Consumer-free wrap up…the final tally

Our experiment in consumer-free living came to an end this past week. As promised, I’m going to offer our thoughts on living with less, what we learned, what we missed, how we cheated, how we’ve done in the past 7 days, and how we think we’ll live differently going forward. Here’s how it all went down:

Q: Did we save money?
A: Holy cow…I just dug out the old Visa bills from this year and last…and according to the numbers (they don’t lie, right?), we spent $8000 less during the six months of consumer free living than in the same time in 2005. Granted, we had just moved into our “fixer-upper” during that same period of time last year, so we were signing our paychecks over to Lowe’s Home Improvement for a few months. And I seem to recall that we paid our movers on our Visa and bought a washer and dryer in that time. But still, $8000 is a lot of smackers. Want to save money? I highly recommend giving this consumer-free thing a shot! Truly, I have no idea where that $8000 went in 2005…but just thinking about that much cash is enough to scare me out of any mall.

Q: Did we create less garbage?
A: With the exception of Christmas, I think we’re doing really well with the whole less-garbage/obsessive recycling/composting-to-feed-the-wildlife plan. Getting our mixed paper picked up at the curb is fantastic–-thank you very much City of Chapel Hill. I’m saving at least a trip a week to the recycling center (which is right next to the mall!). And if we can get our little guy potty trained early this year, I’ll feel like we’re downright lean and green in the garbage department.

During the past six months, I became painfully aware of the waste we generate from food packaging. I had this brilliant idea that someone should open up a food store where you can purchase EVERYTHING from a bulk bin, and you must bring your own containers. Imagine, filling up on laundry detergent, cat food, crackers, cereal, peanut butter, raisins…and getting it all without the wasted containers! This could become an entire food movement–-because when you’re buying it out of a bulk bin, you really see what it is you’re buying. Might be a little harder to stock up on Twinkies, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing! I’m hoping to pay more attention to how our food is packaged in ’07…but it’s really hard to beat pre-packaged snacks for convenience!

Q: Will the kids learn from this experiment?
A: What I realized from this experience is that if kids don’t see stuff (no cable TV, less access to catalogs thanks to Greendimes, and no trips to Target), they don’t really ask for much. I didn’t expect my son to learn big life lessons from the experience. He’s about to turn three and is pretty satisfied with a Matchbox car, an empty cardboard box or a stick he finds in the driveway. Our daughter, however, has now started pointing out when other people purchase things they don’t really need. Undoubtedly this will cost her a few friends in the future. But she does seem to think a little bit about want vs. need. We also started giving her an allowance during the experiment, and she now knows if she wants something, she needs to save to buy it. And when we do purchase things for the kids, we’re more likely to delay the purchase to make sure they REALLY want AND need it, so it isn’t just one more plastic piece of crap to fill our playroom.

Q: Did we cheat?
A: Yes. I purchased my daughter a pair of faux-Crocs just because she had a bad day at school. And I replaced my old workout pants. Then spent over $100 on crap at Old Navy for our trip to the mountains. For the most part, however, we stayed pretty true to the spirit of the experiment–-bringing MUCH less stuff into our house.

Consumer-free is not to be confused with Spending-free (despite the huge amount of money we saved!). We did go to see movies in the theater (although we still primarily rely on Netflix), took the kids to museums, purchased wine, entertained, got haircuts (well…I did. If you’ve seen Carter lately, you might wonder if he held off for the entire six months), we ate out occasionally (attempting to do so only once a week), and in general, continued to enjoy ourselves. In fact, I might argue that in some ways we enjoyed ourselves more. Rather than going out to purchase stuff, we found ways to entertain ourselves with experiences. Not a bad exchange!

Q: Do we feel free?
A: I still find myself thinking about stuff…stuff I want, stuff my friends have that I don’t, stuff I think will make our house look better or make me look thinner. However, I think about these things less. I now see that I spent a ridiculous amount of time prior to going consumer free sitting around wishing for stuff, looking at catalogs, reading home magazines, and just basically jonesing for stuff I couldn’t afford and would never buy. Now I’m more likely to spend that time blogging, or reading other blogs (still unclear if that’s a real positive change!), but it is a different way to waste an evening.

Q: How have we done on the re-entry?
A: …And on the third day…I shopped. Turns out I was WAY behind on gift giving (two of my best friends just had babies) and my friend Heather Havrilesky got married AND had a baby so I had some catching up to do. And while making those purchases I came across a very pretty purse that was half off…and I bought it. It was a nice little “job well done on the not buying yourself much for six months” gift that so far, I’m not regretting.

We’re now a week into “normal” living, and I still don’t have much of a desire to shop. We’ll see how long this feeling lasts.

Q: What did we miss?
A: I missed Dwell Magazine. My subscription expired some time mid-fall and since I pledged not to take on any new subscriptions, I felt the need to hold off. Plus, I find that spending my days gazing at magazines filled with gorgeous modern homes is somewhat equal to standing in front of a mirror in a bathing suit while flipping through the latest issue of Vogue. I’m constantly comparing our home to those professionally cleaned, designer decorated, clutter-free homes and it fills me with thoughts of inadequacy. So for now, I’m just sneaking a peek at Dwell at my sister’s house and trying to love the home that we have.

I also missed Target. Not for any big purchases, just for the pleasing feeling of walking through the aisles and seeing cool stuff I could buy. Wal-Mart was a fine replacement for the basics, but God-willin’, I won’t have to go back there any time soon!

Otherwise, to be completely honest, I found that I didn’t miss that much. Once I told myself I couldn’t buy clothes for six months, I stopped bitching and moaning every time I walked in my closet. No more “I have nothing to wear”…I just grabbed a pair of jeans and a black t-shirt and got on with my day.

Overall, I have nothing but positive things to say about this experience. And the fact that a good half-dozen people have shared their desire to do something similar just in the past week makes me feel like there’s a movement a brewin’.

Perhaps we’re all hungry for a different way of living. Consuming less, enjoying ourselves more, spending less time working to buy the stuff we are told we need, realizing that Enough really is Enough.

I actually considered starting a Compact Group here in the Triangle. And I just might…after I restock on a few fun things and possibly gear up for another dry spell. If you’re interested in starting such a group, email me and let me know! Thanks for hanging in there with us on our journey.

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