The Experiment

Many people have been asking a variety of valid questions regarding how the next year is going to look for us. When we tell people we are embarking on a year of buying nothing, their first question inevitably concerns the parameters of the experiment. “What about food?” “Toilet paper?!?” “Shoes??!?!!” We therefore realize it’s important to outline our methodology. Upon developing the parameters of the next year, and utilizing some of Geoffrey’s psychology background, we have come up with an approach that we hope will be successful for us over the course of the year.

Experiment basics:

  • What is it: A life experiment in buying nothing
  • Experiment timeframe: August 3, 2013 to August 3, 2014
  • The experiment: Three phase design utilizing acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) – see below for full experiment rationale
  • Essentials: food, toilet paper, a few personal items (feminine hygiene products, condoms), products used to make at-home cleaning products and body care products (if we don’t already have them), rent + utilities, and cell phones.
  • Objectives: to experiment with living an entire year without purchasing anything besides our defined necessities; to live in alignment with our values of community and sustainability; to experiment with alternative methods of acquiring goods and services we require (barter, trade); and to rethink our spending and definition of “necessity”

Three Phase Design:

We are going to roll out Buy Nothing Year (BNY) in three phases over the course of the year. The first phase started August 3, 2013, and entails us not purchasing any household items or consumer goods. This will stay in effect for the whole year. Phase two starts in three months time, November 3, 2013. This is when we  eliminate paying for any services of any kind including: haircuts, transportation, event outings, and dining out. The final phase will start in the last month of the experiment, July 3 2014. We will not be purchasing anything at all, including food items. This means we will be eating only what is stocked in our pantry, what our friends cook for us, edible things we grow, or what we recover from a dumpster. This will be our one month period of freeganism. We will not be carrying any money, credit cards, or debit cards on us during this month, so we absolutely will not be able to purchase anything.

Behavioral change tends to happen more fluidly than our phase rollout suggests because often changing one behavior results in other behaviors changing as well. For example, because we have already decided to not purchase consumer items, we have also noticed that we are also scrutinizing our purchases of services. Therefore, we expect our purchase of services to be limited even though we are not officially eliminating them until 3 months from now. We have also started working on gathering information, resources, and expertise for building our own aquaponics system in the house. Our aim is to have it fully functional before the last month of the experiment. We would like this system to supply a generous portion of our fresh food needs. If the system seems to be going well, and we feel that we could eliminate the purchase of food earlier than the last month of BNY, then we may decide to stop purchasing food even sooner.

Proposed Timeline:

timeline bny 

JULY 2014 EDIT: We decided not to cut our food purchases for our final phase of the project.

Behavioral Reinforcements Utilized:

We will be exercising behavioral tools to help us be successful over the course of this year. When we engage in changing a behavior by either decreasing or increasing the target behavior, there exists conditions that maintain that behavior. These include things that happen before the behavior occurs, which lead us to more likely engage in the behavior, as well as things that follow immediately after the behavior has occurred resulting in us more likely to engage in it again.  The behavior of spending money feels good. When we purchase something, we love the novelty of having something new, the way it makes us feel, how we might look in it, the compliments we receive on our new item purchased…all of these things reinforce our behavior and give us increased satisfaction from the purchase. This results in us wanting to spend money again. Also if we pay to eat out or go for beers, we get the convenience of not having to prepare the food ourselves, getting more time to relax and visit with friends, and be rewarded by delicious food and beverage. These certainly reinforce our behavior to pay for services. Actually, often we pay for services because it is convenient to do so and that is the trade off for the behavior. Paying for stuff makes us feel good and makes life easier.

In order to not buy stuff, we had to think of reinforcements that would be rewarding to us for not spending money. Fortunately there exist natural reinforcers that are intrinsic to the act of not purchasing something. For example, we have more money in our account as a direct result of not purchasing stuff. But what does more money mean really, considering that we will most likely just spend it at a later date? Not buying stuff so we can purchase stuff later is sort of defeating. However, not buying stuff also has other reinforcers to that behavior. For example, If we stop eating out and instead cook at home, we will eat healthier, become better chefs, and build up confidence from building proficiency with a skill. Also if we walk to work instead of purchasing bus tickets or driving we increase exercise,  are outside in nature, increase our vitamin D levels from sun exposure, and have time to think about our intentions for the day.

Natural reinforcers may not be enough though. Fortunately people often respond very well to social reinforcers such as praise and attention. Therefore, we thought this blog would become a great form of social support and help motivate us throughout the year. By doing this blog we are creating public accountability for our behaviors by making them overt. When we privately purchase something, we are accountable to no one but our selves. Instead, publicly declaring our interests in changing our behaviors and inviting you all along for the journey, takes our private behaviors and places them under public scrutiny. We already feel a sense of not wanting to let our readers down—thank you.

Therapeutic Approach:

The therapeutic approach we have decided to use is an acceptance and commitment based therapy (ACT). Acceptance literally means to “take what is offered”. It involves fully embracing our experiences in the moment just as they are, without judgment of them.  Acceptance involves a process of being mindful. This is where we purposely pay attention without judgment to whatever is happening in the moment. It is very difficult to do because we mostly live our lives in our heads—interpreting, evaluating, and judging thoughts, feelings and ourselves. Rather than being mindful we are often mindless.

Acceptance and commitment therapy has two major goals. First, the acceptance of unwanted thoughts and feelings whose occurrence and disappearance we cannot control. Second, is commitment and action in the service of a life consistent with our personal values. This second point is important because we want to establish a lifestyle that is in line with our personal values. This approach requires us to do something fully—not part way. It means we either do something or not do something. There is no trying to do something because trying is a form of inaction.  With our ACT approach, we are encouraged to commit to doing something and do it even if it ends in failure. The reason for this approach is because we are not trying to live our life. We just need to live it, and preferably on our own terms and values.

Ultimately, this approach resonates with us because consumerism can be viewed as a mindless activity. To purchase something is passive. To share resources with each other forces us to connect and establish social community. Acceptance comes into play in the experiment not just in terms of accepting our emotional reactions, but it also means we will be accepting what is offered to us during this journey. We want to intentionally be mindful of what our community offers us, and learn to ‘take what is offered’.

18 thoughts on “The Experiment

  1. Hey Julie,
    Saw on Maeve’s Facebook page that you are doing this! So inspiring! I just made a big move too (to saskatchewan) and purged a lot of the stuff I’ve been keeping around for years. A year without buying stuff sounds crazy challenging! I assume you’ll still buy basic things like toothpaste and shampoo though? Would love to cut back on my addiction to stuff as well. I will definitely be following you guys! Good luck!

    Emily (Jonquiere Explore friend 🙂 )

    ps. I’m assuming you’ve seen all the ‘story of stuff’ videos? If not, definitely check them out @ Also I just recently watched the movie, ‘I am’ which is about a film producer in California who has purged all his stuff to lead a more sustainable and conscientious lifestyle. Would definitely recommend that one too :)!

  2. Wow, Geoff and Julie! This is awesome! Glad I stumbled on this in the Metro. I will be following your journey all the way. Good luck guys!!

  3. This is inspiring. Thank you for sharing your experience/experiment. I’m going to include the link to your blog in the resources for the intro to meditation class I’m putting together. Mindfulness in action. It’ll be good for people to have a real life example they can look to. Thanks and I hope it’s amazing.

  4. Hey guys,

    Sorry I haven’t posted until now and admittedly have never read this page of the site. Love it! I like the methodology. Good luck and let me know as you need help with the Aquaponics system.

  5. You guys are fantastic; we just talked about you in a marketing class in Halifax, Nova Scotia. This is such an amazing idea and so inspiring. My thoughts are with you and I will most certainly be following how you guys do, so please keep us updated. You are both doing something incredibly crucial; our world is run by consumerism and thoughtless buying/spending. I praise this! Keep strong and know people believe in you.. even in the depths of the Atlantic Canada!

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