Our experiment began the next day, and within a few weeks, because we could no longer run out for a new plunger, the latest Sting CD or even a pair of socks, Tim and I noticed that we were taking fewer trips to the gas station. We also discovered our hidden fix-it abilities, which we applied to a broken DVD player (we only needed to clean the lens cover), a busted birdhouse that just needed a few nails, a ceramic bowl (which we painstakingly reassembled with superglue) and numerous other items that previously would have been dumped in the trash. Why had we been spending our hard-earned cash to replace these things when it was actually fun to fix them?
Holidays, such as Easter, were transformed into creative occasions. In our zeal to acquire store-bought seasonal kitsch, we’d failed to notice that we had a lawn full of real grass that was just as suitable a basket-filler as the shiny plastic kind. And for Easter goodies, we’d overlooked a box of beads easily transformed into necklaces, decks of playing cards we found in old crates and half-empty bottles of bubbles. For Christmas, however, the biggest consumer holiday of all, refurbished trinkets would not suffice. With this in mind, I began to tuck away extra items that came our way, such as books passed on by friends. I rescued two tennis rackets from the storage unit and found an unused game of Operation in a forgotten corner of the attic. I helped my friend clean out her house and scored a wealth of items her daughter no longer wanted, including a slightly used cell phone. On Christmas morning Jenna—phone in hand—whispered to us, “How did this happen?” and each child seemed unusually grateful for all that lay before her.
Not every moment was imbued with the enlightened feelings of personal betterment: Each of us at some point endured bouts of suffering. Consider vacuum bags, which were disposable but not depletable, forcing me to repeatedly empty and re-staple the one we had. When the kids came down with colds, a vaporizer would have eased their pain. Alas, we didn’t own one, so we placed a decorative water fountain in their room to moisten the air.
Nor did living out this idea restrain me from conjuring up new schemes along the way. Enraptured by our minimalism, in August I suggested we have a garage sale. “And sell what?” my exasperated husband asked after a dumbfounded pause.
“Well, we have clothes we don’t wear, toys we don’t play with and CD’s we never listen to,” I said. “Why do we need 30 screwdrivers and 6 hammers?” We earned a few bucks at the sale, but more importantly, we experienced a satisfying amount of de-cluttering and community bonding. A grateful Goodwill employee even collected the leftovers.
Word of our experiment elicited a spectrum of reactions from friends, some of whom decided to try something similar. My parents, on the other hand, wondered out loud if we had become destitute—why else would we voluntarily suffer so? Most shocking were those who perceived our experiment as an assault on America itself. One friend even said, with utter seriousness, “This could single-handedly bring down the economy!” Is it really the responsibility of a middle-class family to spend in excess, and how and when exactly did this expectation of consumption become a patriotic imperative? In December, we celebrated the year’s end with a week in Maui. Our feasting, snorkeling and exploring ate up most of our savings, but we felt we did our part to buoy the 2003 economy.
On January 31, 2004, our experiment came to a close. It took us almost three months to buy anything new again. We had simply gotten out of the habit. Our first purchase was a pair of dress socks for Tim.
When people ask me what we learned, I always wonder where to begin. Do I talk about the unexpected feelings of freedom? Our newly acquired repair skills? The seemingly effortless and generous flow of used items that came—and continue to come—our way, or our deeper connection with those around us?
Recently I read a newspaper article that reported, “Black Friday turned into black-and-blue Friday at the Boise Towne Square mall.” The lure of bountiful bargains at an Idaho shopping center had drawn thousands of people to wait in the cold on Thanksgiving Day for a scheduled 1 a.m. opening. When the mall entrance was unlocked, chaos ensued. The crowd knocked a glass door from its frame, and the stampede resulted in several injuries requiring assistance by paramedics. It’s hard for me to accept that such behavior is the result of brain chemistry alone.
One thing the year did not cure, however, was my pursuit of ever more novel ways to improve my family’s lives. About a year ago, I began to feel that we five were over-scheduled and that we spent our days madly rushing from one activity to the next without the chance to truly appreciate the present. “Where is that magical valley of existence called ‘the Now?’” I wondered. And then I had a crazy idea… —KCM