Thousands of Americans Try to Buy Nothing at All. Here’s How They Do It

A basket of goods from the Buy Nothing Project
A basket of goods from the Buy Nothing Project | Buy Nothing Project/Facebook

Think you could go a full day without making a single purchase? How about a week or even a month? Lots of us try this every now and again in an attempt to save money. Many more are forced to do it when there’s simply nothing left from the last paycheck. Living without money — or by subscribing to the “buy nothing” mindset — is difficult. Though it’s a short phase or challenge for most people who attempt it, others have adopted it as a lifestyle.
That’s right: There are thousands of people out there who attempt to buy nothing at all. Some succeed to varying degrees. But the enemy of good is perfection, as they say. And finding ways to curb spending and consumption are typically positive steps even if you do slip up now and then.
We’ll look into the “buy nothing” lifestyle that’s becoming more and more popular. But we’ll also try to be realistic about it. There are, after all, things you’re going to have to buy. There’s really no way around some purchases. If living frugally and getting more in touch with your immediate community sounds appealing, however, it might be a lifestyle worth investigating.
First things first: What is the “buy nothing” lifestyle, and how did it gain traction? The story — or at least the origins of organized frugality, in this sense — starts on Bainbridge Island in Washington state. It takes the form of the Buy Nothing Project.

The ‘Buy Nothing Project’

A woman shops at the low cost, high volume Costco supermarket warehouse -- the opposite of the "buy nothing" lifestyle
A woman shops at Costco — the opposite of the “buy nothing” lifestyle. | Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The Buy Nothing Project isn’t terribly large, but the philosophies it professes are gaining a foothold. Obviously, most people aren’t going to even attempt to live their lives without making purchases. But at the root of the group’s philosophy is something almost everyone can get behind: Buy and use less, share more, and build a community.
According to the project’s official website, groups exist all over the country boasting thousands of members. And they have a presence in more than 20 different countries. As for how it works, it’s pretty simple: “Post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Keep it legal. Keep it civil. No buying or selling, no trades or bartering, we’re strictly a gift economy.”
In a nutshell, these “buy nothing” groups are creating self-sustaining, local communities that meet the needs of all of their members. Idealistic? You bet. Realistic? It seems to be working, to some extent, for at least some people.
With the “buy nothing” philosophy picking up steam, does that mean there’s a group nearby you can join?

Worldwide groups

Young people having fun at the lake on a summer day
People have fun at a lake on a summer day. |

The Buy Nothing Project’s group listings can act as a starting place if you’re looking to curb your consumption. On the site, there are also options for starting groups if there are none nearby. But you should be able at least to get the wheels in motion. The other place you’ll want to start looking is on social media channels — Facebook in particular.
You can sniff around on other local sites, such as Craigslist. Of course, you’re bound to run into all sorts of characters online, especially those who are partaking in alternative lifestyles. But if you’re serious about it, these are the people you’ll need to form relationships with and eventually interact with to get by.
From there? You get into the real meat of the “buy nothing” mindset.

Trading and bartering

clothes on a rack
Clothes are easy to trade. |

At the core of any transaction is a simple trade. In almost every case, we’re trading money (cash, checks, credit card swipes) for goods or services. That’s all it is. And we don’t barter all that much anymore, but it does happen. Money has become our medium for transactions, but it doesn’t have to be the only medium.
With that said, if you’re serious about adopting the “buy nothing” mantle, you’re going to want to get comfortable making trades and bartering. In all likelihood, your main goal is to save money. So you’ll end up “buying” and “selling” things other than money as a result. That means fewer “things” and less “stuff.” You know, sacrifices.
If this is still all sounding crazy and difficult, you’re probably wondering what the actual benefits are.

The benefits

Money in piggy bank and purchases on table. Closeup
You’ll save money with this lifestyle. |

There are some clear benefits to living life without monetary purchases. The most obvious? You’ll save money — a lot of it, if you’re playing your cards right. This is why most people even attempt to buy nothing in almost all cases.
But in addition to padding your savings, you’ll experience less clutter around the house (hopefully), build stronger ties with your neighbors and community members, and probably make some new friends.
With that in mind, there are some obvious drawbacks, too.

The drawbacks

lonely man looking out the window
You might become isolated if you refuse to have dinner with friends. |

Just as the benefits are obvious, so are the downfalls. You’d better get used to living without many modern conveniences. You’ll still need to buy food but no more Domino’s or UberEATS. Goodbye new, stylish clothing. Say sayonara to the idea of buying a new car. You’ll live without these things, of course, but it does take the spice out of life.
On top of that, your social life will probably take a hit. If you’re not picking up the tab when you hit the bar with friends every now and then, they might not call you anymore. Birthdays and holidays are a challenge, too, as gifts become trickier to nail down.
All in all, spending your time without spending any money will take some getting used to. But there are some resources out there that should help.


woman using cell phone
There are several resources to help you. |

You’ll need to keep your search local, but there are resources out there that can help you find what you need to keep living a somewhat normal life. Search for local farmers and flea markets to do some bartering, as well as swap meets. Some cities even have places where you can borrow tools — they’re essentially libraries for homeowners.
Speaking of libraries, use yours to the fullest extent. Many have games and movies in addition to books and periodicals. Also, use sites, such as Freecycle, religiously. And keep an eye on the “free” section on Craigslist.
If you find yourself slipping up, don’t fret. There are some purchases that simply have to be made.

The unavoidable purchases

Medicine Pill removed from blister
Medical care is something you’ll still need to purchase. |

Yes, there are some things you can’t make yourself or find at a swap meet. For example, you’re probably going to need transportation and medical care at some point, and that’s something you’ll need to shell out for. The same goes for medications. You might be able to brew your own beer and hunt for your dinner, but don’t try making your pain relievers on a stove top — it’ll only end up badly.
Give yourself a budget — an emergency budget, if it makes you feel better — for when these unavoidable expenses do pop up.

Is a ‘buy nothing’ lifestyle right for you?

customer chooses the cheese in the store
Do you want to give up shopping? |

The one thing you’ll want to do before charging full bore into the “buy nothing” lifestyle is to ask whether it’s seriously something you want to do. If you have a spouse or kids, then you need to look at the idea from all angles and consider the downsides. In fact, it might be better to dip your toes at first rather than decide you’re through spending money. Yes, you’ll save a lot. And yes, it’s probably going to suck and take some big adjustments.
But those adjustments might be more than you and your family can handle — at least all at once. Like extreme couponing, it takes a certain type of person to live the “buy nothing” lifestyle to the max. If you do decide to go for it, getting started requires some baby steps.

Taking the challenge: Getting started

Businessman using a calculator
Businessman using a calculator |

So you’re going for it, eh? Don’t immediately stop making purchases. Be sure you know how and where you can get the things you need, and know what you’re willing to part with (trade away, etc.) first. Learn to wash your clothes by hand and to sew before it’s too late. Figure out where the farmers market is and how long it’ll take to walk to work rather than drive.
Ween yourself off of purchases at first. Try “buy nothing” days and then weeks. See what you can manage. Don’t ruin your whole life, and be sure the sacrifices you’re making are within reason. And remember nobody gets away with spending absolutely nothing.