One Family’s Quest To Buy Nothing New For A Year

By Heidi Stevens
Chicago Tribune.

I buy my kids too much stuff.

It violates my belief system and my budget, but I do it anyway.

It’s a quick and easy way to make them feel happy (temporarily) and rewarded (“100 percent on your spelling test! Here’s a cheap plastic token of my pride!”).

And the items they covet are relatively inexpensive and benign: books, Hot Wheels, headbands, more markers to keep their other 6,000 markers company.

If it seems like I’m making excuses, that’s because I am.

But if Oprah taught us anything, it’s that the first step to recovery is coming on her show and admitting you have a problem.

Well, she went off the air without bothering to inquire about my problems, so I called Melissa Basilone instead.

Basilone, 40, owns Thrift & Thrive second-hand shop in Portage Park, Ill., with her husband, Joseph, 37. In 2013, the couple vowed to go an entire year without buying a single new item, with the exception of food and hygienic products.

“When you’re not buying things that are new, you have a different way of looking at things,” Basilone told me. “You ask yourself, ‘Do I need this?’ You learn that you don’t actually need most of the stuff you buy.”

They have two sons, Liam and Evan, who were 7 and 2 at the time. Have you been around 7- and 2-year-olds lately? They want stuff. They don’t just want stuff, actually. They neeeeeeeeeed stuff, Mom!

“Having kids definitely made it really challenging,” Basilone said.

I asked how they presented the idea.

“Evan was very small, so he didn’t really understand,” she said. “Liam was obviously in that stage of liking and wanting lots of new things, and we just sat him down and explained that our resolution was to buy nothing brand new and why we thought that was cool.

“We are really into recycling and we have pretty strong green values, so he understood, as much as a 7-year-old can, that we wanted to challenge ourselves and walk the walk.”

One of the hardest parts of the experiment, Basilone said, was bringing gifts to other kids’ birthday parties. She tried to stockpile items from thrift stores that had never been opened (not as rare as you might guess, she said). More often, though, she went with experience gifts.

“We would buy four tickets to a historic movie theater so the whole family could go together,” she said. “Or tickets to a museum. Instead of buying something the kid would play with a year, maybe, we would focus on giving them an experience with their family.”

Liam, she said, needed pretty frequent reminders to stay on board. “We had that conversation many times over the year, ‘This is why we’re doing this. This is why it’s important.'”

Which is a gentle reminder (to me) that, begging kids or not, overbuying is a grown-up problem. A grown-up-who-doesn’t-say-no-enough problem.

“You are that grown-up,” Oprah would say to me. “Change begins with you.”

“I know,” I would tell Oprah in hushed tones. “I know.”

I do know. And I especially love what Basilone has to say about the lessons she and her family carry with them today, more than a year after successfully completing the shopping diet.

“Family time is huge for us, and I hope they’ll value life experiences over material things,” she said. “One-on-one time at a beach house, or just in our own home.”

She’s also teaching them to understand the difference between needs and wants, and the impact of giving in too frequently to the latter.

“I hope they understand what consumerism can do to the Earth and the effect that buying things and throwing things away has on the environment,” she said. “We talk about voting when you shop, because every dollar you spend is a vote for more manufacturing of that product.”

Those lessons are far less fleeting than the temporary high of scoring a new toy from Target’s dollar aisle.

“I don’t think they’re going without,” Basilone said. “I think they’re getting a lot more this way, just in a different way.”

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