Calgary friends expand ‘buy-nothing’ idea from one day to an entire year

·National Affairs Contributor
They'll get you in the end

Items at the end of grocery store aisles—or "ends caps"—aren't necessarily the best-priced merchandise. Retailers often work with vendors to promote products in this high-value space, so do a comparison with similar items elsewhere in the store.

International Buy Nothing Day is perhaps a commendable way to draw attention to our consumer culture and obsession with "things."

The event has been around since 1992 and gets mixed reviews. This piece in the Guardian last year likens it to trying to urge hormonally overcharged teens to practice sexual abstinence.

Whether you think unbridled materialism is helping destroy the Earth or are simply concerned about its impact on your wallet, the idea of doing without has some merit.

But is it realistic to take the concept to extremes, the way a couple of Calgarians is doing?

Roommates Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz are heading into the third month of Buy Nothing Year, which they're chronicling on this blog.

[ Related: STUDY: Consumerism Is Making Us Depressed And Anti-Social ]

They're steadily eliminating the things they buy and hope that by the end of the experiment next July, they won't even be buying food.

The pair grew out of a conversation after Szuszkiewicz, 30, offered Phillips, 28, a room in his home after the apartment she was going to rent was damaged in last June's flood.

"We talked a lot about our relationship around 'things' and how we just accumulate a lot of stuff," Szuszkiewicz told the Huffington Post. "We wanted to be less attached to things, wanted to buy less."

Szuszkiewicz, a psychology grad who studied behaviour modification, used his knowledge to set up a program to gradually wean them off spending. They've already cut non-essential household items such as clothing and home furnish, HuffPost says, along with services and spending on non-material pleasures, including haircuts, cab rides, dining out, booze, even transit passes.

Phillips gave away her broken-down car and uses a bicycle, while Szuszkiewicz walks to work, they told Metro Calgary.

The final two months of the experiment calls for them to cut out buying food, instead using food-share programs, growing their own and even dumpster diving.

The gradual approach to reach buy-nothing nirvana is crucial, said Phillips.

"If you try to change too many things at one time you're more likely to fail or lose motivation,' she told HuffPost.

In his latest blog post, Szuszkiewicz said he's surprised how time seems to be flying as they enter the third month of their project.

"When I first started this experiment, I was literally counting down the days like I was serving a prison sentence," he wrote. "Now, I feel like I only have a vague sense of time passing as I watch my clothes get a little rattier."

Szuszkiewicz said he was able to save two thirds of his take-home pay in August.

"It is a clear indicator to me how unintentionally I was spending my money before. I am impressed with this savings ratio so far, but I know I can do better."

The buy-nothing experiment has turned out to be less difficult than expected, he wrote, and the benefits have outweighed the loss of material things.

"The increase in time, the clarity of focus to do the things I am passionate about, and the ability to connect with people free from money, has led me to branch out of my comfort zone."

"Stuff" gets in the way of finding true happiness, Szuszkiewicz said.

"When we get down to the nitty gritty of what it means to be this human animal creature, our needs are very basic. Happiness is a basic condition to humans that is not found in any store."

So then, money can't buy happiness.

Phillips told Metro Calgary they don't want to be seen as "extremist hippies living without electricity," but their experiment seems like the kind of thing only members of a wealthy bourgeois society can indulge in.

We already have people living the buy-nothing ethos, wearing old clothes, dumpster diving and doing without even the simplest luxuries. They're called the homeless. Many would doubtlessly roll their eyes at Buy Nothing Year.

[ Related: Mom vows to fight ‘kiddie consumerism’ by spending no money on her son in 2013 ]

Whatever you may think of it, global capitalism has succeeded in lifting millions around the world out of poverty. Its shortcomings are obvious — yawning income gaps, often putting the economy ahead of the environment — but I suspect few of the Chinese and Indian citizens who've moved into the middle class in the last couple of decades would willingly give up their gains.

We certainly should reconsider our wasteful culture of disposable consumerism, as the Guardian observed last year.

"So perhaps it's time for a new kind of materialism, based on an economy of better, not more: one that is rich in the good-quality work created by providing useful services, that makes things which last and can be repaired many times before being recycled, allowing us to share better the surplus of stuff we already have."

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