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The Buy-Nothing Holiday Survival Guide

Post written by Leo Babauta.

The holidays can be tough — especially when you’ve committed to Buy Nothing Until 2013, and everywhere around you there are sales and ads and everyone else shopping.

How is a lonely soul to survive these trying times?

Not to fear. We have the answers, in this handy little survival guide.

Strategy 1: Breathe

The first step is to breathe, and in doing so, to calm down if your heart is beating faster and your gut has an urge to go to Amazon or Gap and buy something. Breathe, and let the urge dissipate.

Breathing is a way of being mindful, which will help us to notice our urges to buy something before we take action and actually shop.

A Note on Necessities

Remember, in the Buy Nothing Until 2013 challenge, it’s actually OK to buy necessities. A number of Twitter commenters seemed to have missed that bit.

It’s perfectly fine to buy groceries, household supplies, and other necessities. So we’re not literally buying nothing.

Sometimes something might be on the border — new underwear when your old underwear is getting a bit threadbare. Is that a necessity? It’s really your call — there are no judges, no one is policing this challenge.

However, one suggestion: if it’s on the border, see if you can do without it for a little longer. Yes, underwear is a necessity, but you can also wear something a bit longer before buying more.

More on doing without in the next section.

Strategy 2: Do Without

After you’ve breathed, and you’re now considering whether you need to buy something because it seems like a necessity (some new jeans, new underwear, a new chair) … pause and see if you can go another month or so without it.

Often the answer is yes. While we might be in the habit of buying something as soon as we think we need it, in days of yore, people would make something last longer by repairing it, or just make do with something a little broken but still usable, or just make do without. And somehow, they survived!

We can do the same. Make do without buying something new, for another month or so. You’ll survive! If it’s more urgent than that, see one of the strategies below.

Strategy 3: Find Gift Alternatives

One of the more difficult aspects of buying nothing during the holiday season is that many people around you will be buying gifts, and you’ll feel obligated to do so too. There are a few ways to deal with that.

First, what we do (and have for a few years now) is talk to our family and friends, and let them know that we’re not doing gifts this year. While they might think that’s a bit weird at first, it brings up a conversation where you can explain why — getting away from consumerism, saving money and getting out of debt, using fewer resources, and so on. Actually, just refer them to the Buy Nothing Until 2013 article. Most likely, they’ll understand, and some people will join you.

But if you’re worried about being left out when everyone else is exchanging gifts, you can make gifts. You can bake cookies or brownies or pumpkin cake, and wrap them as gifts. If you’re good with woodwork or crafts or sewing, you can make something with your hands. You can do nice things like wash someone’s car or babysit or build a website for them. One year I made a website devoted to my wife as a gift.

Read more: The Case Against Buying Christmas Presents and Kids Who Are Gift-less are Gifted.

Strategy 4: Unsubscribe From Catalogs, Ignore Ads

Ads are meant to get us to buy things, and they can be very effective. This is one reason I don’t watch cable TV (and haven’t for many years) — the ads are such strong influences on what we buy, and I don’t want my kids influenced by all that.

You can reduce your exposure to drool-inducing ads by unsubscribing from anything that comes into your inbox or Facebook or Twitter feed that advertises anything. If a company sends you a catalog or newsletter that tries to get you to buy something, simply unsubscribe. Your life will be fine without them.

You can stop watching cable TV, or use DVR to skip ads. You can use an ad blocker to skip many ads on websites.

Strategy 5: Don’t Go to Shopping Areas

Shopping areas are designed to get you to buy things, and it inevitably works. Don’t go to a shopping mall, or Walmart or Target or whatever your favorite box store is.

Also, don’t go to Amazon. There’s nothing there that you need — at least for the next month. Don’t go to your other favorite websites for shopping. At least until January.

Strategy 6: Borrow

If you decide you absolutely can’t go without, see if you can borrow it instead of buying. Many times, a friend or family member has a drill or a winter coat they’re not using right now, and they won’t mind sparing it.

Is it embarrassing to borrow something? I once thought so, but I’ve changed my mind. I now think it’s a smarter way to use resources — sharing rather than everyone owning their own copies of things they don’t use much. And it’s a good way to get people to interact more, instead of being isolated and insulated. When you go next door to borrow a cup of sugar, you’re talking with your neighbor, which is a rarity for most of us.

Strategy 7: Trade or Find Free

If you can’t do without or borrow, you can often find it for free, or trade for it:

  • Send out an email or put up a Facebook post letting everyone you know that you need a wheelbarrow or shelf, and if they have one they don’t need, you’d love to have it. And you’d be willing to trade something if they need something.
  • Look on Craigslist or Freecycle. Or put a wanted ad on one of those sites.
  • Libraries have free books, CDs, DVDs.
  • There are a number of online sites that help people swap books and other stuff.

Strategy 8: Buy Used

This is a last alternative, because basically it’s buying, and it’s best to avoid it. However, if you’ve really exhausted the above options, and you absolutely can’t do without for a month, or borrow, trade or find it free, then buy used.

Try a thrift store in your area. Or find it on Craigslist or Ebay. Or go to a flea market.

Buying used is a great alternative, because it stops something used from being discared, and extends its life, thereby wasting fewer resources. It’s also usually cheaper.

Strategy 9: Put Saved Money to Good Use

This last strategy is pretty useful in my experience. Let’s say you don’t buy anything for the holidays, and thereby save hundreds or even thousands of dollars. What then? What happens to all that cash? Put it to a good cause, and you’re more likely to stick to the challenge.

For some people, it means digging less of a hole, being less in debt. So your good cause is being debt-free! And that’s exciting, so you’re less likely to buy something if you have that good cause in mind.

For others, it might mean being more financially sound, by saving up an emergency fund. I find the emergency fund to be absolutely critical for financial stability — my life is so much freer of worry now that I’ve built up an emergency fund.

And if you have those two needs covered, consider doing something else good with the money: give it to a good charity or cause, or do something good for your family.

Having a good purpose in mind for the loads of cash you’ll save makes it easier to do without, rather than just buying whenever we feel the urge.

Conclusion: This Can Change Your Life

The Buy Nothing Until 2013 challenge can have many effects for people who are used to shopping during the holidays:

  • You’ll save money and/or get into less debt.
  • You can help a good cause with that money.
  • You’ll help stop your habit of impulse shopping.
  • You’ll get out of the consumerist mindset, and remember what truly matters.
  • You might help others shop less, and get out of the consumerist mindset, through your example.
  • You’ll have more time for doing things that matter, rather than shopping.
  • You’ll have less stress from all the holiday shopping.
  • You’ll find more contentment, because you know that you have everything you need.

It’s changed my life. I’ve realized that buying is not only unnecessary most of the time, it’s destructive. Let’s build something new, based on human connection and compassion.

Zen Habits

Leo Babuata
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