A few years ago, I bought nothing for a year. It seemed so simple on paper. Inspired by the OG Minimalism blogs – Zen Habits, The Minimalists, Becoming Minimalist, Slow Your Home – I loved the idea of a streamlined life, free from clutter and distraction. And so, in the January of 2012, I just stopped buying things.
That year was one of the hardest of my life – but one of the most eye-opening. I wrote about it back then, and again when I repeated another year in 2015, so I won’t repeat all of that here. Instead, I want to talk about the emptiness that I struggled with once the comfort of purchasing was taken away.
Think of all the reasons you might want to take some time out from the consumer norm. From experience, I was tired of the over-consumption of ‘stuff’. I felt that purchases had lost their meaning. I was worried about the impact that a relentless capitalist machine was having on our earth. Working in retail, the constant selling cycle began to sicken me. I thought that by giving up buying things, I’d feel freer, lighter, and ultimately happier.
It’s 2019 now and finally, I’m feeling those things. But giving up purchases wasn’t the easy fix I’d hoped for. Instead, I found myself at the beginning of a journey of self-discovery, crashes and raw truth that I never could have predicted. Buying nothing is relatively easy, once that impulse begins to fade. The hard line is dealing with what comes afterwards.
I bought stuff to feel like I was important. I bought stuff “because I was worth it”. I bought stuff because I was bored. I bought stuff because it was in fashion. I bought stuff to fill up time. I bought stuff because, well, that’s what humans do. Our entire society is geared towards never-ending consumption – of products, of media, of physical items to fill a void, created, of course, by the consumption of advertising. Consciously choosing to step out of this is huge. Everything – and I mean everything – is geared to pull you back in. Even buying local, buying handmade…it’s still buying stuff.
By removing the act of buying stuff, I removed all of the false meanings from my life. In removing those meanings, I created a huge hole that hadn’t been there before. Think back on all of the situations that involve the act of purchasing. There are a lot.
I wanted to feel important? I couldn’t buy something to prove it.
I wanted to feel “worth it”? There was nothing there to treat myself with.
I was bored? I had to find something else to fill the gap.
I wanted to follow fashion and fit in? There was no instant fix.
I wanted to escape for a while and fill a few hours? Shopping was out of the question.
I wanted to feel part of society? In a way, I was removed, and I was removed by choice.
The comfort blanket was suddenly ripped out from underneath me. Although I felt just fine on the outside, I knew something was beginning to slip and change inside of me. Buying nothing gives you a lot of space. If there’s nothing to fill that space, it’s easy to lose your sense of self. Particularly if your sense of self is very much supported by the things you buy.
Think fashion. Think magazines, newspapers. Think coffees. Think books, homeware, furnishings. Without all of this – who are you really? How do you define yourself? How do other people define themselves?
I finished the year and of course I went back to buying stuff, although with a new outlook on over-consumption and an intense hatred for adverts that persists even now. But the seeds were sown. Over the following years I began to question everything about myself. About my lifestyle. Those gaps that I’d spent years comfortably filling in with purchases had had a harsh light thrown on them. I was in a bit of a crisis.
I attempted to find more answers by repeating my no spend year, but by that time I was well on the way down the rocky path. It didn’t throw up anything new for me. I had to ride it out. It’s taken years to uncover the ‘person’ outside consumerism. To find worth that isn’t influenced by what I buy.
I’m not saying don’t do a ‘no spend’ year. In fact, I’d fully recommend it, if you’re in the right headspace. Even if you’re feeling ready, be ready to face some hard truths, and to find yourself questioning a lot of behaviours, both your own and those of society. Buying nothing for a year can be a great break from an over-consuming society. Or it can be the start of something bigger than you can imagine.
Go with the ride, wherever it takes you.