How buying less stuff can be empowering

I  made the decision to join The Compact and live a nonconsumer lifestyle as an experiment, because I wanted to learn to live on less money and embrace a less materialistic lifestyle that I had a sense would make me happier. Almost two years later, I can’t imagine ever going back.

A new reader  has inspired me to write this post with her comment about how she and her three kids put together their Halloween costumes for no money, when in the past she would easily spend up to $100 for costumes. By using a little creativity and resourcefulness, they had a great time and saved money in the bargain.

And that’s exactly what I love about being a nonconsumer. Rather than throwing money at a need or desire, with a little ingenuity you can usually come up with something even better. And for me, being creative and resourceful is so much more rewarding than laying down a credit card. If you can accept the idea that not having everything you want exactly when you want it really isn’t the end of the world, you can look beyond the advertisements and peer pressure and “keeping up with the Joneses,” and start to figure out what really makes YOU happy.

Not having a lot of material possessions is not about deprivation. Millions of people have always known this, and millions more are finding out. What makes us happy isn’t STUFF. But sometimes even when we know it, we keep going for it. “Maybe just this one thingsurely THAT will make me happier…” And even when it does make us happy, it’s very short-lived. Because when you step off the consumer treadmill, it may feel strange and unfamiliar at first, it may make you nervous, but I promise you it can be the beginning of something… And that something is up to you.

Our consumer culture is kind of like an addiction. It reminds me of when I quit smoking cigarettes almost 20 years ago. The main reason I wanted to quit was for my health, but another strong motivator was that I wanted to feel in control of my own life again. I felt like I was a puppet of the cigarette companies. Because in the scheme of things, did I really want to smoke cigarettes? Was that in my life plan, my long-term goals of what I wanted to accomplish with my life? Of course not. But cigarettes fed an immediate desire, and so it became harder and harder to give them up. When I did, I felt in control of designing my own life for the first time in years.

When I focused on what I’d be gaining if I quit smoking (good health and the positive, productive lifestyle I wanted), rather than what I’d be giving up (cigarettes), I was finally free to make a rational decision instead of an addiction-based one.

Being a nonconsumer isn’t about deprivation. For me, it’s about being creative and resourceful – – about giving gifts, about how I dress, about how we decorate our home, about how we travel, and about how we live our lives. And being resourceful and creative is not only fun, it’s empowering. Because you’re making a choice, stepping off the prescribed path, mixing things up a little. Saving money is a bonus.

Things don’t give our lives meaning. Original? No. Trite? Maybe. But sometimes obvious or trite happens to be true.

What gives our lives meaning are people, experiences, ritual, art, culture, a life of the mind, daily acts of kindness, and a host of other non-material things. Those are some of the main categories, but each of our individual answers will be a bit different. For me personally, some of the things that give my life meaning are my husband, my friends and family, my writing, music, art, picnics, great books, hugs, good subversive comedy, working to give something back to the community, questioning the purpose of my existence and the future of humanity, and trying to leave things a little better for generations to come.

Thanks Jenn, for your inspiring comment! I’m reprinting it here: 

“I just found your blog! I love it. I totally want to embrace your lifestyle. This year for the first time EVER, I spent no money on Halloween costumes! My kids are 14, 12 and 8. My oldest son wasn’t trick or treating, but just going to a party and wanted to wear a mask. I work at a large office and sent out an e-mail if anyone had a mask they weren’t using. I had 6 choices for my son, which he like several of and was perfectly happy with. My daughter wanted to be a dead bride, couldn’t find a costume but I remembered a neighbor girl who is a little older than my daughter was that last year, and talked to the Mom and she still had it, in great condition and my daughter was super happy. And for my middle son, he was dressed as a 3 hole punch (like Jim from the office). I work at an architecture/design firm, I found black fabric samples that we didn’t need and used that to make the 3 holes. I am not joking when I say I’ve spent well over a hundred dollars on costumes for the three of them and how unnecessary that was. I can’t wait to read more of your tips. It was such a great feeling not spending money on that!”

Readers, what do you think? Please share your thoughts about what gives your life meaning, how it feels to not spend money on something you’d always assumed you needed to in the past, creative Halloween costumes you’ve come up with, or anything else this post inspires  in the Comments section.


  1. says

    Angela, can I use your paragraphs ( I’ll cite you as the source) on quitting smoking? I’ve nevr thought of it that way, and it makes sense? I love your blog, and it really is inspiring!

    • Angela says

      Hi Sam! I’m so happy you like my blog. Yes, please feel free to use the paragraphs about quitting smoking. If I can inspire one person in my lifetime to quit smoking, I would be so happy. Millions of lives have been lost to cigarettes.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. says

    Excellent post, and well needed with the “Black Friday Now” madness among retailers. More than once in a recent New York Times article consumers were referred to as being “trained.” Exactly! My life feels so rich as I spend time in the library, in the park with the family’s rescue dog, volunteering at a river cleanup, co-hosting clothing swaps or acquiring items for pennies on the dollar at a charitable thrift shop. I can’t imagine ever going back to thinking I was “treating myself” by spending a lot of money on an item (ahem, Anthropologie). Thank you for being an inspiring voice for our times.

    • Angela says

      Hi Catherine! Yes, doesn’t it feel that way? As if we are trained? Someone let it slip!

      I’m trying to make very careful purchases, that will help the economy, especially the local economy. Restaurants, services, thrift stores, hand crafted and locally made items all spur the economy and allow us to do our part in that area. I love your examples of experiences that make your life richer, and I’m a former Anthropologie addict as well (although I still have all the items I ever bought there, and they were on sale).

      Thanks so much for your comment.

  3. says

    The other really terrific thing about your example is how it inspires connection with other people. Jenn probably has people at work asking her about her Halloween experience, along with her neighbor and maybe even parents of her children’s friends. When you take time to really be part of an experience in a meaningful way, other people want to connect with you about that.

    • Angela says

      Betsy- Yes! That’s so true. It’s the opposite of every person and every family shopping for their own personal “fill in the blank” instead of sharing, cooperating, and reusing. Ultimately, it’s very subversive, this stuff!

  4. says

    I struggle with living a non consumer life. I always feel great when we can live with less, but when I end up buying a bunch of stuff, I feel like a chump. Or a shopaholic, lol. Your post is very inspiring and reminds me of what the point of it all is. Thanks!

    • Angela says

      Shannon- you’re welcome! Thanks so much for commenting. I don’t think you need to feel like a chump or beat yourself up when you buy things. First of all, I don’t think all things are bad. But when shopping and spending money make you feel bad about yourself and/or you don’t want to do it but it seems out of your control, then that’s when it might be time to step back. And like anything, when you stop doing it as a hobby or to feed a lack, it gets easier and easier to do without.

      Thanks again for your comment. I know many of us can relate.

  5. says

    I’m in the middle of decluttering my possessions and this post is inspiring me to not purchase anything else. I need to keep repeating your sentence on what gives our life meaning. Meaning is certainly not found in my two storage lockers but I’m still finding it tough to let stuff go.
    FYI I’m going to link to your frugal vs cheap post next week as it supports my argument on what the difference is.
    Thanks for the inspiring read!

    • Angela says

      Katy, you’re welcome! I’m so glad you found the post inspiring. Believe me, we’re all in the same boat. I can’t believe how much of my life is spent sorting, organizing, and trying to part with STUFF. That’s the main reason I don’t want any more of it! Feel free to link to my post, and thanks for commenting!

  6. Cathy says

    The confidence and resourcefulness that develop from thinking & behaving as a non-consumer are, in my opinion, better than relying on a pot of money to solve problems. It is liberating to know that no matter what might crop up, you will be able to figure out a solution.

    • Angela says

      Cathy- I agree! Liberating is a good word for it. Some of the most helpless people I’ve ever known were the type who hired someone to do everything for them. After a time, I think it starts making you actually feel less confident about yourself, even without realizing it. Our brains were meant for problem solving, not problem avoiding.

      Thanks for your comment!

  7. Queen Lucia says

    Hi Angela – this is a great post and very timely for me. My family doesn’t follow any particular set of rules for simple, frugal living, but over the past several years I’ve been working on this slowly and have just realized the culmination of our efforts – we were able to buy our first home, after years of believing this to be beyond us. But frugal living has enabled us to pay our bills on time, pay OFF our bills, and not accumulate more debt (and stuff) – and we didn’t see or really feel that happening, didn’t feel any deprivation. The result was a credit score that enabled us to obtain a mortgage far higher than we needed for the home we wanted (or what we were willing to commit to each month!). Our slowly established habits also resulted in deciding on a house that was “enough” and not “too much” – too much room, too much maintenance, too much work, or too much money – and instead of focusing on the biggest and shiniest, we bought a modest home in a terrific neighborhood, one we never thought we’d be able to live in. Our move was manageable because we’ve gotten rid of so much clutter over the years, and got rid of more as we packed.

    But besides that, we also have more time to spend with friends and family (and doing fun, frugal things), we spend more vacation time in the summer (frugal camping mostly), are volunteering more in our community, and planning some out-of-country travel. All this, and we work in the arts, not a notoriously well paying industry. Before, I just “believed” simple frugality was the way – now I KNOW!

    Reading this over, I see that it’s long and slightly zealot-y. Apologies! I guess it’s my frame of mind….
    Queen Lucia

    • Angela says

      Queen Lucia- I’m so happy the post was timely and relevant for you. I owe it all to my commenter Jenn, because it really took me back to why I do this and what I get from it. It has become so obvious and second nature to me that it’s not about deprivation, that sometimes when I remember that a lot of the popular culture would look at it that way.

      Congratulations on not just buying your home, but staying out of debt and paying your bills. That’s a very satisfying feeling. Good for you!

      And bravo on your lifestyle- it sounds perfect to me!

      Thanks so much for sharing. I had the exact same feeling when I was writing my post, that maybe it was too zealous, but sometimes those are the ones I get passionate about and that people respond to.

  8. says

    I think the change I’ve made that I’m most proud of is the move from “salon” haircuts to cutting my own hair. Every week someone compliments me on my hair: they love it, wish they could do it, it suits me, it’s my trademark etc etc. No one ever gave me such compliments after a $30.00 haircut lol! My older brother inspired me, which may sound strange, but we both have similar round little heads and wiry salt and pepper hair. He bought himself a pair of clippers and started cutting it himself. So about seven years ago I took the plunge and bought my own clippers for $15.00. I calculate that $15.00 investment has saved me over $3600.00 in the past seven years. Not being too confident I gave myself my first haircut at the beginning of summer (I’m a teacher) so I’d have 2 months to grow it back in if it was a disaster. But I loved it, it’s so freeing and it’s just simply ME!

  9. Angela says

    Jane! That is so funny, since you just sent me a photo for Thrifty Threads last week, and I indeed commented on your fantastic haircut. How great that you took that step. I don’t think I could cut my own hair- it is so thick and wavy – but also I don’t know if I would have the guts- so good for you! And $3600, wow!

    REaders, you will see the haircut she’s talking about in a couple of weeks on Thrifty Threads!

    Thanks for commenting, Jane.

  10. says

    I didn’t spend money on Halloween costumes either and it felt great. My daughter wanted to be Snow White. I had given my niece a Snow White costume years ago (she is now 9), so I called up my sister to see if she still had it. She did! Woo hoo! I love Halloween and always save interesting things to put back for costumes. I was able to piece together an entire super hero outfit from stuff I had. The cape was made from a red wool poncho someone gave me. I just cut off the fringe and voila, instant cape. I will give this advice. I know it may not be great to accumulate a lot of stuff, but if you find interesting pieces at the thrift store or have something cool that you just don’t wear anymore, drop it in a costume box and store it. You never know when it will come in handy. I have used my stash over and over.

    • Angela says

      Casie- I also save some clothes for costumes, although probably too many. It’s fun on Halloween though. I have my eye out for a trunk.

  11. says

    im so happy i found your blog. it is wonderful…. my husband and I are trying very hard to live more frugally. in the past we bought things we really could not afford in an attempt to keep up with the joneses and now find ourselves in huge debt. we refer to ourselves as jerks however now that we are both 51 and married 30 years a lightbulb went off and we are getting more serious and are tackling the debts slowly but it will get done.
    the television commercials upset me so much….
    something like hurry in and buy your new dining room set today and have it delivered in time for thanksgiving and pay no interest until 2015….well you better hope you paid for that entire table because if its not paid in full by 2015 you will be paying ten times more than it was even worth.
    not to mention, if people dont like my old table they need not come over for thanksgiving….why do we have to purchase new furniture for the holidays….if you had your loved ones over all year they already know what your table or couch looks like……

    everyone these days wants the newest, updated versions. I am so happy to have found this blog and all the comments…..together we know that stuff and the new and so called improved item doesnt buy happiness. what will buy happiness in our case is having no debt and I know that is possible reading everyones suggestions…I look forward to being a fan for a very long time
    we have created a plan we have created a goal and slowly we are watching all of our success….

    great blog

    • Angela says

      Donna-I’m so happy you like the blog. It’s true there really is a frugal, nonconsumer community that makes it all seem fun rather than like deprivation. I think it’s worse to worry about money and debt than to not have every new item you think you need and a few years later wonder why you wanted so much.

      Best of luck with all your financial goals, and welcome! Thanks for commenting.

Leave a Reply to Queen Lucia Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *