‘I Went 200 Days Without Buying Anything New and Learned How Toxic Our Need for Possessions Is’

A few months ago, I went through the worst experience of my life: My father passed away. It was cancer that took him, and a small part of myself as well.

As I reflect on the time following his death, there were so many hard parts. One of the hardest was not being able to mourn in peace. Nope, in our society you can’t just mourn a person’s loss — you need to work. Not just at your job, but on piles of paperwork, people to notify, and arrangements to be made.Finally, when I thought all of the hard work was over, I had to empty out my father’s apartment.

Little did I know that this would be the bitterest labor yet.

Going through my father’s old things, I felt the loss of my father with each and every item I sorted. And there was a lot of sorting to do. It took weeks to clear out the lifetime of possessions in my single father’s small apartment. Weeks to sell, donate, recycle, or throw out the boxes and boxes of kitchenware, clothing, furniture, office materials, and so much more.

I threw away a normal lifetime’s worth of accumulation.

Time, money, and effort had been heavily invested in getting all of this stuff — only to be disposed of with great difficulty.People are destroying the planet for future generations, all so that we could enjoy a short lifetime full of material possessions that in many cases were hardly used, rarely necessary, and easily forgotten.

I decided that I didn’t want this to be my “normal.” And so I embarked on an experiment lasting 200 days where I would buy nothing new. Excluding groceries, medicine, and basic toiletries, I would borrow and buy secondhand, or simply go without.

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Like many of us making a steady income, I’d never been very disciplined when it came to my purchases. If I could afford it — and even when I couldn’t — I often just thought, “Why not?”

So could I survive 200 days away from the mall?

In fact, I could. And here is some of what I learned along the way:

  1. There is already too much stuff in the world. As I toured various thrift stores, online classifieds sections, Facebook buy/sell groups, and the like, I was shocked to see the sheer volume of stuff we humans have already created. Mountains of clothes, tons of furniture, dishes, pans, walking sticks — an ocean of all things imaginable. As all of this stuff is being thrown away, more is being churned out. We don’t need more.

  2. People buy things out of pure compulsion. As I looked to fill my needs through preowned sources, I was blown away by the amount of new items in thrift stores — items that were unused, complete with price tags and original packaging. Everything from new scented candles to new clothing graced the aisles of secondhand stores. Clearly, the act of buying is often completely disassociated with actual human need, or even want. It’s much more akin to a compulsion.

  3. There is an unreasonable stigma surrounding preowned items. As I blogged about my experience, I received a lot of interesting feedback on the hygienic aspect of my efforts. Many felt that buying clothing, furniture, and other goods used instead of new was dirty and uncivilized. What a weird mentality! These same people would happily donate their used goods to thrift stores. I guess it’s good enough for the lower-income among us — but not for “us.”

  4. There is so much abundance. During my 200 days, I learned I didn’t need to go to big-box stores to buy what I needed — there were plenty of resources in my own community. Our communities have an abundance of stuff and plenty of people willing to give it away at a very low price or for free.

  5. When nothing is new, nothing is expensive. My bank account definitely got a break during these 200 days. Secondhand comes at a delightfully steep discount. And I never felt that I compromised on quality either.

  6. It’s awesome paying a person instead of a corporation. Especially when shopping through classifieds, I found that most sellers were honest and helpful. They were normal people just wanting to recoup a portion of their purchase price by selling perfectly usable items. It was refreshing to know that my money would be going directly to someone just like me instead of a faceless corporation.

  7. I don’t really need that stuff. Truth is, some things you simply cannot find preowned. Lots of items, even common ones, are either impossible or impractical to find secondhand. When I was forced to not buy them — against my strongest impulses at times — I was surprised how nothing changed. Not my health, happiness, or inner harmony. I realized that most things are really just “nice-to-haves”; real needs are generally more limited.

My 200 days was not only an optional experience in sustainable living and minimalism. It was a necessary and transformative journey.

When someone dies, you’re expected to just “get past it” and go back to normal. I did not want to feel like losing my father was an event I simply moved on from, an experience that ultimately left me unchanged.

Instead, I allowed the experience to change me deeply.

In fact I don’t think I’ll ever “get past it,” because every day my father’s passing inspires the way I speak, the way I act, and the way I perceive my life.

I hope that you might allow this post to change you a bit as well. Maybe you’ll pay a visit to a thrift store for your next clothing purchase, or embark on your own 10-, 30-, or even 200-day challenge. At the very least, I hope you’ll just change the way you think when you buy another item.

Assya Barrette is a green-living blogger at GreenHighFive.com, where she helps people learn to live more environmentally sustainable lives. You can sign up for her free email course on how to do your own buy-nothing-new challenge, and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The views expressed in this essay are Barrette’s.

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