By Janet McMahon
“I’ve been thinking we should give away our Yukon.”
My husband spoke these words early on a Saturday morning. My heart sank and soared at the same time. We had been driving that GMC Yukon for the last eight years. I loved that Yukon, but the truth is, we no longer needed a vehicle that big. With two of our three kids grown and mostly out of the house, we rarely needed a vehicle that could transport all five of us at the same time.
Sell it, yes, but give it away, now that was an idea I didn’t expect to hear from my husband. This decision seemed to come as a result of a decision we made in January 2013.
My husband, Troy, had an idea that we should try to give away 20 percent of our income for the year. Troy is naturally generous. I, on the other hand, am not. I think about storing stuff, saving for the future, making sure I have what I need, and being financially secure. If you are good at reading between the lines, you might conclude that I am naturally stingy and afraid.
In spite of my natural tendencies, I was inspired by Troy’s notion that we could increase our generosity, so I thought to myself, something’s going to have to give. Since not paying the mortgage leads to homelessness, and not buying food for our daughter still at home is child abuse, I decided the most logical choice was to stop buying stuff for myself. So the project began. I would not purchase anything for myself for the entire calendar year.
I know what you are thinking, because I get asked about this a lot: What are the rules of this yearlong “not-buying-anything” project? Can you really not buy ANYthing? What about a cup of coffee or dinner out or a ticket to a movie?
Good questions. Here are the rules. I can buy food, either in the grocery store or at a restaurant. I can buy experiences like going to the movies or tickets to a museum. I can buy personal hygiene things, like shampoo, deodorant, soap, etc. (However when buying these personal things, I have to spend the least amount possible, like $1.99, so no fancy products, just the basics.) That’s it. Nothing else. No clothes, no haircuts, no eyebrow waxing, no cute little decorations for the home, not so much as a picture frame. You get the picture?
Before I tell you some of the unexpected and amazing lessons from this journey, let’s get some of the details out of the way. It was way harder in the beginning months than it has been in the last few months. In the beginning I was almost cursing under my breath when I saw stuff I could not buy.
The hardest part were things that cost less than $5, like a crochet hook for $1.19. Really? A crochet hook? I can’t even buy that? I felt helpless and frustrated that I could not have what I “need.” A T-shirt on sale for $3 made me want to quit. Three dollars is almost free, right? I am almost losing money by not buying that.
I resorted to going to a store only if I absolutely had to. Sometimes I have to purchase stuff for the church, or a gift for a friend, or school supplies for my daughter—those are the only times I go to a store. And I get in and out as fast as I can (much to the frustration of my 14-year-old daughter, who cannot wait for 2013 to end).
Although the frustrations of the project are real, and I am super excited to buy some clothes next year, they pale in comparison to the freedom I feel. The project gave me permission to live differently than my middle-class, suburban culture, as if I needed permission.
One day, after seeing multiple advertisements for antiaging products that my project did not allow me to buy, I suddenly gave myself the freedom to age naturally and beautifully without any products to prevent it. I was free to live and act and be 49 years old in all my glory. I felt relief I did not have to get caught up in the expensive world of antiaging, and instead could be free to help a child have access to clean food and water so she could “age” another day. I felt empowered. I am in control of me; the culture is not in control of me. I am feeling free, not controlled by a constant need to consume.
The purpose of the project was to be able to give away more. I have learned some things along the way, but not necessarily what I expected.
I Learned About Myself
I have not purchased anything for myself for an entire year, and I still have way more than I need. A lot of what I own I do not even like, and so I am giving it away. I have decided I want to own only what I truly love, and the rest I will get rid of. Less stuff has proven to be extremely satisfying and almost peaceful for me. If I don’t use it, wear it, or want it, it’s gone.
I learned I am strong. I decide what I do, what I need, and what I want. The world doesn’t decide what I do or need or want. I don’t have to keep up, compare, or be like anyone else. I am free to love what I love, wear what I wear, and be who I am.
I have more time. I don’t shop. I don’t spend a lot of time online looking for things to buy. I don’t have to spend time deciding whether I should get something; the answer is always “no,” no decision required.
I Learned About Others
The most surprising thing I learned was a lesson in community. When I can buy stuff for myself, I do not need to rely on anyone else. I am self-sufficient. I am independent. When I cannot get things for myself, I become reliant on others, and interdependent.
My friends came to my rescue in a number of surprising ways, like sharing their extras—shampoo and lotion and personal products. My friends bought me things they knew I like and wanted but could not buy. I borrowed their clothes and shoes for special occasions like graduations and weddings.
This was difficult and humbling. Each time a friend left a surprise on my desk at work or showed up with a bag from Target on my doorstep, I wanted to scream, “Nooooo!”
I give to others; others don’t give to me. That is not how my life works. I am the helper to others; I am not the one needing or receiving help from others.
It is humbling to receive from others. But it is a necessary discipline of being in true community. I am learning what it might feel like being on the receiving end of someone else’s generosity, and I feel one of two ways. On my best days I feel grateful and thankful, on my worst days, I feel embarrassed and “less than.”
So here is what I am coming to believe. Generosity, either mine to others or others to me, is not about me. I don’t get to be superior nor do I get to be inferior. The only healthy option in true community is a natural give-and-take that honors God, who gets all the glory for being an amazing provider.
I Learned About God
I did not intend for this project to be a fast, but I think that is what it is turning out to be. I am fasting from my consumer life. And in this fast, God has taught me about his desires for me. What started as a project has turned into a prayer that God would somehow make this a fast that pleases him. In Isaiah God says,
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter? And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday (Isaiah 58:6, 7, 10).
I have come to the conclusion my wealth is not for me to keep; my wealth is for me to give away to meet the needs of a world that is dying. My wealth is a tool God placed in my hand to bring justice and to make things right.
From the very beginning I took my family off the hook on this project. This was about me and my consumerism; they were free to carry on. So when Troy proposed giving away the Yukon, I was delighted. He joined me in the journey. We gave it to a family still carting around a whole brood, and Troy chose to drive a beat-up old car.
When this year ends, I’m planning to buy a new outfit or two. But I hope I have been transformed. I hope I am forever free of a consumer culture that convinces me I need more. I hope I continue to give away 20 percent of my income, and that I am able to increasingly live on less so I can give away more.
Janet McMahon serves as community life director with Restore Community Church in Kansas City, Missouri. Find her blog at janetmcmahon.typepad.com/less_is_more/. Listen to Janet tell more about her experience January 9, 11 a.m. EST at www.blogtalkradio.com/standardpublishing.