The less-is-more test: "I want to see if we can divorce ourselves from the assumed necessities of life," says Sash Milne, with daughter Bo.Photo: Kate Heaslip
Australians have one of the world's highest rates of disposable income, and know how to spend. In 2012, Australian households spent $14.1 billion on alcohol, $1.1 billion on tea and coffee, $8 billion on beauty, $19 billion on recreational items, $9.5 billion on gadgets, $5.1 billion on fashion, $10.5 billion on personal care and even $780 million on pet pampering.
Now, imagine instead if you bought nothing beyond the barest essentials. No online shopping, no visiting malls, no checking out sales – nothing at all.
Single mother Sash Milne, 28, who has a two-year-old daughter, Bo, vowed in January that this is exactly what she would do: buy nothing new for one year. She has succeeded so far. "It's something I have always thought about," she says. "I lived in a remote Indonesian village for three years where I didn't buy much at all. It amazed me how quickly I got sucked back into the consumer machine when I returned to Australia ... I forgot how awful it can make you feel about yourself. I forgot how easy it was to feel that buying something was actually going to make you feel better."
Milne, who lives in south-west Western Australia, has committed herself to a year of buying no clothes, shoes, toys, home wares, cosmetics, trinkets or upgrades. For most of us, not only does this sound overwhelming, it seems outright impossible. But Milne is making it possible by borrowing, trading, lending and being resourceful about the things she does need.
"It's a return to the days of my grandmothers", she says. "We'll fix our clothes, and if I can't fix anything I'll turn into something new or give it away to someone else who can use it. The only way I can teach my daughter that 'things' don't make you happy is to prove it to myself first.
"For the most part, I have had positive reactions to the project. There have been the 'Gosh, you're brave, I could never do that' and 'Good on you, but it's not for me' comments. A few people also thought that I was judging the way they lived, but that's not the case. This project began as a way to change my life. If that inspires other people to change their life, then that's great, and if not, that's okay, too."
To prepare for any stumbling blocks, Milne set up her rules (see below). "At first it was hard. There were a few things I wish I had purchased before the year had begun – like a new pair of sandals, so I didn't have to spend the summer in old sandals that have soles adhered to the base with Blu-Tack. Or some T-shirts without holes in them. But then, somewhere around week four, I just got over it. I just stopped caring so much. 'We have more than enough,' I say to myself, even if sometimes it is through gritted teeth."
Good intent is not immune to doubt. "Some days, I wake up and I wonder why I'm doing any of this at all," Milne admits. "Some days, I just want to go and buy that new T-shirt. Sometimes I even go and wander through the shops and look at things. But it doesn't take long before I remember the reasons why I'm doing this. If I still want that T-shirt at the end of the year, I can buy it then."
Milne's journey is not new. In 2006, 10 San Francisco friends challenged each other to buy nothing new for a year, in a movement known as The Compact. It became a starting point for many seeking enrichment without a purchasing footprint. All have faced the emotional and ethical roller coaster Milne faces.
"The project is about changing the way I see the world and changing the way I see myself, too," she says. "I hear the protests that this project 'reeks of privilege'. Of course it does. We live in a privileged country, full of privileged people who cry poor because they are spending money on stuff they don't need. Underprivileged people don't get the luxury of choosing not to buy anything. They just buy nothing because they have no choice. But does that mean that this project and ones like it are meaningless? No, I don't think so."
For others, this project may seem like an excellent exercise in saving money. "It was never about saving money," Milne says. "Money serves a purpose and that purpose is different for each of us. It gives us freedom to do awesome things. But it is not the answer to happiness and the crazy habit we have of using it to keep up with the Joneses. The Joneses are broke. The Joneses are stressed. The Joneses are living on credit. You do not want to be the Joneses."
Milne's project continues to evolve. For the next phase, she has packed up her home and is starting the adventure that is transient living with her daughter. "I want to see if we can divorce ourselves from the assumed necessities of life. We will live with nothing but what fits in the boot of the car. Our first stop is a little shack in the orchards of a local organic farm – working the land with the growers and exchanging a bit of good-natured labour for a warm meal and a safe place to sleep. Good company, dirt under our fingernails and long days exploring in the sun.
"After that, we will be house-sitting for a while and taking care of other people's homes. I work locally in community engagement for a non-profit group and have a good network, so we won't be straying too far from our urban village, just exploring our options within it. Home isn't a place for us, it's a person. Bo is my home and I am hers. As long as we are together, we both have the comfort that home brings."
The freedom of life without borders is only just starting to sink in. "While some people still think that I am crazy, I'm finding a lot of empowerment in making alternative choices for my family," Milne says. "This new phase comes with a pretty steep learning curve ... But it's about focusing not on what we are giving up, but what we gain. And I can tell you now, we are gaining a lot."
Milne's nothing-new project ends this December. "The spirit of the project will never end," she says. "I will continue to value community and relationships over 'things'. I will keep learning and making better decisions about the way I spend my time and money. I don't know if living without buying anything new at all is sustainable for us forever. But I believe we can continue the spirit of the project for a lifetime."
1. No new clothes, accessories or shoes, "unless there is a genuine need that we cannot fill elsewhere".
2. No new toys. "We will make toys, swap them with friends or visit our local toy library," says Milne.
3. No paid toddler activities. "Things like road trips and visits to the local aquarium or zoo are okay, but no buying anything at the gift shops."
4. No mass-produced baby food or toddler snacks. "We make all our own snacks and treats at home."
5. No new cosmetics. "I use up what I have and then go without; where I can, I'll make my own. We use simple, earth-friendly soaps, shampoos and sanitary wear which, to me, are all necessities."
6. No new home wares. Required objects will be sourced locally and always second-hand, through trades with friends, or salvage yards.
7. "If I want to do a project, I will source my materials second-hand, barter or salvage from the local yard or tip, and borrow any tools I need."
8. Medical and travel costs are okay.
9. Finally: "If, at any time, I go against my rules, I will confess to it."
The $6.50 doll house
"When I found an old, wooden, unloved doll house at the tip, I knew I would give it to Bo for her birthday," says Milne. "The entire project cost me less than $6.50. I spent plenty of hours sanding, scraping, cursing, sweating and painting. I even spent at least an hour searching piles of stinky, dusty rubbish for the perfect discarded paints and other materials. I could have spent 10 minutes of my time and $30 at Kmart on a pink wooden one, but I'd rather build something beautiful out of garbage any day."