Amplifying Voices

My Gift Challenge
by Emily Myron -- December 19th, 2012

The holidays are coming, which means it’s time to start thinking about what to buy for friends and family. This is normally a rather difficult task for me, but this year, it will be even harder because I won’t be buying anything new for anyone.

Almost six months ago, I challenged myself not to buy anything new for one full year. When I’ve shared this commitment with others, it has elicited opinions ranging from “Wow, what a great idea” to “You’re nuts; how are you going to live!?” Well, let me explain.

I was inspired last year in a course on Environmental Ethics led by Dr. Rebecca Vidra, who had undertaken a similar challenge. I often feel that our society commonly promotes shopping and material goods as essential aspects of “the good life,” and I wanted to explore this idea by stepping away from it. So, I decided that once I graduated, I would take the challenge on myself. The rules are simple: I am not allowing myself to purchase anything new, with the exception of food and personal hygiene products, for a year. Anything I obtain must to be purchased, or bartered for, second hand.

Just five months of this has caused me to deeply reflect on my consumer habits. Here are some of the lessons I have learned so far:

Distinguishing between wants versus needs. I’ve developed an appreciation of what items I would really want new (for example, I won’t be buying any underwear in the next year) versus those items I can happily find used.

Planning ahead. Buying second-hand limits one’s ability to spontaneously purchase things – you have to think ahead. While I have scoped out some awesome local consignment stores, it is rare that I will find just what I am looking for the first time I visit them. I’ve discovered that I really have to think about what I am going to need, and start looking for those things far earlier than if I were buying them new at the mall. Shopping second-hand has also saved me a huge amount of money. I have probably spent under $100 on all of my winter-appropriate business casual clothing, but it took a lot of time and patience to weed through stores to find the hidden gems.

Being creative. Birthday presents have been the hardest – not everyone appreciates something second hand, but everyone does appreciate something homemade that you put a lot of thought into. For example, for my boyfriend’s birthday, I planted an herb garden for his balcony!

Trying new things. I have even learned new skills through this challenge. Before planting that herb garden, I had never tried my hand at container gardening before. Additionally, after buying an old desk at a garage sale, I used a palm sander for the first time before painting it for a housemate. Despite humble beginnings, the desk turned out great!





Discovering people who want to help. While some people have rolled their eyes at me, many people have embraced my challenge and sought to help me. For example, the man at the farmers market was so glad that I chose to buy herbs from him, and not from a big store, that he gave me very detailed instructions for how to plant them, and promised that if the herbs died, he would replace them. I have also met many interesting people as I have been exploring garage sales and flea markets.

Being resourceful and patient. This speaks to my second point, but this challenge takes a lot of patience and thinking outside of the box. Now that I am into it, though, it is been so much fun, and each time I find something used that is great, I get really excited. Besides consignment stores, I frequent craigslist, freecycle, and garage sales, and my friends and I have done some clothing swapping.

So what am I going to do for the holidays? I haven’t quite decided yet, but no one on my list this year will be getting stuff. Some of my many ideas include donating to a cause they would believe in, helping others in their name, food gifts, and photography gifts.

This challenge certainly isn’t appropriate for everyone. I am renting a room in a fully furnished house, so I don’t need to worry about buying furniture. I also started out with a good closet full of clothes, plus an assortment of other items I’d need over the course of a year. At the same time, I think that there are elements of this challenge that people can incorporate into their daily lives – like thinking about what they need versus what they want, or looking for a used microwave instead of a new one, for example. Not only does it save money, it’s like an ongoing treasure hunt!

Ill post about this challenge every so often to share any additional insights I may have, but if you are good at creative holiday gifts, I would love to hear your ideas!


  1. Tawnee
    Dec 19, 2012

    Awesome post and challenge, Emily! I think it’s fantastic that you’re doing this, and I’m happy it’s going so well for you. Thank you for encouraging us and others through sharing your experiences to do the same !!

  2. Martha
    Dec 19, 2012

    Emily, this is such an inspiring entry! I have been reflecting on my wants vs. needs lately and this definitely puts things in perspective. Over the summer I made a couple of paper wreaths with used materials from The Scrap Exchange that would make great holiday gifts if you have time to make them.

  3. Liz S
    Dec 20, 2012

    Awesome! I’m considering this as a New Year’s resolution for 2013. It’s cool to see others still thinking about that conservation ethics class – I know I have been!

    • Emily
      Dec 20, 2012

      Thanks everyone – this has been a really interesting and challenging experience. I am really glad I am doing it, and I appreciate the support!

      And, Liz, I often think about that class too; glad to hear I am not alone! I think you should try this, even for just a month. I know it has changed the way I will shop forever.

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