Katy Wolk-Stanley isn't just a thrifty shopper; she's dedicated herself to buying as little as possible new, as The Non-Consumer Advocate. She spoke with us about the challenges of buying only vintage, and what she will buy new.
What made you decide to stop buying new as much as possible?
To stop buying new would never have occurred to me, if in 2007 I hadn't read a small article in my local newspaper about a group of San Franciscans who had just completed a year of not buying new. They called their experiment "The Compact." I was very intrigued. My family was steadily bringing in more and more income, yet somehow we never seemed to have any extra cash. This lifestyle inflation was killing my family's finances, and I found the idea of a reset both appealing and necessary.
My husband thought I was insane to suggest such an extreme measure, but he'd already witnessed many years of my wacky frugal measures, so he just shrugged his shoulders and came along for the ride. Although my initial push towards The Compact was purely financial, the environmental and societal benefits have kept me going. There are few among us who argue that the over-manufacture of shoddy consumer goods have bettered our lives or our planet.
Were there any challenges to the non-consumer lifestyle you didn't expect?
When I first made the decision to stop buying new, one of my initial worries was how to handle gift-giving. Just because I was okay with used stuff doesn't mean my friends and family were. This turned out to be a complete non-issue, though, as there are literal tons of wonderful like-new items in the secondhand market. Whether you look in thrift shops, garage sales, antique shops or through online sources, almost everything you want to find used is out there and available. I've found that picky teenagers are thrilled to get gift cards to trendy consignment shops such as Buffalo Exchange or Plato's Closet, and grandparents love photos of the kids in thrifted frames.
Of course, not everything is available used. Examples include specific sports uniforms for my sons and some home maintenance items, like furnace filters and such.
How do people react when you tell them about a non-consumer lifestyle?
When I first started refusing to buy new items, I think a lot of people just thought I was a big weirdo. But attitudes have changed over the past eight years. Many people have been affected by the recession and are willing to keep an open mind to alternative ways of living. And when they see that my family wants for nothing and lives in a lovely home, it suddenly becomes a lot more appealing.
Are there any things you won't buy used?
I do have my short list of items I allow myself to buy new such as underwear, socks, bed pillows, toothbrushes and ahem...personal care items. But really, even if I do buy a couple of new items per year, 98% used vs. new is still a pretty decent accomplishment. It's not about being perfect; it's about doing my best in a real world where sometimes items need to be bought before I've had a chance to find the used alternative.
What's a good deal, when buying used? How do you assess the quality of a used item?
When I buy used, I'm not choosing low-quality items. Vintage stuff is usually better quality than new, the most glaring example being furniture. I would a thousand times rather pick up at $20 solid wood dresser with dovetail drawers and paint it myself than buying its flatpack laminate big box counterpart. I know that the vintage item will last forever; plus, I can later sell it at a profit if my needs should change. And when buying used clothing, I already know that it won't fall apart after a few wearings or trips through the laundry. I like to think that I let the first owner test-drive my stuff.
What would you say to somediv unsure about committing to the non-consumer lifestyle?
When I decided to stop buying new, an entire year commitment seemed too overwhelming, so I started with a single month. I figured if I could do one month, then it might work out for me. That was 93 months ago!
Because The Compact is completely self-defined, everyone is going to approach it differently. I may have no squeamishness with used shoes, but many others include that in their "exception list." Self-tailor the challenge to what seems right for you. Any change is progress.