The devastating Alberta floods in 2013 displaced over one hundred thousand people throughout the region. Calgary resident, Julie Phillips, was one of those affected.
The flooding forced Julie to find a new home because the place she was planning to move into was uninhabitable. Thankfully, one of her friends, Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz, kindly offered up a room in his apartment. The only problem: there was room for Julie, but not for her stuff. Forced to downsize, Julie had to give away the bulk of her possessions.
The experience left her shaken, but also put her on a new trajectory. Less than a month later, Julie would take downsizing to a whole new level, and she would do it on her own terms. Together with Geoffrey, she decided to try living a year without buying anything. They called their project the Buy Nothing Year.
I recently had the chance to talk with Julie about her radical life experiment in minimalism, and what she learned from the experience.
Can you tell us about Buy Nothing Year and how it came about?
JP: Buy Nothing Year was a “one-year life experiment in not buying sh*t.” Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz and I started it in 2013, when I moved in with him after the place I was planning to move into was damaged in the Calgary flood. Geoffrey kindly offered me his spare bedroom, but he did not have the space for me to bring any of my other furniture or belongings. In a matter of days, I gave most of it away to friends and folks who were affected by the flood. I had a small meltdown about two weeks after I moved in when I came home from a trip to find Geoffrey had taken a pile of my things to Salvation Army. Even though I said I was okay parting with the stuff, I felt panicked from letting so much go.
That prompted us to start questioning why we hold on to so much stuff, and why we place so much value on material things. During one of our first nights together as new roommates, over a bottle of wine, we came up with the idea to go a year without buying anything.
We looked around our place and realized we could probably do with a little minimizing, but could we really go a whole year with only what we had? We wanted to see the effects it would have on us personally and socially, and it was an opportunity to put our values of sustainability into practice.
We didn’t do a big spend before the project. Instead, we just started… “Start before you’re ready” and “Shoot, ready, aim” were two of our favourite expressions at the time, and we watched Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk on “The art of asking.”
Geoffrey, who has an undergraduate degree in psychology, designed our social experiment using a therapeutic technique called “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” (ACT), which acknowledges that we would make mistakes, but could still stick to the program. For the first three months, we cut out spending on material goods, such as furniture, clothes, and house wares. Then, starting at the three-month mark, we cut out all services like eating out, coffees, haircuts, dry cleaning, and transportation (bus passes and gasoline).
For the final month of the project, we intended to cut out all food purchases, but by the time we reached that point we decided to scrap that aspect. Our garden hadn’t started growing and we didn’t want to dumpster dive. We also felt that the project already had so many components – consumerism, personal finances, saving, minimalism, environmentalism – that to go without food purchases might change the tone of the project. We realized that a month without purchasing food could be its own distinct experiment, so we decided not to do it.
What was your working definition for “buying nothing”? Did you impose any rules, or have any exceptions as part of your experiment?
JP: Through the whole project, the only things we paid for were food from grocery stores, rent and utilities (including cell phone and Internet). We made our own cleaning products and laundry detergent, but found dish soap hard to make. It was always streaky, didn’t bubble and didn’t seem to clean our dishes; so we purchased dish soap.
What products were the most challenging for you to give up?
JP: For me, it was most challenging after the three-month mark when we cut out services. I didn’t realize how much my social and professional lives were based on going out for drinks, coffees, shows, and meals. It was hard for me to shift my lifestyle away from these types of experiences. As I started to change my habits, though, I noticed how much money I was saving, which made it easier to stick with it.
It was also hard to give up my car. I like being busy and doing a lot in a day. Not being able to drive really limited what I was able to do and where I was able to go. I had to slow down. It was also hard not to travel. I ended up taking a trip to see a friend in Seattle after one of her family members died during the project. Those were the types of things that we couldn’t anticipate before we started the project.
I also learned that any time I spent in a mall made me want to spend, so I just stopped going into them. I still stay out of malls, even though the project ended almost a year ago.
I’m curious, what was the very first thing you purchased when the year was over?
JP: An electric tea kettle for my grandmother. She wanted a white one so it matched the other appliances.
Doing such a radical social experiment must have been a life-altering experience. What were some of the biggest life lessons you learned along the way?
JP: In many ways, I felt like I was re-learning values my parents instilled in me from my childhood: to appreciate what you have, to not spend mindlessly, to fix something if it’s broken. I grew up with a prairie mentality of conserving food and money. I remember buying my first clock radio as a kid with allowance money and agonizing over the decision for weeks. I wanted to buy something useful, but it still felt indulgent. As I got older, I just started buying things as I needed and wanted them. This project felt like a process of remembering things I already knew, but somehow had forgotten.
We’re surrounded by so many powerful marketing messages and invitations to spend. One of the biggest thing I learned was just how privileged many of us are in Canada, that one of our problems is we have too much. It was really a reminder to be grateful and appreciate what I already have. It made me feel resourceful. I think I’m a happier person compared to when I started the project because I’m no longer comparing myself to other people or telling myself I’ll be happy “once I get a new haircut, a new pair of shoes, go for a vacation, etc.” It was a very personal, introspective experience.
I also learned better financial management skills. I track my finances now. Geoffrey taught me to “reconcile my accounts” monthly. It’s given me more confidence and it is freeing. I’ve learned to live very lightly, so I have space, time and money to do the things I have always wanted to do.
When I was at a point of absolute minimalism, I discovered it was the people who made my world. Support from friends and strangers who contacted us to offer skills, resources, time, encouragement; time with Geoffrey and meals with friends and family. Those are still my most positive, important moments and memories from the project, and they continue in my life now.
How do you think sharing your story has impacted others in your community?
JP: We had many opportunities to speak at community events, like Pecha Kucha Night Calgary, Nerd Nite Calgary, and Calgary Mini Maker Faire. We blogged and had an online presence through social media, which connected us with people from around the world. It was wonderful to see how far our project spread. Even though the project is finished, people are still interested in it.
We heard stories from people who had to stop buying things for personal or financial reasons, and from people who have started their own versions of the project. I have seen the impact on people who started minimizing, making space in their homes and lives, giving things away and learning to do and make things for themselves. I think it’s a really empowering movement that helps people to increase their satisfaction levels, while also making communities stronger.
Learning to be happy with less, minimizing and resisting consumerism are habits that do more than just teach us better money management skills. They also help to diminish the power that marketing messages have on our sense of self-worth. And they encourage people to connect and share with each other, and I think that helps to strengthen communities.
Can you tell us a little about the work you’ve done to help promote the minimalism philosophy?
JP: We have done a lot of public speaking and interviews with media, which is how many people have heard of our project. We both volunteered our time during Buy Nothing Year with various community festivals and events. We met a lot of people who were interested in what we were doing. In Calgary, our project was really regarded with curiosity because it is such a consumer-driven city (more than other prairie cities).
As well, we have both taken the philosophy of Buy Nothing Year into our day jobs. I work with arts and community associations, such as Slow Food Calgary and the Alberta Media Production Industries Association, and my new minimalist perspective really influences the work I do with these organizations. I’ve also noticed that since the project, I am more mindful of the types of organizations I get involved with. It’s very important to me that our values align. There are minimalist chapters in many cities, but I haven’t been involved with these.
Going cold-turkey on consumerism is not for everyone. However, it’s fair to say that most of us could benefit from scaling back at least a little bit. How would you sell someone on the idea of adopting a minimalistic mindset?
JP: I can speak to the benefits I personally experienced from doing the project. I feel more self-aware, more financially responsible, and better equipped to make ethical purchasing choices. I’m now more resistant to marketing messages and my self-confidence is no longer linked to consuming. I feel healthier because I’m walking and cycling a lot more. I’m saving money by not paying for parking and doing free activities with friends.
Adopting a minimalist lifestyle has given me the freedom and flexibility to spend only when I see fit, without feeling pressured by other people. Learning to build things and fix things for yourself is really empowering too. There are so many great how-to videos on YouTube.
From a more global perspective, I’ve learned to ask more questions about how products are being made. Who is manufacturing them? Where do they come from? What are the living and working conditions there? We hear there are people living on less than a dollar a day in many parts of the world. Increasingly, I have difficulty being okay with that. Colin Beavan (No Impact Man), who became a great mentor during our project, once said something along the lines of, “If you don’t come out of a project like this as an activist or having a spiritual experience, you have no soul.” I agree; doing this experiment has been transformational.
Disconnecting from consumerism is not easy. What tips would you give someone considering a more minimalistic lifestyle?
JP: Start slow. Maybe one drawer at a time if you’re minimizing in your home, or “buy nothing” one day a week if you’re trying to spend less money. Doing it with someone else is really helpful and keeps you on track. I couldn’t have done it without Geoffrey. Having a plan or a goal in mind can be useful too. Also, paying attention to the things that feel good can be incredibly motivating. Through our blog and media interviews, as well as talking with each other, Geoffrey and I were constantly reflecting on what the experience did to us. I expect it will be different for everyone, depending on their goals or desired outcomes. Our project was rooted in inquiry and discovery; we had no idea what we wanted to take away from it. That made the project a lot of fun, but also scary at times.
I would also recommend talking to people in your life who you think live minimally and ask and observe what they do. There are lots of great websites, blogs and e-newsletters about minimalism. We continue to post a lot of articles to the Buy Nothing Year Facebook page. I found that it helps to read not only about practical tools for minimizing, but also the social and environmental effects of over-consumption. While a lot of these impacts are systemic and the responsibility of industry to change on a large-scale, changing our personal habits is also part of the path to a sustainable future.
What advice do you have for someone who has an amazing idea for their own social change project, and wants to make it a reality?
JP: Start it! Start today. It’s going to change and shift as you go along, and that’s all part of the journey. Start before you’re ready. Just talking to people about it is enough to start putting it into motion. I think everyone should do a life experiment at least once. You’ll develop so much resilience, and it will inspire the people around you. This is where true change comes from – inspiring each other to be better.
Julie Phillips is a connector, storyteller, consultant and volunteer, especially in the arts. Her work centres around active citizenship and digital media. Visit www.julieish.com for more information.