I’m excited to share with you the winning post from the My Secret to Saving contest, written by Becca.
The best way to save money is to not spend it in the first place. But how do you do that, when there are always so many things you want and need?
For me, I learned to do it the hard way – I went for a year without buying anything new.
Obviously, I bought some things new. I admire the hard-core freegans out there – people who dumpster dive for food – but I’m not one of them. So, food was purchased new.
So were toiletries.
And while it’s possible to buy socks and underwear second-hand, there are some things that are best left unconsidered.
But other than that, and with four exceptions, my husband and I went an entire twelve months without buying a single new thing.
No new clothes. No new shoes. No new toys for our baby girl. No new towels, or furniture, or accessories, or decorative items, or . . .
Well, you get the idea. For twelve months, we walked past every store display, every tantalising seasonal item, everything society told us we needed, and we said no.
Why Would We Do Something So Radical?
The weirdest thing is, saving money wasn’t our main motivator.
We did it, first and foremost, to be kinder to the environment. After all, when you buy new, you are purchasing something that will eventually, one day, take up space in a landfill.
When you buy used, you are saving someone else’s trash and giving it a new home. Sure, it’ll still end up in the landfill someday; but you are giving it a new home in the here and now; and recycling and repurposing are a great way to extend the life of someone else’s garbage.
The concept of not buying new isn’t something we came up with on our own. When I first read about The Compact I was a little bit appalled. Why would anyone do that to themselves?
But the more I thought about it, the more I was intrigued. Could we do it too?
My husband and I talked it over, and decided to give it a go. At the time we had one child, who was still under one. We knew that, by doing this, she would be getting homemade or second-hand birthday and Christmas presents. As we looked around the home we saw all of the things that looked old and tired, all the home improvement projects we wanted to do, and we knew that we would be putting them off.
But we wanted to do it anyway. We wanted to help the environment. We wanted to know if we could be happier with less. We wanted to know if we could turn our backs on the constant demands of consumerism, and do without.
What Did We Learn?
Quite a bit!
We learned that we didn’t have to buy new. We learned that second hand stores can meet almost all of our needs. We learned that people get rid of some really great stuff!
My daughter’s presents that year included an activity table, an antique Chinese doll (purchased for $35, but worth $500!), a piano keyboard, stuffed animals, clothes, books, blocks . . . All were used, but all were in terrific condition.
More than that, we learned to be satisfied with what we had. There were times when it was hard to walk past the colourful displays; but we learned that we didn’t actually need any of it. It was just stuff – newer stuff, cuter stuff, trendier stuff, sure; but at the end of the day, its function was being met with the older, not-as-cute, off-trend items we already had. Why buy new, when we could make do with what we already had?
But by far the most important lesson to me was something far more spiritual. Throughout the course of the year, as the weeks stretched into months, I learned that Buddha was right: Unhappiness is caused when you want something you do not have. But, while our consumer-driven world tells us that we can be happy by filling that want, a more lasting, true peace is to be found by simply not wanting anything. By (more or less) depriving myself of my wants for an entire year, I learned to stop wanting.
There is a freedom in not wanting. It isn’t just about saving money; it is deeper and more primal than that. Consumerism works by telling us that we aren’t enough. We can never be enough, because we can never have enough.
After all, if we have “enough,” we don’t need to buy more. But most of us already have more than enough – how many sweaters can you wear, anyway? And so shops come up with different variations of the same items: This season’s colours. This season’s cut. This season’s upgrade. All of it is designed to get you to spend money, by making you feel unsatisfied with what you already have.
When I stopped buying new, I forced myself to be satisfied with what I already had. At first it was hard. But as time passed, I stopped even wanting the newer, cuter, trendier things that I was conditioned to want.
When I stopped wanting, I learned that what I have is enough. I am enough. My worth is not measured in shoes. This new compassion extended beyond myself. I started to appreciate people for who they are, and not for who they wear. I became a gentler, more kinder person, because I finally understood that true beauty is more than skin-deep.
Where We Succeeded
A lot happened during our twelve months of not buying new. We faced new challenges, and had to face them knowing that the answer couldn’t be found in a store. So we learned to do without. We learned to make do. We learned to get creative.
For instance, when we started The Compact, our baby girl was barely learning to crawl. A few months later, she was getting into everything! We knew we couldn’t just run out and get a bunch of cabinet locks. We learned that rubber bands wrapped from one cabinet handle to another are a great way of keeping little ones out.
We had to get creative with presents, too. That was the year I made my father in law a coat rack made out of old railroad spikes. It may not have been the prettiest thing in the world, but it was fully recycled and repurposed, and, as he was a retired railroad worker, it was meaningful to him. Other presents were easier. My husband bought me some beautiful antique pottery. I gifted my mother some vintage linens.
One of our biggest successes was monetary! We didn’t go into this thinking we’d save money. That wasn’t even on the radar. But in a year of not buying new, we managed to save $15,000 out of a salary of about $35,000.
And it’s not like we were depriving ourselves. During that year, we went on two vacations. We took our baby daughter back to the US via Singapore to visit my American family, and we took a ferry to Tasmania to explore the northern part of that island (and eat lots of yummy Tasmanian cheese.)
Where We Failed
For the most part, we were successful. As I said, during the course of the year, we bought four things new, three of which were really not necessary:
During our year doing The Compact, a new Harry Potter book was published, and I knew I couldn’t wait for it.
Somewhere on the plane ride from Singapore to LA, we lost our daughter’s sippy cup. We tried two different second-hand cups, but she hated them; so when we found the type she liked, we bought it for her.
During the after-Christmas sales at the supermarket, I found a Christmas ornament I knew she’d like. Since we had already planned on collecting an ornament each year for her, I buckled and paid $1 for it.
The other exceptions was necessary: That was the year our washing machine broke. After discussing our options, my husband and I decided that buying a new energy- and water-efficient washing machine would be better for the environment than buying an older, less efficient model.
I could feel guilty about those purchases, but I don’t regret them. Harry Potter and tradition are more important than ideological purity!
Would I Do It Again?
With every part of me, I’d like to answer yes! But the reality is, it was hard work. How hard? Well, it’s been 10 years since we did The Compact, and we haven’t tried it again. I loved my time doing it, and I learned so much about myself, and about society. Those lessons stuck.
Since then, I’ve gone back to buying new . . . sometimes. But it’s never a first-resort. I’ll scour second-hand shops first. Sometimes I’ll put purchases off for weeks, until I’ve given up any hope of finding it second-hand; and by then, I’ve usually decided I don’t need it anyway. I’ll also get creative.
For instance, the other week I found a label maker, on clearance for only $10. This spoke to my inner geek. (And believe me, I’ve got a big inner geek.) All the things I could label! I suddenly had this fantasy of going around labelling everything in the house – every cord, every book, every food container, every sock. I agonised over which colour to buy, and then grabbed it and stood in line, excited about my new, super-organised life.
And then a funny thing happened. As I stood there, nearly salivating over all those labels, I thought, Do I need this? How much will I use it? Can’t I just use masking tape and a pen instead?
So I turned around, put it back, and walked out of the store. Suddenly, something that has been on my wish list for years seemed irrelevant and unimportant. A label maker? What’s the point, when I have a Sharpie and a roll of masking tape?
It’s a common scenario. Half the time, even after something has made its way on to my shopping list, I decide I don’t really need (or want) it after all. I find other solutions with things I already have, or I figure out how to do without it altogether.
This helps our bottom line. Our income has increased quite a bit since then, but we still manage to save about half of it. This means we never have to struggle to come up with the money if there’s an emergency. It means we are well on track with our retirement savings. It means that, recently, we were able to buy an investment property with cash.
We do this, without feeling deprived in our everyday life. We still have everything we need. We still go on vacations; we’ve already been on three this year. We never feel like we’re going without. We never feel like we’re going without, mostly because we don’t want anything in the first place.
We have two kids now, and they have lived this way almost since birth. My kids don’t give me long wish-lists for their birthdays. Their Letters to Santa typically read, “Dear Santa, thank you for the presents last year, I’ve tried to be good this year, if you come to visit please give me a present, I’m fine with whatever you think I’d enjoy.”
They are not selfish or greedy children; and they almost never ask for anything when we’re out shopping. They don’t have any unmet wants either, and again, it’s mostly because they don’t want anything in the first place.
Is It Time for You to Try Something Radical?
- Do you find yourself always wanting things you can’t have?
- Are you spending money you don’t have to keep up with the Joneses?
- Are your kids always asking for the latest game or hot designer?
- Would you like to find a way to just say no to consumerism in your own life?
- Would you like to save more money?
If so, The Compact might be just what you’re looking for.
It won’t be easy.
If you have kids or a spouse who likes the latest gadgets, you’ll meet with a lot of resistance. Even if everyone in your family is on-board, it’ll still be hard. It’s hard to ignore those messages that are all around us – the commercials, the catalogues, the store displays, the friends and neighbours who are always happy to display their latest purchases.
It’s hard to make that first step, and it’s really no easier to make the second, third, or fourth step. Each time you go to the grocery store or jump on the Internet you’ll be tempted, until suddenly one day, you aren’t anymore.
But it will be worth it.
You will find a new kind of peace as your bank balance steadily climbs. You will find a new kind of happiness as you realise that you are no longer filled with desire every time you see something new and shiny. You will forge deeper connections to your family as you learn to focus on each other, and you’ll be surprised to discover that you suddenly have money for that overseas trip, or those sailing lessons, or that trip to Disneyland.
If you think it’ll be too hard to go for a year without buying anything new, scale it down.
Try it for a month instead. Decide that each person gets five “cheat” items. Make an exception for Christmas gifts. Find a way to make it work for you.
Or you might decide to go even more hard-core – to dumpster dive for your food, or to give up shampoo and soap for a year. That’s fine, too. (But if you do that, could I ask you to please not sit next to me on that long-haul flight?)
Twelve months is a long time to go without buying anything new. But ten years later, it seems like it flew by.
I remember moments from that year: chasing after our daughter as she toddled along a beach in Tasmania; laughing in delight as she ran under a fountain Singapore; making snow angels with her in the deep powdery snow in my parents’ back yard in Utah.
I remember emotions from that year: the initial anxiety of walking past my favourite shop, knowing I shouldn’t go in; and later, the peaceful happiness that came from walking into that store and realising that I simply no longer wanted anything. I don’t remember ever feeling deprived. I don’t remember ever feeling like it was more than I could bear.
It was a choice: We chose to do something radical because we wanted to help the environment. And in the end, we helped ourselves.
We taught ourselves how to save. We taught ourselves how to turn our backs on consumerism. We taught ourselves that happiness isn’t something you can put on a credit card.
In the end, it was one of the best choices we have ever made.
How about you?
- Have you ever challenged yourself to avoid buying new?
- Would you be willing to take a challenge like this?
- What would be the hardest thing for you to not buy new?
Becca was born and raised in Oregon, but in college she met a dreamy Australian exchange student who she followed back to Austrailia. They have two gorgeous kids and live in a log cabin on twelve acres of Australian bush, complete with kangaroos, echidnas, kookaburras, cockatoos, and all sorts of lizards. As a family they enjoy travelling and sailing, and hope to combine the two someday by sailing around the world.