What I Learned From My 6 Month Buy Nothing New Challenge

The impact of American consumerism is astounding. According to the Scientific American's report from Sierra Club's Dave Tilford, the US makes up less than 5% of the world's population, yet we consume "one-third of the world’s paper, a quarter of the world’s oil, 23 percent of the coal, 27 percent of the aluminum, and 19 percent of the copper”. We also contribute to half of the world's solid waste!

We're programmed and conditioned to buy, buy, buy before we even have the money or a job to do so. Advertisements flood our brains while we sit and watch tv, scroll through Instagram, and browse the internet. We jump on the next big sale at our favorite store, even if we have no need or use for those items. Better yet, we don't even need to leave our homes to buy most things.

I'm entirely guilty of consuming beyond my needs. I used to live for the dollar aisle at Target and perusing clearance racks, justifying my purchases by the lower prices. Don't even get me started about Christmas decorations and knick-knacks!

The awareness brought to me by the zero waste movement has helped me to consume less, but there are times where I fall back on those old habits. This year, one of my New Years resolutions was to challenge myself to buy nothing new for 6 months, starting January 1.

I didn't think it would be too difficult considering my new lifestyle and decided to give it a go. Let me tell you that I was nowhere near perfect. I bought new items, some that I needed and didn't feel I could wait to find used, and some that I really didn't need. 

Buying nothing new for any period of time is still a wonderful and eye-opening experience; one I think all of us should give a go. Trust me, you'll realize there are so many more things in life that bring you satisfaction and joy that aren't things at all. Like less clutter and junk in your home or taking time to enjoy a cup of coffee at the cafe because you forgot your travel mug. 

That being said, I wanted to share several lessons learned throughout the 6 months and how you can apply them to your own Buy Nothing New Challenge.

Choose a reasonable time frame

I'll be the first to admit that 6 months is a long time to not buy anything new. When I heard of people doing the challenge, there were folks that stuck to it for a whole year. I love a good challenge and I can be a tad competitive, so I set my sights on 6 months. What I learned is that the more time that went on, the more I lost motivation. I was super pumped, to begin with, and posted on Social Media a lot. But for me and my family in the circumstances at the time, 6 months was not reasonable and I'll get more into why later.

What I recommend is starting small, but not too small. If you choose to challenge yourself to 6 months, especially when you know some life changes or big events are coming, you might stress and burn yourself out more than needed. This should be a positive and humbling experience!

On the other hand, picking one week for your time frame would be way too easy to buy something you don't need as soon as that week ends. Perhaps, for example, you see a really cute pair of shoes on sale that you really want. The sale doesn't end until after your challenge, so you tell yourself it's okay to get them as long as you wait. But if you had a slightly longer time frame, the sale might end beforehand and you might be less tempted to buy them or you've forgotten about the shoes by then.

I'd say three weeks to a month is a perfect length of time for this type of challenge. You can keep it going after a month if you feel you want to.

List out non-negotiables

I granted myself the option to purchase secondhand items throughout the 6 months but had listed out non-negotiables. Non-negotiables are items that you would need to buy new, no matter what. They typically contain items that would be unsafe to purchase used or items that would make you uncomfortable buying used. This will help you to stay on track. If it's not on the list, you probably shouldn't buy it new. Your list might look different than mine, but here's what I typically wouldn't buy used, even without doing the challenge:

  • Food & toiletries (a given)
  • Socks & underwear (look for sustainable options)
  • Medicine & first aide items (human or pet)
  • Car parts (tires, windshield wipers, etc)
  • Some baby items (bottle nipples, pacifiers, bedding, car seat, etc)

Remember the Buyerarchy of Needs 

In general, I'm a pretty resourceful person but this challenge brought my resourcefulness to the next level. Our new, tiny little apartment has a tiny little kitchen with just a few, very narrow drawers. I could not for the life of me find a drawer organizer for our utensils that would fit (secondhand that is). After a few trips to the thrift shop, I almost gave up to go and buy one new. Luckily, I thought of a solution that was only to be temporary, but it's been a few months and it still works fine. I ended up making a drawer divider out of the cardboard from a cat food case and dressing it up with some pretty cardstock and modge podge. Hey, whatever works, works!

The Buyerarchy of Needs is a super helpful way to walk yourself through situations like mine. Although I went a little backward at first, I brought myself back to the "use what you have" portion of the hierarchy. Here's what that looks like:

Photo cred: Sarah Lazarovic

Create an accountability system

Like any challenge, competition, or diet, it's a good idea to make sure you're holding yourself accountable. Utilizing your friends or family is a wonderful place to start. You can ask a friend or family member before you start to sort of keep an eye on you and steer you away from those tempting aisles at Target. My husband does an amazing job at that, so he was great to have around when grocery shopping.

Accountability systems can also mean tracking your purchases. If you have to track them, you might be less likely to buy them. Some other ideas for tracking are...

  • Keeping a small journal to jot down any purchases
  • Holding on to all receipts for the duration of your challenge
  • Make a spreadsheet and enter in any purchases
  • Use Social Media to share your progress each day and write about purchases (Instagram stories are great for this)

Try not to justify a purchase with emotions

This one has always been really easy for me to do, as I'm sure it is for many of us. If I had a bad day, I used to go on a shopping spree. I would head over to Target or Homegoods or similar stores after work and just spend a stupid amount of money on clothes or items I truly didn't need. I would justify these purchases with a bad day, a bad week, or even with a little pity party. "Nothing fits me...I need a new wardrobe...nothing I have is cute or in style".

I found that even during my challenge, I was faced with these emotions and with some bad days. A few times I just went to Buffalo Exchange and justified my little shopping sprees with used items instead of new ones. Instead of simply buying one or two items that I really needed, I bought more and ended up not really liking them in the end. The concept of overconsumption still applies here and was another great reminder of why I challenged myself in the first place.

You will very likely have these moments, so it's important to have a game plan when you do. Try to be happy with what you have and remember why you're doing this challenge. If you come home with a truck-load of new clothes one day, try to reflect on the emotions and reasons you bought them in the first place. Do you really need them?

Life can and will happen, don't worry about it

Before my challenge started, my husband and I discussed moving back to CA and starting a family. I wasn't sure all of this would happen in the first 6 months of 2019, but OH BOY did it! He accepted a great position in CA only a few weeks before we found out we were pregnant. So, here I was, a couple months into my challenge and I had a crap-ton of things happening at once.

Surprisingly, I was really good at not buying anything for the baby right away. I think I bought one new onesie all the way at the end of my challenge and that was it! Moving into a new apartment that was a third of the size as our home in MD was the biggest challenge.

It seems like moving into a smaller place would mean you don't have to buy anything at all, but I quickly found out that wasn't true. After driving across the country and getting to see our new apartment for the first time, we realized we had no closets. I mean none except for a small one outside for storage space. We found ourselves rushing over to Ikea to buy a free-standing wardrobe, to try and beat the movers before they dropped off all of our belongings. We also had nothing to sleep on our first few nights and our old couch was too big, so we bought a day bed at Ikea to make up for both. I wasn't able to find anyone selling anything similar that would work in our space. These weren't the last of new items we had to purchase either.

The point I'm trying to get at here is, it's okay if life gets in the way. It happens! The important thing to remember is to get back on track as quickly as possible and to try and stick it out.

Spread awareness about what you're doing

You're likely to have some naysayers before, after, and during your challenge. It's so so important to stand your ground and spread awareness about what you're doing. Let them know why you've decided to do this and what you hope to gain from it.

Even though I lost a little steam after our move, I still had plenty of conversations about buying nothing new, some even with strangers. You don't have to launch a whole Social Media campaign to be effective. It's the word of mouth that really starts movements. And it all starts with you :)

There you have it, some simple lessons that I hope you can apply to your own personal challenge and even in your everyday efforts to buy less. I'd love to hear from anyone who plans to or has done the Buy Nothing New Challenge in the comments below or you can contact me here!


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