What I Learned From My No-Buy Year

Photo by Piotr Szulawski on Unsplash

I stood in front of my closet at the end of 2019, marveling at how much stuff I could accumulate in one tiny apartment. How many quarter-zips does one person need? After cleaning everything out, I set myself a New Year’s Resolution: stop buying stuff. For one year, I would only purchase experiences, gifts for others, and a few essentials (hey, deodorant is a non-negotiable).

Needless to say, when COVID-19 turned the world upside-down, my no-buy year didn’t go as planned. 

Even though I ended up making quite a few purchases this year, I have a much healthier relationship with consumerism than when I started. Here’s what I learned along the way:

It’s not the stuff, it’s the mindset

What I learned from my no-buy year is that money can buy happiness, if you approach it in the right way. I reverse Marie Kondo-d my way to joy, asking myself, does this item in my cart spark joy? The answer, in the case of a popsicle mold, was 1000% yes. I spent all summer experimenting with new flavors, from lemon-thyme to berry-coconut and cherry-mango. 

Did I need a popsicle mold? Of course not. But the purchase made summer nights on the porch feel much more magical.

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This same question also helped me say “no” to impulse purchases, like lipstick, a tie-dye sweatsuit, new sunglasses, and plenty of candles. There’s a big difference between something sparking joy and buying it to make myself feel better.

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Priorities can change

Halfway into the no-buy year, I lost my job. Pivoting to a full-time freelance lifestyle meant a lot of hunched shoulders and hanging out on my couch typing away, and the aches and pains just weren’t worth it. I bought a standing desk not long after, and it made working from home so much easier. Not only does it make me more productive, it’s a much more professional look for Zoom calls than from my bedroom.

Self-care is a non-negotiable

When I lost my job, I also lost access to the office gym. I knew I needed to invest in my workout routine, so I bought weights, bands, and a yoga mat. Now I have no excuses when my alarm goes off and working out is the last thing I want to do. However, it’s important to remember self-care isn’t always a bubble bath and a glass of wine, or something else you can buy. Sometimes it’s the harder things, like waking up at 7 a.m. for a morning run, or adding another helping of broccoli to your plate. 

Use purchases to enable experiences

One of my rules going into the no-buy year is that I could buy any experiences I wanted — flights, concert tickets, ceramics classes, wine tastings. That’s because in my head, I thought that I could only experience joy if I was doing something, especially since so many of my physical purchases (hello, a thousand pairs of shoes) go unused. 

But certain physical items create experiences, if you actually use them. I kept the spirit of the no-buy year alive by purchasing things like a fire pit that allowed us to roast marshmallows and watch the fireflies dance all summer long. And a board game or two that helped my family unplug after long days of remote work.

It’s okay to buy something nice for yourself

If there’s one thing I learned from my no-buy year, it’s that sometimes it’s nice just to buy something for yourself, for no reason at all. As I bought less, what I did purchase was what I wanted to buy for me, rather than something I felt like I should buy. When the cutest lemon bedding went on sale, I bought it for our bedroom even though we had two sets already. Now I smile every time I wake up, because the bedding is just for me.

The thing to keep in mind? Set yourself some boundaries with spending, whether it’s a separate budget for fun items or a rule like mine — rather than trying to make it a whole year without buying anything, I keep myself to no more than one item a month, if at all.

Originally published on November 30, 2020.

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