What happens when a family of four gives up buying nothing new for a month? Nicole Lutze shares her experience and how it's easier than you may think.

Consumerism is a big part of our western lives. From young ages, shopping becomes habitual, and marketers spend millions convincing us we aren’t enough without the acquisition of new items. The problem is, every transaction has a more significant price tag behind the fee you pay. Think environmental destruction, human exploitation, or even the hours of your life which you exchange to earn that money. Much is mindlessly sacrificed in our pursuit of the latest and greatest.

Despite being incredibly aware of the problems facing our planet from overconsumption, and being a regular op-shopper and DIY enthusiast, I have never set myself a hard and fast rule to avoid buying new. Instead, I have stuck to a general lifestyle of frequenting op-shops, accepting hand-me-downs, and filling any voids with new items purchased on sale. It’s a casual approach that has served my family well, but I know I should be doing more. That’s why I decided to join the Buy Nothing New challenge during October.

Nicole with her daughters Charlotte and Madeline

How it works

The Buy Nothing New challenge isn’t about sacrificing your enjoyment of life or risking your health. Our family would still purchase our weekly food items, buy medical and hygiene products, and pay for services like hair cuts, or social pleasures like eating at a restaurant. Here’s how we went.

Week one

The month kicks off with our daughter’s fifth birthday, but there’s no need to buy a thing. My habit of collecting secondhand and sale items over the year has served me well. She receives puzzles, games and books purchased at the Lifeline Bookfest and local op-shop, as well as some new and secondhand clothing items. I silently cheer at our first success and realise that preparation really might be the key to surviving this whole experiment.

Thrifted books and movies

Week two

A family camping trip during stormy weather resulted in a ripped tarpaulin and snapped pegs. We don’t need to replace these items urgently, so I set some alerts on Gumtree to avoid a last-minute trip to the camping store in the future.

Meanwhile, I’m struggling to find “new” sandals for my youngest child. Our trips to op-shops are digging up some great finds in the forms of books, movies and children’s clothes, but shoes seem to be limited, particularly in her size. Online marketplaces also aren’t yielding results.

Week three

One of my daughters loses her stainless steel water bottle. Before heading to the op shop in search of a replacement, I dig around our cupboards and discover a spare. Inspired to see what else I have forgotten about, I go rummaging and find baby paraphernalia we no longer need. I phone an expecting-friend to offer her first pick. What she doesn’t want is listed for sale on Gumtree and Facebook, or donated to the op-shop. I pocket $400, have less junk in my house and feel good knowing our unused items are continuing to serve a purpose.

Thrifted basket and bowl

Week four

The light from my husband’s bike is lost. My car is currently not working, and I’ve commandeered his car to shuttle our kids. He must get a replacement urgently, so we buy a new light the same day.

After two days of combined home diagnostics and wishful thinking, my car still doesn’t start. I pay for an annual RACQ membership fee, and my car is eventually towed to the local mechanic. I need to buy a new ignition switch, and when I enquire about secondhand options, I’m advised against it. I consent to the purchase, as well as four new tyres. In this instance, buying new is the safest option.

Halloween is also on the calendar this week. My children want to dress up and are asking for costumes we don’t own. Some fast-talking and my offer to paint their faces mitigates a meltdown, and they settle for costumes we already own. They have a blast.

Thrifted office desk

The verdict

Overall, the challenge wasn’t too difficult for our family, mainly because I avoided shopping centres, my husband rarely buys items, and my children are too young to spend money independently. If I was juggling teenagers with bank accounts or worked in retail, this challenge might have been a whole lot tougher.

What did strike me was the apparent convenience offered by buying new, and our general inability to slow down and be inconvenienced by wait times. Our society’s acceptance of a busy lifestyle does a great deal to encourage consumer habits. We simply aren’t prepared to wait for the right secondhand item to turn up.

I also reflected on the two-way nature of a secondhand economy. To avoid buying new takes time, but it’s also reliant on a large enough group of our community participating in both the buying and selling. I was never able to find a pair of secondhand children’s sandals in the right size, so I ended up buying new in early November. Perhaps more preparation on my part would have helped, though I also wonder how many suitable sandals might have been sitting in the back of cupboards or destined for landfill. Once outgrown, I promise myself that these sandals will find a new home.