Less Is More: A Suburban Mom Resists Consumer Culture to Increase Her Generosity

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.

01_McMahon_JNIn 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.

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13 Comments

  1. Glen Nash
    January 4, 2014 at 12:04 am

    Excellent thoughts, Janet! I commend you on your “experiment” for God! Congrats! Now…have a blessed & fun 2014!

  2. Pam Romberg
    January 4, 2014 at 10:03 am

    Janet….truly God inspired changed! Thanks for sharing your experience and for being so honest about your feelings during your project….or really, more your change in thought, words, and deeds.

  3. Ashley Wyatt
    January 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm

    This was beautiful. I am a single mom with three kids and I so get what you’ve experienced during your fast, except i live the life you lived during your fast every day…. I grew up, however, living the lifestyle similar to yours.

    On behalf of myself and others who live with such restricted means, thank you. You helped so many see what they couldn’t see because they hadn’t experienced it. You freed others from judging or assuming that they knew how we feel and you felt the shame, battle to rise out of feeling we are missing out, or we are less than or the anguish of one more person giving you something….especially when what you’ve been accustomed to is being the giver or the one on the other side who helps . Then you totally embraced the freedom it actually brings and began to live out of gratitude rather than self-pity!

    I needed this today for i am no better than the suburban female consumer …..my “freedom” in this area wants to turn to pride and the gift is lost….whether on this side or that one, truth is we all are the same. We all are in need and we all are able to give.

    What an inspiration, thank you so much!!

  4. Judy
    January 4, 2014 at 9:42 pm

    What a wonderful story …like anything we let go of & give to God with right motives we always get so much more abundance back. How much I could empty my home of 75% of the contents & still have enough. This has been a great reminder to search my own heart to see what changes may be needed. Thank you !!!

  5. Doris Cherwenka Romans
    January 4, 2014 at 10:19 pm

    Janet,
    What an inspiring journey. Thank you for sharing it with everyone.
    Blessings,
    Doris Cherwenka romans

  6. January 8, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    It is much easier for someone to do a fast of consumerism when they have, a savings account, a car, grocery money ect. available to tap in on if needed. Plus it ended for you after a year. For some people it isn’t a fast it is their lifestyle, one not of choice and while you are patting yourself on the back you are surrounded with your friends who didn’t choose this fast and have the availability to help you if it doesn’t work. I know a Pastor that lives this lifestyle one of lets say poverty in his eyes ( lets say consumerism in yours ) yet lives in affluence because of the security of wealthy parents and a large bank account, which is unknown to his congregation deceiving huh ? Do this experiment with nothing but God to count on and with the thought that this is how you will continue to live the rest of your life and then it will impress. Although I am being critical ( forgive me) I wish you the best ,but as a thought it is easy to walk in someones shoes when you know at the end of the year you can slip into your warm comfy new UGG boots after a shopping trip to Macy’s.

  7. Joyce S.
    January 8, 2014 at 5:50 pm

    I am a pastors wife. I would like to tell you we did something similar for Christmas! We gave all of our children including grands cash. But they could only use it as God would lead them to give to someone who needed it. It had to be someone they didn’t know. May I tell you everyone was glad to participate!!!! In fact I learned my granddaughter only 8 years old had gone to the hospital and already had given a little girl a doll Christmas morning before she knew what we were doing. So I want to encourage you to stay with it!!! Be blessed…..

  8. Beth W.
    January 9, 2014 at 10:30 am

    After watching an episode of Extreme Homes, I needed this. I was looking around my “less than” kitchen and home honestly wondering WHY people live that way when this is all I need. It was still nice to hear, so I say Thank you.

  9. Dennis Ewens
    January 9, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Janet, thanks for a most interesting article and a look into your heart. My wife and I have chosen a financially restrained lifestyle, and the blessings are constant and significant. Decades ago we tended to pray for more earthly things, but God has given us the far greater blessing of contentment with what we have. The declaration of I Timothy 6:6 that “godliness with contentment is great gain” is more than just nice words–it’s God’s truth and a wonderful way to live! Thank you for your moving testimony of the value of living on less and giving away more.

  10. Ari
    January 18, 2014 at 3:39 am

    Thank you for this. I’ve been flirting with the idea of a spending freeze for a while and have decided to go with it from now until May (my birthday). I know I don’t need anything, except food, so I’ll just put a lid on the ‘wants’ for the next few months and increase my giving while I’m at it..

  11. maria
    January 18, 2014 at 10:18 am

    Thank you for this!! I loved it. One part I especially connected with was about the vulnerability of having others help you!! I had never named that as a fear but it is absolutely a roadblock for me to feel powerless instead of free. I’m at the beginning of my marriage –not even 6 months yet– and I’ve noticed how many things I haven’t even unpacked. Boxes of stuff that I clearly haven’t used and don’t need. I’ve been living with less in terms of what I actually use, but haven’t taken the step to get rid of the excess.

  12. Troy Long
    January 18, 2014 at 12:05 pm

    We had to live this type of life, but not by choice. I’m 42 and had to go to college full-time, taking 18 credits this semester; I’m in my junior year. We have three kids and my only income is WalMart, part-time, $9 per hour. We are on foods stamps, and every government program that is out there. There is never enough for us, and when the kids need clothes, etc., my wife and I go without even more. We can’t pay any of our bills on time, or at all. My wife and I come from dysfunctional families, and we moved to an area that had the lowest cost of living, plus a university that had the best possibility for employment for the degree that I will be getting. This is only possible through one very important factor — my wife:
    It has been 5 years since she has bought new clothes for herself.
    It has been 5 years since she went to a salon.
    It has been 5 years since she has seen any of the dysfunctional family/friends. (She is not around to do anything for them, so why would they choose to help her?)

    If it wasn’t for her I would:
    Starve
    Stink
    Stop trying to finish this long journey of college life at the age of 42.

    The Lord blessed me with her. And without her, I wouldn’t the person God wants me to be.

  13. Sandi
    January 20, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    I “stumbled” on your article thru another blog and it was such an encouragement to me! My 50th birthday is in a few weeks and I wanted to do something special this year. After reading “7” by Jen Hatmaker, I felt God telling me I had way too much stuff. So I decided not to buy myself any clothes, shoes, accessories this year and instead I would donate money ea month to whatever I felt God put on my heart. This month I’ve given to a friend’s adoption fund. When I told my class at church, women immediately wanted to know if I could accept gifts :)!! I’m a little afraid of what the year will bring but excited by the challenge as well. Thanks for sharing your journey!

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