The Buy-Nothing Lifestyle: Lessons from a Frugal Experiment

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 27 January 2011 8 comments
Photo: Yuri_Arcurs

Could you be ready for a lower-cost lifestyle? During the start of the year, many people resolve to make positive changes in their lives. They usually take on the goal to lose weight or to reduce their debt. But what about the "no buy" lifestyle? This sounds pretty extreme or somewhat absurd, but there are people who seem up to the challenge.

For instance, there's David Hochman, who was able to get through a whole month without spending beyond $100. In fact, his entire family was part of this frugal experiment. Their rules were simple: Other than the bare essentials, like fresh milk and fruit, the Hochman family would do its best not to buy anything.

While this sounds like a pretty extreme way of cutting costs, realize that this was just an experiment to determine how feasible it was to live on very little. (Although extreme saving is somewhat of a sport for some people.) David Hochman's Reader's Digest narration of his family's adventures reveals he learned quite a few things, among them:

  1. Their cupboards had a LOT of food that got them through the month. David's most priceless find: a can of black beans.
     
  2. The free food samples at Costco helped them get by with less. 
     
  3. They could score some free stuff by answering surveys from sites like MySurvey.com.
     
  4. A plumbing emergency could actually be solved by a shot of dishwashing liquid poured into boiling water and poured down a drain that was threatening to regurgitate sewage.
     
  5. There are generous people out there who are willing to give useful things away. For instance, someone offered a free 52-inch plasma TV on Craigslist. (Well, the benefactor just didn't want his ex-wife to get the TV during their divorce proceedings, but that's another story.)

Towards the end of their frugal-living adventure, David and his family found it more and more difficult to keep things together. The pressure of sticking to this financial challenge was starting to affect their relationships, leading to frayed nerves. By the end of the month, they were bickering, feeling irritable and stressed out. Clearly, there is a downside to radical savings methods and forcing ourselves to adapt to very stringent, limited budgets.

On the other hand, there were also a lot of valuable lessons learned from this experience. Things turned out differently for David once the experiment was over. He had expected his family to return to its previous spending habits, but they didn't. Instead, David's family members stayed close to home and learned how to keep their frugal habits in place. Their experience with extreme frugal living allowed David and his family to realize that they could live on much less and to appreciate the things that they already have. By these measures, this experiment was a success.

David recalled a rich person once telling him, "Money is important only if you don't have any." Indeed, that can be a bit of a paradox: Most of us actually have so much, but it's a pity that we don't always appreciate the things we already have.

For more examples of extreme savings challenges, check out this list of one-year challenges that other folks have embarked on. Here's a look at a few of them:

  • The Compact is a group of people from San Francisco who've made the commitment not to buy anything new for an entire year.
     
  • The Great American Apparel Diet is an ongoing pledge you can make that involves not buying any new clothes for a year.
     
  • What about promising to skip on dining out and entertainment for a year? Check out this blog called Not Eating Out in New York.

So how about you? Could you possibly learn to live on much less? 

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Guest's picture

It seems to me that a lot of these no-spend type challenges really don't save a lot in the long run. After all, if you can get through a month (or a week or whatever) by using food off your pantry shelf, that's great, but at some point that food is going to run out and you're going to have to start buying food to eat, plus spend more if you want to replenish your supply.

I'm all for spending less, but it seems like if you're not realistic in your expectations, you're going to end up awfully disappointed if you follow up your $100 spend month with a higher-than-normal month of spending because of how much you delayed.

Guest's picture

I agree. We tried a no-spend 30 challenge but had to restock our shelves after the month was over. So to an extent, we differed the expense. However, I believe the real benefit comes in many of the non-food expenses. If you can curb your appetite for new clothes, the latest video game, or the New York Times' bestseller, then the no-spend challenge can be worthwhile.

Another often overlooked consideration is how to still get what you want on a small budget. So getting new books is perfectly fine. But do you buy each new one that comes out or use a site like swap.com to trade for books? So simply starving yourself of spending isn't necessarily productive. You need to find ways to still satiate just on a reduced budget.

Guest's picture
Olivia

To answer your question.
Yes we can get by on much less. We have in the past.

I think the takeaway, as you mentioned, from Dave's experiment is that his family's "need" threshhold was lowered. That's always useful when you are in a forced frugality situation. They know they can do it and they're more resilient because of it. They also learned some frugal workarounds. The experiement was not a waste.

Guest's picture
Amy

I would think that in order to pull off an extreme budget, it would help to really stock up on stuff first. Stocking up requires money or work. Not necessarily both. For example, you could stock up on pears if you have a pear tree. You could grow your own veggies if you have space to garden. But, overall, to live for a month out of the food you have in your pantry, you must first buy or grow the food you have in your pantry, and eventually restock. The trick to this is restocking in a thrifty manner. The best things to stock up on are the tools and knowedge to keep grocery store and repair men out of your life. Start a garden, learn to cut your own hair, patch your clothes if they rip, and generally take care of problems by yourself, or with the help of your friends and family.

Guest's picture
Michele

This "experiment" is reality for thousands of families on welfare in Philadelphia, where I live. The basic benefit is something like $300 (the figure has not been adjusted for inflation since about 1990), out of which a person is supposed to pay rent, utilities, transportation, clothing, groceries, medical co-pays, etc. Even with subsidized housing or Medicaid, there are so many people who live on less than even that $100 every month that this whole idea sounds truly tasteless to me.

Guest's picture

I like the idea of these challenges, but can't help feeling, particularly where food is concerned, that the long term challenge is really about getting as close to zero waste as you can. Certainly in our house over the last year, we've started making meals now once or twice a week from whatever is left in the cupboards or fridge. In the past we would have nipped out to Tesco for a few things to get dinner sorted - but not now. It's not a conscious challenge to spend less we've embarked upon as opposed to a conscious effort to make the most of what's already here.
The reference to free Costco samples made me smile - my kids love Costco, mainly because of the free samples. The upside is that they're willing to try lost of different things. Last week my ten year old made us buy a pack of fresh anchovies as a result of the samples! ...Yeeuucch!

Guest's picture
Whitters

I actually live by this little rule everyday! Except, yes, I do spend when I need to, but the point is NOT to spend to keep me from spending money on unnecessary things. For example, I might need to buy gas, and that's okay. But at the same time I'm buying gas, do I really need that three dollar turkey sandwich, or can I wait to eat until I get home? So, I do not spend unless I need something, and maybe once a month I'll spend money on something I want because I deserve it :) It keeps me sane and happy.

Guest's picture
Guest

I appreciate the experiment that Dave and his family went through. You would have to make sure you are stocked up with food and hygeine supplies before starting this experiment. However, I'm sure his family realized that they could do without a lot of unnecessary spending when the month was over. And THAT is really the whole point.