Am I overestimating my family of five's ability to do without for 30 days? Am I crazy to think that, with less stuff, we might be farther along our path to Zen?
We're at the dinner table when I outline "our adventure" to my family. (Mothers are nothing if not spin doctors.) All too familiar with my environmental stance, my family isn't overly surprised by my plan. I regularly write about the environment and am the author of The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide for a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (Inner Ocean, 2007). My kids have joined me on TV segments on how families can green their lives. They've also heard me wax on about the environmental cost of our consumption: the resource depletion, the pollution from manufacturing and shipping, and overflowing landfills. But that doesn't mean my husband and three children enthusiastically share my eco-leanings.
Laying down the rules
My husband, Dan, and children listen grudgingly as I outline the guidelines for our month of going off the consumer grid: No purchasing of new items, except for food – aiming only to buy perishables such as milk and fruit – and, if necessary, medicine. "It'll be fun," I say, trying to sound convincing. Apparently my family doesn't think so.
Ten-year-old Sophie and eight-year-old Spencer stare at me, speechless. Six-year-old Charlotte bursts into tears and runs from the room. Bewildered, I look around. My husband remarks that he "has to take clients golfing" or his membership is a waste. (Clever. He knows how I despise waste.) Dan anticipates resistance from me. But under the "rules," I tell him, that's OK. We will still "buy" piano lessons and our weekly yoga classes. It's the DVDs, the toys and the mindless isn't-this-cute- and-oh-it's-on-sale purchases that we're putting the brakes on for 30 days.
Charlotte returns to the table, her cheeks still wet. "What's the problem?" I ask, genuinely baffled.
"I need…" she sniffles, and then takes a deep breath, "stuff!"
Without realizing it, my six-year-old has summed up the catalyst for my desire to embark on this month-long experiment. I hope that we'll all learn to live with less and to spend less. My family, while less enthused than I, concludes that resistance is futile.
Page 1 of 4 -[ Read page two for week one and two of the challenge
It's our first day on the detox and we're returning home to London, Ont., from my dad's cottage. I suggest we stop at the store that sells my favourite jujubes. "You can't buy those," my husband scolds. "Candy is not a perishable food item."
A second dose of reality hits me later in the evening, as I'm packing my eight-year-old's backpack. I spent last week scrounging from every conceivable drawer for the coloured pencils that his teacher has requested. I rub his sister's name off an eraser and replace it with his. But my heart sinks when I can't find a glue stick. I send out an online SOS to my stable of friends. Two reply, and now both Spencer and Sophie are armed with glue sticks. Phew! Crisis averted.
Later in the week I dream that I'm at Canadian Tire and purchase a set of dishes. I pay for them then realize that I've committed to buying only the essentials for 30 days. I wake up in a cold sweat and can't fall back asleep for two hours.
The next day I find myself inexplicably searching a website offering up designer duds at discount(ish) prices. I spot a pair of faux leather leggings that I want. Badly. I turn my computer off before I do something I might regret and rummage for comfort food. I miss jujubes.
It's a friend's birthday. I put together a reusable tote bag she's been coveting, a few of my favourite books, and some body lotion that I've been saving. I realize that it truly is a gift from the heart. It would have been easier to go out and buy her similar items, but giving them up seems more authentic.
Charlotte has a friend over. They play "toy store" and Charlotte says, "Let's pretend we can't afford everything in the store and we have to pick what we like best." I smile. Small victories.
The next day I send Dan to a nearby market to buy fruit for the kids' lunches. It's right beside a Starbucks, his personal Waterloo. Miraculously, he bypasses the Starbucks and chooses, instead, to buy cream and make his own coffee at home. Another small but key victory.
Speaking of not succumbing to temptations, I have not had a drop of Diet Pepsi all week. I did savour not one but two cans yesterday at a friend's party. I didn't buy it, so, technically, it's not cheating.
Page 2 of 4A few days later, Charlotte and I pop into a big-box grocery store to buy organic milk. She wants to look at the clothes. I respond that she doesn't need any and point to the "new" (hand-mec-down) outfit that she's wearing. "Yes, but," she says, eyeing me warily, "what store did it come from?" I come clean that it was the outfit her sister wore on her first day of kindergarten. She seems OK with this, but suggests we just look at the clothes "for when it's our turn to buy things again." I then create a distraction and get out of the store.
Charlotte, who is clearly experiencing consumer withdrawal, asks if she can have her own credit card. I suggest she might want to get a job first. My comment is met with stony silence.
The next day, Sophie and Spencer both arrive home with new Scholastic book catalogues from school. They look at me expectantly. I raise my eyebrows. Surprisingly, no words needed.
Just when things appear to be going well, I turn on my computer one morning but the screen remains black, and I feel panic gnawing in my gut. As a freelancer, my computer is my lifeline. So I load it into my car and drive to my computer repair guy, who assures me that all he needs to do is order a part – "It'll only take a few days to come in." I wonder what I'll do without work to keep me occupied for a few days. I can't go shopping. Instead, I garden and feel almost disappointed when I hear that the necessary part has arrived.
Unfortunately, my computer still won't work – and I can't buy a new one, not this month. My husband (whose initial resistance to our consumer detox has morphed into steely determination) borrows a cable from our computer repair guy and rigs an old television screen to my computer. Voilà! I'm back at work.
Determined to rid ourselves of past purchases we no longer use, we have a garage sale. While Spencer and Charlotte suddenly remember how much they "love" long-forgotten toys, we agree to get rid of anything that hasn't been played with in a year. We sell many things our children have outgrown, as well as some leftover building supplies. And we're $300 richer.
I have a speaking engagement in Ottawa, so we decide to make the weekend a family getaway. Anticipating a five-hour car trip with three kids in the backseat, I cave and take them to my favourite secondhand bookstore so they can pick out some entertainment. Buying secondhand is OK, I reason, because new goods won't be produced in order to replace the ones I'm buying. I'm almost out of the store when I spot a book called Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping. I add it to my pile – the irony does not escape me.
Page 3 of 4 - Read page four to find out what happened when the month was over
It's one week before we can shop freely again. I pick Charlotte up at school to discover that she has taken scissors to her long hair. A haircut is in order. The catch? I can't bribe my salon-phobic six-year-old with a new toy, so I have to come up with another trick. I push the limits on my pledge to purchase only "perishables" and promise to buy her a brownie.
Two days to go and we take in a show at London's Grand Theatre (tickets we bought before we started the challenge). On our way back to the car, we pass a gift shop featuring stuffed animals in its window. I remind my children that they all have lots of stuffies at home and, to my surprise, that's the end of the discussion. No whining, pleading or begging.
The last day of our detox comes and goes with little fanfare – though my eldest, Sophie, is the first to notice the date. We all shrug. It really hasn't been that tough. Indeed, it's a full 24 hours later, when I'm at a fashion show in support of breast cancer research where I see gorgeous clothes, that it hits me: I'm free to buy. Instead, I write a cheque for a donation and leave empty-handed.
In the following weeks, I think often of our 30 days of non-consumption. Did it really make any difference? Did we accomplish anything?
I survey my family: Sophie says she now understands the difference between needing something and wanting it. "I don't really need anything more than food, shelter and my family," she explains, without a hint of sanctimoniousness. Spencer – without a doubt the most dedicated lover of toys on the planet – decides that if I buy him the Clone Trooper costume from the Sears catalogue, he'll "wear it for the next three Halloweens." I'm skeptical – but optimistic. Charlotte, my most vehement opponent over the past month, consistently forgets that our "adventure" is over, and continues to ask for things "once it's our turn to buy again."
Dan – whose weekend wardrobe has been around since his university days – admits that the detox barely registered, with the exception of missing his daily cup o' coffee-shop java. Admittedly, he's not much of a shopper, save for the occasional splurge on electronics.
However, Dan works in finance, and notes that in the midst of our detox the world experienced a dramatic economic downturn. Our single month of going without may turn into years for far too many people. "Perhaps we'll all achieve a bit more balance," he says philosophically. It's a sobering thought and one that puts our experiment into perspective.
As the months go by, I continue to shop at secondhand bookstores and consignment stores, but my home and closet remain emptier, my wallet is more full, and my life feels, well, richer.
This story was originally titled "No More Stuff!" in the April 2009 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
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