I Didn't Buy Anything For A Month & Here's How It Went

by Elizabeth Broadbent

As a relatively new family of five, we desperately need to own less stuff. You could argue all of America needs to own less stuff, but we’re an excessive case. My husband’s family hasn’t thrown anything out since the late 1700s, and half of it’s sitting in my house. Plastic toys overflow cloth bins; play swords cram into the weaponry box. My husband’s clothes won’t fit in his drawers. Mine are a close squeeze. I've been fantasizing about the idea of buying only what we need and nothing extra for a month for a long, long time, but I've never really had the gall to do it. Why? I'm not sure. I want to buy less stuff, but it seems my kids always need more: someone will go through a growth spurt and we'll need more clothes, a beloved item will go on mega sale, we'll finally hit a good place and then something important, like a water heater or the plumbing will somehow break. No matter what I do or how often I dream, it's like I can't escape all the stuff that motherhood has given me in addition to my kids.

Somehow, despite how much I ranted about hoarders and packrats, over the years, more stuff appeared: that shirt I just had to have, those cheap $3 toys that kept the boys quiet while we shopped, Amazon Prime has two-day shipping so we should just buy something, and we really needed those LEGO sawfish. In our house, real estate is a luxury commodity — and that’s solely speaking for the toys. Stuffed animals multiplie like dust bunnies, and my kids don’t even play with them anymore.

Instead of being put to good use and well-worn, all that stuff we “needed” usually ends up on the floor, where I am left to clean it up. I was crawling closer and closer to the edge. Something had to give — and fast.

The Experiment

The solution to our buy-buy-buy mentality was simple: I decided to try a month without buying anything. Not anything, of course. We still had to eat. But for one month, we wouldn’t buy anything that wasn’t a dire necessity. The toilet paper, eye meds, and shampoo would enter the house as usual. But no impulse buys. No (early) holiday frivolity. No had-to-have-it clothes. No toys.

Here's how it went:

Trip #1: A Test Of Pure Strength

Our month of no buying started out simply enough. We just avoided going to the store, which was hard at first because I’m afflicted with the Great American impulse: when in boredom, I shop. But I resisted the afternoon trip to the mall playplace with its requisite tour through the Gap. I stayed out of the shopping districts; I averted my eyes from the farmers’ market stalls. I can do this, I thought.

Then, I had to visit Target.

We call Target “the Mothership,” because we’re usually there three to four times a week. We buy everything at Target, from expensive-ass shampoo to gluten-free bread. After I’ve picked up my necessities, I usually spend at least 20 minutes cruising the store, kids in tow, blissing out on housewares and baby shoes. My friends and I have occasionally held playdates at Target. Where else gives you Starbucks at the door, then practically orders you to go forth and ogle sunglasses?

But that day, we needed a small list of innocuous, indispensible items that could only come from the big red bull’s eye. So I steeled my will, loaded the kids in the car, and swore we wouldn’t look at the toys.

I got a tea at Starbucks, my iced-tea addiction having already rendered itself impractical to include beverages in this challenge. The cheapie $1 section waylaid my kids, but I remained strong. So strong, in fact, I made it through the store with ruthless efficiency — only stopping for eye medication, dog food, gluten-free bread, and peanut butter. I was about to checkout. I was about to win. And then my oldest spotted something.

STAR WARS!” he yelled, and took off running towards the back of the store. I had forgotten that a few days before, Target had released its collection of movie-related merch. Now my oldest was sprinting at it. I had to follow, but I should’ve abandoned him to Chewbacca.

Because here, in this glorious land of geekery, I wanted everything. I wanted the Hans Solo mug. I wanted the giant stuffed Chewie. I especially and desperately wanted the child-size sneakers with a repeated Storm Trooper motif. At $22, they were expensive, but oh, so cute. Trouble was that my kids already have shoes. Too few for my taste, but they’re not barefoot. Armed with the realization that I wanted but didn’t need the shoes (and neither did my boys) I reluctantly hung them back on the hanger.

Eventually I dragged the kids away, and we escaped with only the things we’d gone there to purchase. Not buying any of the movie-inspired gear and goodies didn’t make me feel like a bad mom. I felt liberated; I felt triumphant. I felt that I wouldn’t have to clean them up off the living room floor. And the beauty of it all was: I was right.

Trip #2: Suffering From The Social Disease

I had a free afternoon, and really wanted to take the kids to the mall. They could play in the playplace, and I could down some iced tea while studiously ignoring them. I resisted. I knew I’d end up cruising the stores, which would lead to fingering the clothes, which would end in credit card charges.

Why is my default the mall, I wondered. Why not the park, or the library? I hadn’t realized before how much shopping filled a void. Bored? Go buy something! The mall was ready-made entertainment. I could haul three kids there, stick them in a car cart, and give them Chick-Fil-A while I browsed new shades at Sephora. It was my version of me time, but with the gremlins in tow. And then, when I bought something, I had a nice little surprise waiting: a new shirt tomorrow. A new eyeliner. New undies. The initial pleasure of shopping gave way to a warm glow of anticipation.

I missed it. I missed the time I spent ignoring my kids. I missed the afternoon browsing. But mostly, I missed shopping.

I was beginning to miss purchasing things so much, in fact, that I relished using my debit card at fast-food restaurants. Needed Walgreens purchases became a thrill. I was buying something. It seemed to fill some existential need.

I didn’t just want things anymore. I yearned to actually buy them. Something. Anything.

Trip #3: Is Second-Hand Shopping Still Considered Shopping?

My desire to buy, buy, buy was sorely tried again, in week three of my experiment, when the giant kids’ consignment sale came to town. It fills an entire exhibition hall. You can buy everything from LEGOs to cloth diapers to teensy leather jackets. I buy most of my kids’ formalwear there (and yes, my kids have a ton of formalwear, because what’s the use in spawning humans if you can’t dress them like a little fashion stars?). You can find shoes. You can find train tables. You can find bikes. You can find absolutely anything child-related, both used and cheap, that you could ever need.

And because the shopping times are limited, everyone goes at the same time. Mom friends kept asking me, “When are you going to Tot Trade?” The assumption was that we’d join forces to shop and babysit. We’d talk over potential purchases. We’d have an adult playdate, but with kids around.

“I’m not going,” I said glumly. And to remind both them and myself, I added:

I’m not buying anything this month.

“But you have to go!” everyone scolded. They told tales of deals past. They begged for my company. They offered to help carry my loot.

“Can’t do it,” I said. It was almost viscerally painful to miss the deals. Even though I knew we didn’t need anything, something could, and would, grab my eye. I’d find something I didn’t know we needed. And part of me was hating that I was willingly missing out on that.

For a solid week, I avoided driving by the Tot Trade venue. The sign mocked me. I just really wanted to buy me some baby suits.

Trip #4: The T-Shirts

Somehow, my youngest son had destroyed most of his t-shirts. Maybe they had been passed down one too many times, or maybe he’d stained them beyond recognition, but he was down to about five of them, not counting the button-down dress shirts and long-sleeve tops. Five t-shirts is a woeful number for a little boy in the South at the end of the summer.

I normally try hard to buy all of our clothes used, mainly because I don’t want to support the garment industry. We shop at a local used children’s clothing store, Once Upon a Child. On any other occasion at any other time, the fact that my son had only five shirts to choose between would've usually ended with me practically sprinting there. Except five shirts was technically enough, especially with the button-downs. And because he had enough, I bit the urge to buy more.

For the rest of the month, my youngest wore every single shirt in his drawer. That includes the open-weave sports jersey and a sleeveless girl’s Yo Gabba Gabba top. On one hand, I was happy I hadn’t caved to buy more, but on the other, the laundry was never-ending. I was always digging through laundry baskets for his shirts, and he wore the same one a few times in a row, which, unsurprisingly, didn’t bother him at all. The euphoria of constantly shopping for more was replaced with ongoing stress to ensure that his shirts were clean, thus stepping up my laundry routine. In addition to the nonstop wash cycle, I also had to make sure I didn’t serve him watermelon or chocolate or something else that necessitated a change of clothes.

So TBH, I couldn’t wait for this experiment to end, mainly because I couldn’t wait to buy him some damn t-shirts.

Trip #5: I Finally Got My Fix

OK, everyone. I finally got my fix. But I swear it was a fare fix and totally within the rules of the experiment. And damn it, did it feel good. Both my older sons are in homeschool co-ops, and I had noticed that most of the other kids carried stocked pencil cases to class. There was no way I could assemble them from things I already had, especially for two kids. In the frozen food section of Target, I had my ah-ha moment: I needed pencil cases!

I wended my way to the school supplies. I took great care in selecting two cases that looked as if the zipper were a monster’s teeth. I picked out pencils and crayons. They’d each need sticks of glue, I decided, and though I probably already had them at home, new scissors too. These scissors had stripes and were far cooler than the blunt-tip ones we had.

“Look!” I showed my sons. “I got you pencil cases!” They were not impressed. I felt awesome, like I’d gotten away with something. Pencil cases! You can’t argue that they needed pencil cases, but they felt frivolous enough to hit that shopping pleasure center gluten-free bread does not. I'd bought something, and now I could go home, assemble them, and watch the kids use them later. The pencil cases gave me that buzz of anticipation I craved.

Update: I still love the sh*t out of those pencil cases.

Trip #6: We’re In Big Trouble

For the final week of this experiment, my mom came to town. We’d gone to Target, because that’s a recreational exercise, and she’d promised to buy the boys a surprise. As we left the driveway, the heavens opened. It poured all the way to Target, and all the way through the parking lot. I’m polite, so I gave the umbrella to my mom, and by the time we reached the automatic doors, I was soaked and squeaking.

The boys’ shoes were still absolutely wearable, even though I would've bought them all new pairs had this experiment not been looming over my head. But my sweatshirt was clammy and damp. It clung to me in the air conditioning. which made everything worse. And I had an appointment immediately after the Target trip, and I didn’t want to sit through an entire psychiatrist appointment in a huddled ball. To make matters worse, we had no time to go home.

I entered the women’s department for the first time in a month. I picked out a white lace shirt that I’d wear in something other than an emergency (because let’s be honest, if I was going to buy something, I wanted it to be worth it). It felt like cheating, but it wasn’t. I needed something dry to wear. But because I’d gotten something pretty, I felt like a villian.

When I put that shirt on in the car, I swear the angels sang.

Buying Nothing For Four Weeks -- Had It Changed Me?

It wasn’t as hard as I thought it’d be, this whole buying nothing experiment, but that's in large part because I didn’t go to the mall. I severely curtailed my Target trips. I stayed away from places that I’d normally frequent with my children; places that have become part of our routine. And I missed that. I missed shopping in a group. I love going to Target or the mall with some friends, and really, it’s no fun unless someone’s buying stuff, and usually, that someone is me. Shopping is definitely most satisfying as a social activity. I’m still sort of bitter about Tot Trade.

The kids didn’t notice this whole experiment. We pawned it off with comments like, “maybe you can ask for that for your birthday instead.” We also kept them away from the toys, mostly, and near the gluten-free bread. We’re going to keep that up. I was amazed, really, at how little they whined for things, and how well they accepted our “no” when it came. Our little experiment was a lesson in both parenting and greed — and I loved learning how little our boys need to be happy.

It’s possible to live without all that junk that comes through the doors. And we plan to “keep up” with this experiment, even just as an exercise in saving money — but sensibly. Need isn’t the same as convenience, and I can afford a little convenience in my life. The day after the experiment ended, I hit up Goodwill for baby t-shirts. We bought the baby new Star Wars shoes. And I’m going to buy a furry vest, damn it. Because I can.

Images Courtesy of Elizabeth Broadbent (6), Giphy (3), Charles Henry/Flickr