A little over a year ago, Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz, a 31-year-old accountant in Calgary, began analyzing his monthly spending. What he saw, he says, was eye-opening: “I was spending so much every month, no matter how much I made it never seemed like I was getting ahead. It was typical lifestyle creep.”
Around the same time, his good friend Julie Phillips, 29, a communications advisor at the University of Calgary, was about to move into a new apartment when it fell through. “Geoff said, ‘You can move in with me, but I only have a bedroom for you to rent,’” she says. “The rest was packed with his stuff. So I got rid of over 80% of my stuff within three days.” (She was thinking she might move in a year and if so, she’d have to get rid of many of her belongings then.) But then she had a meltdown. “I was like, ‘Oh my god. What did I do?’ And then I was like, ‘Why do I need things anyway?’”
Over their first bottle of wine as roommates, they questioned their need for the objects that had drained their bank accounts, and, on a whim, decided to spend a year not buying anything. The domain name and Twitter handle for the obvious designation, Buy Nothing Year, were available. Julie recalls, “I said to this guy, ‘I can’t believe the name was available,’ and he said, ‘I can! You guys are crazy! Who would do that?’”
Within a week, they became a national news sensation. They suddenly realized that with the country watching, they had to follow through.
Buy Nothing Year roommates Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz in front of their aquaponics system (Kevin Jesuino)
They spent the first three months (August through October) phasing out all consumer items, such as household objects, electronics and clothes. Then, they cut out all services, including dining out, salon haircuts, and gas and instead began hosting lots of dinner parties — and biking or walking everywhere, even during Calgary’s long, cold winter. (For his 35-minute walk to work, Geoff would don long johns, winter boots, scarf, mittens and a hat. Though he was already fit when the year began, he lost an additional 10 pounds. When he had to go especially far, he took the bus.) They made their own laundry detergent and surface cleaners, but made a concession for store-bought dish soap, since the homemade version left a gross film on their dishes.
During the last phase, meant to start this July, they intended to stop buying food and grow their own with their aquaponics system and garden, but couldn’t produce enough to feed themselves. (Harvesting season begins in August, and their project ended August 3.) By then, Geoffrey says, “Buy Nothing Year had already accomplished a lot of what we wanted to accomplish, which was to live this downshifted lifestyle.”
They had also saved a lot of money: Geoffrey amassed $42,300 (46,000 CAD) and Julie set aside $13,800 (15,000 CAD). (Julie’s explanation as to why Geoffrey squirreled away so much more: “As much as Geoff saved, I don’t make per year.”) Here's how they achieved their feat, how the project changed their lives and what habits they’ll retain. Plus, the slide show contains their top tips on having a Buy Nothing Year of your own.
What were your spending habits like before?
Geoffrey: I graduated in 2012 and was going through this kick of, Now I can buy grownup stuff! I bought a car, a fancy couch, fancy things for the house, was going on a lot of trips. Anything I liked, I would just buy. I had no qualms about going to the Bay [Hudson Bay Company — Canada’s version of Nordstrom] and dropping $1,000. Just typical consumerism. I traveled to the U.S. a lot, I went to Berlin, I go to Burning Man every year, I'd go to San Francisco or Vancouver, and take weekend trips to mountains.
Julie: I’ve always been pretty busybody and social and involved with lots of things and friends, so I would eat out a lot, go out for drinks, coffee. Geoff convinced me to reconcile my accounts every month and I was blown away by where my money was going — $15 for drinks here, $40 for dinner there. I was never super-extravagant, going out for hundred bottles of wine. It was just the frequency.
G: A lot of my money went out to drinking and dining out, and I spent $150 on hair cuts every month.
J: I would spend $250 on my hair for cut and color every three months, so I saved over a grand in the last year just on hair. I would go into London Drugs to buy toothpaste or one simple thing and leave with $75 worth of stuff — makeup, a magazine, shampoo. I just wouldn’t think about it. Now, I don’t go into stores that much except to buy groceries.
What were your feelings at the beginning? Was it a new sense of power or a sense of struggle? Was there a transition period?
J: The emotional piece is really interesting, because when we started, there was a lot of excitement: we had a blog, we were doing media interviews.
G: Then when you’re doing it, you’re like, Holy fuck, I didn’t know it was going to be like this.
J: It’s a lot of — not loneliness but adjusting. And we are living in the same house with the same friends where we suddenly can’t do the same things we used to.
Geoff has a background in psychology, so we used a model called acceptance and commitment therapy where you commit to something but accept that you’re human and you’ll make mistakes. So Geoff and I allowed for conscious cheats. There were days when it was below 40 and I had a shitty day, so I would just order a pizza.
It felt like a fast or an addiction program where you’re slowly changing your behaviors and patterns from something you’re addicted to or that’s habitual for you. The piece I struggled with the most was with coworkers and friends. I remember one night that was really sad — my coworkers and I were going out to an event during the evening and they had dinner beforehand, and it was winter. I had pasta in a Tupperware on a bench outside, and they were all in this nice warm restaurant drinking wine. I felt like that little boy from A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim. It was like, Oh my gosh, this is what my life has come to. Why am I doing this?
What were the hardest things to give up? What were the easiest things to give up?
J: I found clothes really easy to give up. What was hard to give up was eating out, going out with friends for drinks and coffee. And not driving. I liked being busy and taking on a lot, and not driving forced me to slow down. I couldn’t fit as much into a day.
G: I found clothes really easy to give up too. Giving up haircuts at first was hard. I remember the first two or three months, I was like, I want a haircut — a real haircut. I just missed that experience. I’ve been getting fancy salon cuts since I was 15. It was a huge part of my life to be able to go to a salon and change my hair on a whim. I even thought about being a hair stylist at one point. Now I don’t even think about it. A lot of things were like that — hard to give up initially but after a month or two, I didn’t miss them anymore. Not eating out was hard due to logistics: Okay, I’m getting home at 10pm and then I’m making dinner, so I’m going to bed at 11pm, and I have to make lunch or wake early. Giving up my car was easier than I thought it would be.
Did you lose or make new friends over it?
G: That’s was the hardest part. Not all of our peers signed up for it and so they’re trying to interact with us in the typical consumer way and inviting us to things that cost money and slightly guilting us too — ‘It sucks, I haven’t seen you in so long.’ So there were times when I felt out of sync with my own life, and lonely, especially when summer hit. Calgary summer only lasts for a month, so everyone wants to go out and drink and go to the beach.
I got humorous, snide remarks from friends and coworkers, like ‘I’ll do a Buy Everything Year instead of a Buy Nothing Year,’ or ‘Why would you do that?’ Now that they’ve seen the results of the project, a lot of them have come around. Now when my coworkers or friends ask me about it, they’re more serious and interested in how much money I saved, so we convinced people this was worthwhile. But in the beginning, a lot of people distanced themselves from me or I distanced myself from them because our friendship was based around spending money and they didn’t want to modify those behaviors. I get it — that’s their choice.
Through the project, we also found a lot of allies in unexpected places, like people in the arts and downshifting community and people involved with food security and urban farming.
Julie Phillips and Geoffrey Szuszkiewicz built an aquaponics system and cooked a lot during their Buy Nothing Year (Kevin Jesuino)
How did it feel to lose those friends? Did it make you question doing the project?
G: It definitely made me question it. I almost quit, actually. I almost quit when I fell off my bike and knocked out my tooth and it cost me $5,000. I came home and cried to Julie, Why are we doing this?
J: I definitely shifted the types of things I was doing with friends. I have this group of friends that love to go camping and on trips and to concerts, and spend $150 for Coachella or Vegas, if there are cheap tickets. I haven’t done anything with that group for six months. They’ve stopped calling. They are working corporate jobs and making probably twice as much as me. I’m totally keeping up with the Joneses! I’ve had these friends since I was young. But we’re in a different bracket now.
I’m a maid of honor this summer, and I had to buy the dress and shoes before Buy Nothing Year ended. Since it was my best friend’s wedding, of course I wanted to be part of it, but it did make me think about the social pressures we have to spend. This is a dress and shoes I’ll wear for one day that I didn’t pick, and this happens all the time. You can decline it, but what I said to my girlfriend was, ‘I’m not going to be weird.’ I know she has a lot of other pressures for the wedding. I didn’t want to say, I’ll barter for the dress, and I’ll find a pair of shoes that look the same.
I believe in consciousness or choice. It’s easy to get swept up in lifestyle expectations —
G: or social obligations.
J: Yeah. People ask Geoff and I all the time how to get started, and we always say, start with a week of no spending, or a month. Once you start, you’ll recognize where those temptations are for you. That awareness can really help people.
How has your life has changed?
J: This project, which started out as a challenge between Geoff and I and fun between roommates, ended up having a lifetime effect. The frugality I’ve learned is going to stick with me. It only takes 30 days to get into a new habit, so after a year it feels pretty engrained.
I’ve developed a lot of mindfulness in my life. It shows where you put your focus or attention. I used to constantly want things — more, better, nicer and cheaper. I haven’t done that in a year, so my life is richer. It’s a spiritual outcome, which I didn’t expect at all.
I’m really involved in my day and my surroundings because I’m not in my car all the time. I’m riding my bike and walking, and it’s caused me to think about the bigger picture in our society — here’s the flows of money, here’s the temptations. Calgary is a wealthy city. There’s an expectation that you go out for drinks after work and you have this certain lifestyle if you’re working at a corporation. What does it mean to resist that and think about where your products are coming from and to see the global flow of objects?
G: Where we come from, Alberta, is the economic engine of Canada. It’s got some of the highest wages in all of Canada, but also the highest debt ratio. People like to spend money here. It’s constantly in our faces — look at these cars, these clothes. In our society, being a consumer is the default setting.
One of the biggest lessons I learned is that Before, it was just, I have enough money to buy this thing, so I can buy it. As long as I wasn’t going over my paycheck every month but just bringing it down to $0, I was doing okay.
Now, I would rather not just bring my paycheck down to $0 but to save half of it, because with that money comes freedom and opportunities. If I save enough, I can look at other career paths not focused on money because I have this huge buffer and I’ve learned how to live on a lot less, which is a skill that will serve me for the rest of my life. I won’t be afraid of making less money or to make choices that aren’t motivated by money. I can look at choices more holistic with my life approach that serve me in a spiritual, mental or community-oriented way.
Now that the year is over, what new habits do you plan to keep?
G: I plan on continuing it, not at the same level, but I’m putting in a budget for eating out and things like that. I’m hoping to save more this year. I’m interested in the downshifting movement and something called financial independence — when people who live frugally and save big portions of their income take early retirements anywhere from early 30s to early 40s. (For example, Mr. Money Mustache retired when he was 30.)
J: The journey for me has been about meaning and finding the people and relationships and things that are enriching my life, and not just happening. I see how if I’m mindless, I end up back in these old habits. For example, yesterday was my cousin’s birthday, and I asked my aunt what I should bring, and she said, I have the food worked out — bring her a balloon. And I was like: A balloon for my 28-year-old cousin.
So, same as Geoff, I’ll loosen up on eating out and doing social things and definitely going on trips, since that’s something I really enjoy but because going on a holiday is a time when I’m lax with spending, I’ll see how can I, while I’m away, stay on budget.
How would you recommend people get started?
J: Pay attention to what makes you feel good. Reconcile your accounts every month. I don’t know if it has to be as extreme as Geoff and I have done. Make it fun and do it with friends or family. Part of the reason we kept going was that Geoff and I had each other.
G: It is a huge personal change, so it helps to have someone to talk to about those changes. Other friends couldn’t relate or didn’t understand or weren’t particularly sympathetic. They were like, You’re saving all this money, what do you have to complain about? And it’s like, Yes, but there are changes happening that are difficult to process.
J: I hope the project inspires people to think differently about their consumer habits and that they feel empowered to make changes in their personal financial lives. You’re not trapped. It can actually be a lot of fun. It doesn’t need to be this big lifestyle shift where you’re crying in the snow in a bench. There’s a lot of beauty that can come from being mindful. The benefits outweigh the challenges.
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