My Family’s No-Buy Experiment

We ended up richer, but not in the way we expected.

By David Hochman from Reader's Digest | October 2008

When you’ve committed to a month of no spending, the scariest sound in the world goes something like this: glug, glug, gorgle, glug, followed by my wife saying, “Oh, God. Honey? We need to call a plumber!”

Our experiment in money-free living had been cruising along beautifully. We were happily eating our way through the pantry, borrowing instead of buying, and feeling the burn from our free seven-day trial gym membership. But now-and on a holiday weekend at 11 p.m., naturally-a grotesque and putrid black ooze began mushrooming up from the shower drain, which could mean only one thing: an overtime service call from the Roto-Rooter guy.

“Think!” I thought as my wife, Ruth, rummaged for the plumber’s business card. “Think.”

My Family’s No-Buy ExperimentPhotographed by Lori StollThe Hochman family cut their spending by $2000—with the help of a little baking soda.

I was still a no-spending newbie, but already I was one with the Zen of money-free living. Take a deep breath. There’s always a way around opening your wallet.

The idea to stop spending had been percolating for a while, but it was a trip to Target one afternoon that finally broke me. With our four-year-old, Sebastian, in tow, Ruth and I loaded up on packs of underwear, bath mats, barbecue gear, Spider-Man toys, kitchen gadgets, and a plug-in thingy guaranteed to kill mosquitoes. As we approached the checkout aisle, I thought, We don’t need any of this junk, and we abandoned the cart (after distracting Sebastian with ice cream), saving a good $300.

That got me thinking about all our pointless expenses: DVDs by mail, lunches out, car washes, “bargain” toys, fancy coffee drinks, and just about everything I’ve ever bought on eBay and Amazon. Especially given the current economic climate, not to mention the state of our landfills, it all suddenly felt like excess. With a promise that we’d stop if it was killing us, I convinced the family to take the giant leap into frugality.

The rules were that we would buy nothing for 30 days except absolute essentials, like fresh milk and fruit; and even there, after one too many “essential” trips to the market those first few days, I capped expenses at $100 for the rest of the month. A handful of key outlays like our mortgage, utilities, and Sebastian’s preschool tuition were excused, but restaurants, parking, clothing, toiletries, Internet access, babysitting, and, yes, gasoline, were now in the no-buy zone.

So were overpriced plumbing repairs, if I could help it. Unfortunately, taking a plunger to the shower drain only served to anger the sewage gods, and I watched the muck grow thicker. Searching online (thank you, dear neighbor, for not using password protection), I read about poor souls who’d paid $200, $400, and even $1,500 to have this exact problem fixed. That’s when I stumbled onto the Dawn brigade.

On a website called thriftyfun.com, thousands of users posted tip after penny-saving tip on conserving cash. There wasn’t a crisis on earth, it seemed, that couldn’t be averted with some combination of baking soda, white vinegar, lemon juice, salt, and a certain dishwashing liquid. I squirted a shot of Dawn in a kettle of boiling water, poured it into the shower, and the goop slrrrrged down the drain. Materials used: 10 cents. The look on Ruth’s face after I actually fixed something: priceless.

I realize many people live like this all the time, by necessity, not by choice, and I anticipate letters saying, “Boo hoo! You had to give up your decaf Frappuccino.” But this wasn’t an exercise in “playing poor.” Our month of no spending was a financial wake-up call, a chance to recalibrate our relationship with money at a time when everyone I know has money on the brain.

Do we really need all the things we buy? Does acquiring stuff have actual value in our lives? Can’t we be just as happy—or perhaps even happier—living on much less?

Our adventure kicked off with a rousing start. After that first day, I wrote in my journal: “Feeling supercharged. We have so much. What could we possibly need to spend money on?

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