Just saying 'no' to buying new stuff

  • Article by: EMILY YOUNG , Eden Prairie High School
  • Updated: July 4, 2011 - 10:20 PM

A suicide outside the Mall of America four years ago and the sad faces of people loaded with shopping bags inside the mall were not connected, but for Minke Sundseth, 37, that day helped inspire her to stop shopping.

The sad event and faces crystallized her feelings about the constant pressure to buy, buy, buy during the holiday season.

"I just felt like I needed a reset button," the Minneapolis woman said.

So in 2007, Sundseth decided to participate in a small national movement known as The Compact. The Sundseth family started a second round of The Compact in mid-January.

The Compact is a pledge to not purchase anything new for one year. The idea is to do less harm to the environment, reduce clutter and simplify home life.

It allows "fair and reasonable" exceptions such as food, medicine, cleaning products, toilet paper, underwear and clothing for children.

Sundseth, a wife and mother of twin 6-year-old boys, hoped to accomplish many things: save money, have lighter impact on the Earth, make it a habit to buy used items, depend more on friends and neighbors, and clear clutter.

"I wanted to learn to rely more on other people and have other people rely on us, instead of just (finding) a consumer solution to every problem," she said.

Instead of buying a new sleeping bag for a camping trip, they borrowed one. Instead of buying a new hose when hers sprung a leak, she learned to patch it. Instead of buying new books, the family went to the library.

Sundseth's boys, Oliver and Noah, get new shoes, underwear and socks. But their clothes and toys are bought secondhand or inherited from other families.

Patty Selly, 38, a Minneapolis environmental educator who's done The Compact, purchases used toys for her two children. Selly said her 1-year-old, when she first did The Compact in 2008, never noticed toys weren't new.

Selly, a friend of Sundseth's, was nervous about not being able to buy books while following The Compact. But she managed to get her family to spend time together at the local library.

Sundseth's husband, Joel, is a piano teacher and church musician. His biggest sacrifice was not buying new sheet music for pleasure. He allowed himself to buy it for his work.

The Compact didn't put a strain on the couple's relationship, but Sundseth knows couples for whom the challenge has been hard. To keep harmony, she recommends creating a clear list of exceptions. Selly and her husband planned for six weeks before they started The Compact.

Aside from a hot water heater and car part replacements, the Sundseths followed The Compact pretty strictly the first time.

This time, they gave themselves more exceptions, including purchasing new items that benefit the environment, like a rain barrel.

Her biggest challenge was finding gifts. For Christmas 2008 -- a year into the family's first time doing The Compact -- Sundseth spent six months collecting used picture frames and gave framed photos of her twins as gifts to family members. "It was lovely, but hard to repeat," Sundseth said.

This time, Sundseth will try to find secondhand gifts, but will allow herself to buy some new.

Richard Zajicek, 61, of Minneapolis, thinks secondhand shopping is a thrill and shops for necessities at local thrift stores. He bought a set of encyclopedias for 40 cents a volume, found a nice bathrobe and is currently on the hunt for an electric lawn mower.

Most people were supportive of the Sundseths' efforts. "I was surprised at the level of interest about it," she said.

One woman asked Sundseth if her children were embarrassed to be wearing secondhand clothing. As a child in Fridley in the 1980s, Sundseth would have been embarrassed to wear used clothing, she acknowledged. Her current neighborhood in south Minneapolis is more economically diverse. She also feels the recession has chipped away at stigma against buying used items. Once the recession hit, she started seeing more and more friends at Savers, a local non-profit thrift store with locations around the metro area.

Some neighbors were already sharing things through e-mail listservs. At the family's church, Faith Mennonite, parents listed items available to be borrowed.

Sundseth stresses the spiritual value of consuming less. "It was incredibly liberating to go ... to a gas station and pay for my gas and what was on the counter was irrelevant," she said.

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