!! I keep trying but can’t manage to shake the habit. Awesome Britt!! Thanks for the extra kick!

  4. says: Mike

    This is totally awesome! I’ve done a few month-long experiments in minimalism/anti-consumerism and it has forever changed my perspective on what I buy, what I still own, and what I throw away. Having low overhead in terms of “stuff” is awesome and as a result I’m incredibly mobile and focused on the important things: friends and adventures. I’m excited for you and your experiment, good luck.

    Life without the Landfill (recycling and composting only) –

    100 Item Challenge –

  5. says: Christine

    Ideas like this are really inspiring. Along the same lines, I just finished reading “The Man Who Quit Money” by Mark Sundeen and totally reccomend it. It describes the path of a man who completely gives up on using money. I’m nowhere near that hardcore, but I love the idea of quitting nonessential spending.

  6. Skis that are “too fat”? Brendan, we have to talk. Clearly your grasp of reality is slipping.

    I don’t really buy much in general so I never feel the need to restrict my purchases, but I do see people buying the most pointless piles of crap (IMO) and I wonder that they don’t have anything better to do with their time and money. I also wonder how well we could do as a society with just trading and giving useful things to others. For instance, why there is a huge market for mondo “off road” baby strollers when anyone buying them will only use them for short amount of time. Why aren’t they just passed to someone else? Why is there even a market for new baby strollers? Crazy.

    OK, off soapbox, back to work. Good interview, B.

  7. says: Will

    I got rid of one of my travel mugs in Los Angeles by throwing it against the roof of a crown victoria that came blasting through the crosswalk my wife and I were in as we were walking to go vote. It was full of coffee at the time. The next day, that mug was just shattered plastic and a crushed steel cup lying in the gutter.

    Maybe that’s where I got my start in bike/ped advocacy.

  8. My husband put a moratorium on travel mug buying when we were married for only two months. I couldn’t believe it. As a former Outward Bound trip leader, I was aghast. A brand new OB coffee mug was the one great perk of each trip. I had a billion of them. It made me feel rad. Like a seasoned pro. My husband has taught me many things–namely that money and things do not buy happiness. He is the sexiest, most awesome guy around. And he owns only two outfits–both of which include Carhartts, plus one suit, just in case. He spends his money on experiences and leaves buying stuff to others. He’s my hero.

  9. says: Steph

    The solution…live in New Zealand where everything is so expensive that purchases are very carefully considered. I have needed new stuff for years but if I can’t find the perfect thing I will not buy anything and just make do with what gets given to me (by loberg) xx

  10. says: Danna

    This is awesome and inspiring. Last July I decided to buy no new clothing for one year. I only made it until February when I finally couldn’t fit into my small stuff due to some newly acquired muscles. It was nice to finally have some… but it was super frustrating not make it to my goal. A few things I noticed- strangely I gave away a ton of clothes. If I was going to look at the same stuff for that long, I only wanted it to be the stuff I really loved. I realized the stuff I parted with was cheaply constructed and trendy… what remained were oddball thrifted items, plain t-shirts, essential technical gear, and a few pieces of nice handmade clothing by independent designers. If I spattered paint or olive oil on something, I washed it out by hand immediately, instead of just hoping it wouldn’t stain too much. I mended holes and sewed on buttons and altered pieces to fit. Every time I took a catalog straight to the recycling, or realized I hadn’t visited a store or website in months… it made me feel like I had a little more time or money. Thanks for this article. I’m definitely inspired to give it another shot.

  11. says: Nick Dubb

    I have been trying this for years, however I called my experiment “The years of having no money”. It really does give you a new perspective. My buddies with new osprey bags don’t hike faster than me, my friends with new fat skis don’t ski faster than me (maybe a little prettier). Once you get locked into making the stuff you have work, you realize that it already does, and will for a long time.

    -nice work, keep it up folks

  12. says: Liz

    Hey Brendan,
    Liz Fischer here – Mitsu’s friend – I worked for BCM a few summers ago. Anywho…I’ve been reading semi-rad…and think that it’s, well…more than semi-rad. I’ve nominated you for the Very Inspiring Blogger Award. You can read about it here…
    I’m back working two courses for BCM this summer, and looking forward to it. Hope you’re current adventures are treating you well.

  13. says: Kerry SK

    Thank you for publishing this blog, Brendan. And Britt, you are most inspiring and I wish you luck and resolve in this challenge. You are most definately right when you say: “Shopping and new goods can often be distractions, band-aids that cover other issues. It’s refocused my attentions. Rather than think about what I lack: what can I learn? How can I challenge myself?” What a wonderful new perspective on “denying gratification” or, rather, appreciating what you already have. Best of luck.

  14. says: Mike

    I was totally inspired by this piece! Just found this blog and already love it Brendan. Thank goodness replacements are okay cause I just broke my coffee maker of 16 years this morning and picked up a mr coffee maker tonight. I am going for no new things from Feb to Feb 2013. Any updates on how Britt did with her experiment?

  15. says: Rob in Pb

    I did a year of no new stuff. Thrift store OK, although I didn’t buy much even there. Some home repair stuff and a new rope were the exceptions. It wasn’t that hard. We live in a materially abundant society.

    But now I’m getting into mtn. biking, and it’s opened up a whole new world of consumerist samsara.

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