Step One – Buy Less Stuff

First, I want to thank everyone for your wonderful, thought-provoking comments and emails.  Keep em coming!  Because of the amount of response, I’d like to spend the next week or so delving in a little deeper here.  I thought I’d go through the steps again, and show you how we’ve applied them in our lives, our successes and continued challenges and questions.  Also, I want to be clear that this is not meant to be a judgment about how we’re so great, and other people are bad.  It’s meant as (hopefully) inspiration, a conversation starter, and education about what is possible.

So, on to step one.  When I say, “buy less,” you may be thinking “Those poor deprived people.”  Hardly!  I’ve bought myself way fancier clothes at the thrift store (can you say cashmere?) than I ever could buy new.   And why limit our purchasing of stuff, particularly new stuff?  Isn’t that stimulating the economy? This is a complex issue, to be sure.  To me, what it comes down to is that every time we spend money, we affirm something.  We either affirm the factory, industrial system that creates huge amounts of waste and pollution, a system that strip mines and rapes the earth and its peoples, or we don’t.  We can choose to make our own, use what’s already been created, or support the craft of a friend or neighbor ( is a great resource for handcrafted goods).

Mostly, here’s some glimpses of what this looks like in our life.  We’ve bought everything from draft horse harnessing to clothes to our car used.  There are some purchases we still make new – food, some farming equipment that can’t be found used (but we look first!), and this winter we upgraded from our old, cantankerous woodstove, and bought a new one, because we felt the newer efficient designs made it worth it.   My new favorite phrase, from Living Simply With Children (originally from the Great Depression) – Fix it Up, Wear it Out, Make Do, Do Without.

So, here we go:

adriesshoesbensbootsOur beautiful shoes.  I’ve seen quite a few (beautiful) photos on blogs lately of people’s spiffy new shoes.  While beauty does count, how many shoes do we need?  How long do they last?  My shoes, on the left, have been worn almost every day for nearly three years.  (They’re El Naturalistas – not cheap, but they’ve far-outlasted any other shoe I’ve owned.)  Ben’s boots, on the right, were actually bought at Wal-Mart (ugh) long ago before we stopped shopping there.  That said, he’s worn them and worn them and worn them . .  . and he’s wearing them today.  All of Ella’s shoes have been hand-me-downs or thrift store buys, except for one pair made by a neighbor.

You may notice that many of the following photos have to do with used things we’ve gotten – but I do want to emphasize the do without part.  Here’s a quick list of things we do without:  a second car (more on this in a later post), a microwave, “labor-saving” gadgets at the bakery that take the skill and art and taste out of baking, a playpen, a baby monitor (we had one that broke about a year ago, and I never replaced it), a giant TV (we have a tiny screen that we use a few times a year, lately, we’ve used it to watch plowing videos, haha!), frequent expensive vacations, new furniture (our couch is the one Ben grew up with, for instance), daycare (we choose to take turns staying home with Ella, and sometimes bring her to the bakery – and we’ll continue to do this as she grows older; we do sometimes do a childcare swap with a friend).


Gorgeous antique crock for lacto-fermenting vegetables (remember those pickles we made?), bought at Kay Baker Antiques for less than it would cost for a new made-in-China version.  Yeah baby.

napkinsragssoapCloth napkins, our basket of cleaning rags (more to come on this in the clean it green step), homemade soap from a friend.  Ever notice all the plastic packaging (not to mention the trees!) that comes with buying paper napkins, buying paper towels, buying personal care products like shampoo, shower gel, conditioner?  In our bathroom, you will find one bar of soap, made by our friend Bethany (who’s teaching me how this Monday – woo hoo!), and a jar of homemade toothpowder (baking soda, myrrh powder, and a drop of essential oil for flavor, we used peppermint).  That’s all, and we are as clean and lovely as ever.


A real handkerchief (way more beautiful and gentle way to blow your nose – these are easy and cheap to find, since most people no longer use them).  And above it, some homemade elderberry syrup.  One thing that may not occur to us to make for ourselves is medicine.  Did I just say medicine?  Yup, I did.  After becoming pregnant with our daughter, I started to think much more carefully about what we put in our bodies to “treat” illnesses.  I own a business that works against the industrial system, yet I was participating in the industrial pharmaceutical system without much question other than trying to generally avoid it.  The amount of drugs we consume in this country is staggering.  While we have a conventional doctor for ourselves and Ella, I think of them as the emergency backup.  (The same is true for our animals – we have a vet, but mostly treat the animals ourselves.)  For colds, flus, stomachaches, fevers, etc, we use medicinal foods, herbs, acupuncture (hooray for our local low-cost clinic, The People’s Acupuncture Clinic in Amherst), yoga, and massage.  Many of these are preventative treatments, designed to strengthen our basic health, and then to address specific needs as they arise.  We also believe that illness is a natural part of life, not something to be smothered or eradicated (this isn’t even possible).  One of the really amazing things about medicinal herbs and foods is – you can grow them yourself, and many of them are delicious!



Ella’s secondhand play kitchen, with sweet thrifted pitchers, and one of the many handmade sweaters I’ve found at the thrift store (yes, handmade).  Jen asked about plastic toys, which may be gifted or handed down to us – we do give them away to the thrift store.  I feel it’s very important to keep plastic out of our home and lives as much as humanly possible (this is very, very hard).  Especially with small children, I feel this is important because we are teaching them so much about the natural world and also about what our lives should be – do we want them to grow up accepting plastics as the way we live?  Do we want them wearing clothes and snuggling with toys that are plastic, or objects that carry life – wool, wood, ceramic. An added bonus of asking friends and family (and ourselves) not to buy plastic, is that real objects cost more.  Which means less stuff, which teaches us to treasure what we have, instead of having to wade through a pile of toys/clothes/junk to even find what we are looking for.  Also about toys – for the most part, we bring “toys” into our child’s  life that are actual tools, not toys.  A small broom, a small guitar that plays, balls, wool, art supplies, and some dolls/stuffed animals.  We try hard to limit the quantity, and what we do have, we rotate so there are only a few things out at a time, and we also do a toy swap with friends.


Missy the cat, made by my grandmother for me as a child, recently patched up for Ella to use.

I do want to say that one danger of thrifting is that things are so cheap it can be tempting to buy too much.  I try to remember Jefferson’s saying, Don’t buy what you don’t need just because it’s cheap.  So true.

Phew!  This turned out to be quite long, and I’m sure there’s still so much I haven’t covered.  Hopefully this gives you some ideas.  On my list of things to learn/improve upon: learn to darn socks, patch more clothes and wear them proudly, stop using sponges altogether and just use rags.

Some great book resources for the things I’ve talked about here:

Naturally Healthy Babies and Children, by Aviva Jill Romm

Living Simply with Children, by Marie Sherlock (not just for families with kids, a lot of these ideas apply to everyone)

Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps to Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence: Revised and Updated for the 21st Century by Vicki Robin, Joe Dominguez, and Monique Tilford

Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel

The Compact in SF – a group who committed to buying nothing new

Handmade Home by Amanda Blake Soule

The Good Life, by Scott and Helen Nearing

Sewing Green by Betz White

The Complete Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable by Juliette de Bairacli Levy

Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas by Bill McKibben

Colin Beavan’s Ten Steps, via Yes! MAgazine

And just in case you thought I was exaggerating about our crazy colored house – here you go.


12 Responses to “Step One – Buy Less Stuff”

  1. 1

    this is such a great post. I often find myself buying too much at the thrift store. I find it helps to write a list about what we need and try and only look for that, or only visit when I need something. So many great ideas to apply

  2. 2

    I have really loved these last two posts. The idea of so radically changing the way that we look at wants vs needs has been taking shape in amazing ways around this country. The idea of not just thrifting, but using up what you have, using it until it is done and spent, that is what I am really focusing on lately.

    There is also something beautifully liberating about not needing to fill your home and your life with clutter. But rather, to simply see what it is that you need to use to be the most creative person you can be. I have almost no kitchen gadgets. I still chop everything by hand, and the rhythmic feel of doing so puts me into a great mood. I make our soaps, and our oils, our breads, and as many of our clothes as possible. I don’t see myself doing any of these things for any other reason than I enjoy it. Life is a process, it has a rhythmic flow to it, and stepping out of that flow makes us so out of sync, and out of touch.

    I think so much about this in regards to my children. I never owned a crib, did not use a baby seat (just a standard car seat, b/c we used a sling wherever we went). I used cloth diapers, and breastfed them into young childhood. I made their food. We use herbs and homeopathy with them, and we co-slept with them until just two weeks ago. None of this was done to be trendy or “in”. we did it because that was what felt right. We knew almost no one who had children when our first came along. None of our friends were in that place yet. We just went with out feelings, rather than what the books said. The result was that we did spend less, but we also developed amazing connections with our children, and with what they are capable of, and really need to have in order to thrive. It was an experience that now shapes so many aspects of our lives.

    I love knowing how tied to my environment I am, and that I am strong enough, and capable enough to create what we need.

    Thank you for the reminder, and I am really excited to see how this conversation develops through out the week.

  3. 3

    Thanks Louana – those are great tips!

  4. 4

    Thank you for this – it’s amazing how similar our lives are! (And also so different, of course.) We were the first among our peers to have a child, also (still are!), and I’m very grateful that it allowed us to choose our own path in many ways. I’m so grateful for the rhythm and connection of our lives, as well.

  5. 5

    I love so much about this post I don’t even know where to start. A few thoughts:
    I am jealous that you found cashmere at the thrift store, and I am in serious fermentation crock envy. Planning to make a visit to Kay Baker Antiques very, very soon.
    I’m feeling good that our dining table, which we’ve used for 10 years or so, is one that my mother used for 20-30 years after getting it handed down from my grandmother.
    I love that we have never used daycare either– I know we’ve saved a lot of money, and I’ve been able to model the practice of bringing one’s baby to work for others. I know it wouldn’t work for everyone, but I’m glad it worked for my family.
    AMEN to taking control of your basic health care in all the ways you mentioned– this is something I think about a lot and was part of the reason I decided to learn about emergency medicine and become a wilderness first responder (I wrote a blog post a while back about that).
    I decided that I’m going to do a serious plastic purge, starting with Lily’s eating utensils, cups, dishes, and bowls, and then moving on to toys. Today I went to Goodwill and bought two little metal cups (one copper, one pewter). All of the plastic tableware was given to us either as hand-me-downs or as a gift, which always seems to make me feel I should keep it and use it, but in this case I think it makes sense to get rid of them.
    And a “hear hear” for recommending Your Money or Your Life as well as Radical Simplicity.

  6. 6

    Rock on! And amen especially for beginning with purging any plastic that’s coming in contact with your food or your mouth, ever. Awesome.

  7. 7

    Thank you so much for the last few posts! They have been so inspiring and I too did a huge plastic purge and freecycled most of the plastic toys and tableware! I’ve still got a bit to go through, but boy does it feel good!
    Any advice on how to tell our families we don’t want a bunch more junk for Christmas this year?!?! Our families are very big into gift giving and when we tried suggesting that we should all go easy and that gifts really weren’t necessary for us it caused a big uproar!

  8. 8

    Thank you Amanda! Mothering Magazine had a great article years ago on the gift issue – I suggest searching their archives at their website. We’ve just asked people nicely from the start to limit themselves to one gift, and for no plastic. We have, on occasion, returned gifts, or given them away. It can be very hard to do! Keep up the good work!

  9. [...] in the store.  She was becoming obssessed with buying stuff.  Ack!  You may recall that we are not too keen on stuff. Walking through the grocery store with Ella, she was suddenly aware that everything there could, in [...]

  10. 10

    Yes! I love this. The lure to buy.. so conniving and insidious, and charity shops lull us into a sense of false virtue. I realised I was consuming so much and feeling very smug because it was second hand. My partner pointed out..’it’s still aload of rubbish and you’re just encouraging more stuff to be thrown away, and consumed new’. Charity shops seem to give us a reason to feel good about throwing stuff out and buying more new things….
    Now I just buy what I need, but I am still craving a calm empty plastic free home. Packaging is our main struggle, I think I’ll try your tooth powder…do you use bar soap for your hair too?
    Thanks for the inspiration.

  11. 11

    Great point. Junk that’s secondhand is still junk!
    I do use bar soap for my hair, and sometimes a vinegar rinse (vinegar diluted with water). It is incredible to me how little is in our bathroom – I get some culture shock every time I walk into someone else’s, lol.

  12. [...] amazing posts on living sustainably Step One – Buy Less Stuff Step Two – Grow Food Step Three – Eat Local Step Four – Eat Less Meat, Eat More [...]

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