one month of low-spend: a reflection

One month has come and gone. And so ends my low-spend challenge. It’s been a good period of reflection for me, a time to think about my consumer habits and ways to improve where and how I shop.

As I mentioned in my initial post, I chose to do a low-spend month, as opposed to a more ambitious no-spend variation, because the option made the most sense for my lifestyle and where I live. Without sufficient options for trading or growing my own food, a no-spend month would frankly be unrealistic. Instead, I framed the premise of this month around realistic expectations that would help me to stay motivated throughout the next 30 days and offer me a more sustainable target to aim for.

So, the real question—how’d I do? Overall in April, I actually spent significantly less on many of the things I was allowed to spend on (i.e. dining, entertainment, and travel). However, where I did end up spending more money than anticipated was in the clothing category.

There are many reasons why I had hoped to avoid buying any clothing during the challenge. First and foremost, I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of self-discipline. I’ve always had a weakness for clothing and although I’ve gotten better at being selective, my closet often reminds me of the private school I went to in upstate New York, where I can walk around and see a bunch of familiar faces but every so often, I’ll run into a piece I’ve completely forgotten existed. My second reason for avoiding clothing purchases was to lessen the amount of pressure I personally impose on the manufacturing industry. With nearly 85% of garmets ending up in landfills and incinerators annually, there’s more than enough clothing already produced and yet still so many people walking to their closets and exclaiming that they, “have nothing to wear.”

Although unnecessary, what I will say about my shopping this month is that I was very selective about where I made purchases. With few exceptions, all the products I bought came from ethical and socially sustainable brands. For example, I finally got the pair of Girlfriend Collective leggings I’d been pining over for months. On top of their ecological impacts—every product is made using recycled waterbottles—Girlfriend Collective also promotes positive body image and body diversity, which gives them additional brownie points in my book.

Another new item I bought in April was Causebox, a seasonal subscription box (you get four a year, each for about $55) of curated items from ethical and sustainable brands. This, I figured, would be a great way to learn about new change-makers, not to mention an easy way to ensure I had quality gifts on-hand for any upcoming birthdays and holidays.

Other things I bought this month include:

Item: HDMI Cable

Excuse: I thought I was going to get a TV, then decided I didn’t want the extra clutter. I figure it’ll come in handy at some point but in retrospect, I should have waited and found one used.

Item: Hydroflask

Justification/Excuse: There’s a cafe by my work where I go every so often for an almond milk latte. I don’t always anticipate wanting to stop in so I bought a hydroflask to keep at my office. Truly, it was a little excessive of me to not just carry the one I keep at home to and from the office. That said, I do appreciate knowing I won’t have to rely on one-use cups during any subsequent trips.  

Item: Dress for wedding (not mine)

Justification/Excuse: One of my pals is getting married this Fall. The wedding is religious so it was important my outfit air on the conservative side. She also had a color palette set that I needed to take into account as well. When I started looking, I searched Poshmark as well as ethically-made clothing sites to find the look I wanted. But in the end, the garments I found were either a.) out of my price range or b.) something I would never wear again. I run into these double-edged swords a lot actually. Buy the locally-grown sprouts from the farmers market that come in a plastic bag or get the non-local and non-organic one’s from the supermarket without plastic? Get a generic boxed soap or one made by a small business even though it comes wrapped in plastic? In these situations, I’ve found making the sustainable choice is best reached with thoughtful consideration of the social and environmental pros and cons of your purchase. In this particular case, I went to TJMaxx and found a $20 jumpsuit. I know it is not an ethically-made piece and I truly wish I could have found a better option. That said, I do still have the receipt and tags on just in case I find an alternative. And regardless, I do like the piece enough to wear it after the event is over, even though I likely wouldn’t have purchased it otherwise.

Items: Conditioner & Lip balm

Justification: Needed both. The conditioner is from Avalon Cosmetics, a cruelty-free cosmetic brand. The lip balm is Doctor Bronners. ‘Nough said.

Item: Chapter One backing on Kickstarter

Freakin’ justified: I realize that physical books use resources and many end up in the trash. It’s just for me, the experience of holding a book is irreplaceable and not something I’ll ever be willing to part with. Instead, I love my books to death, and when I’m done, I pass them off to friends, donate them to a book sale, or sell them to a bookshop.

Item: Knickey panties

Justification: As I get more into sustainable brands, I find myself trying to spread the word and give people the chance to experience the products for themselves. That’s why, for a friend’s recent birthday, I ordered some Knickey underwear. But—or should I say, “Butt”—because of the cost of shipping, I also purchased two pairs for myself. Did I need them? Not really, but now when I get to that scary point in the week when undies are in high demand and low supply, all will be fresh and well.

Item: Various thrifted pieces

Justification: Over the course of the month, I spent $15 on 5-6 thrifted items. They are unique pieces, most of which I’ve already worn, so I feel fairly guilt-free about the purchases.

After this low-spend experience, I see how important mental preparation is in creating discipline and learning to live with less want. So rather than feel guilty for this month’s downfalls, I’m trying to be patient with the process as a whole. After all, the switches I’m making are more than behavioral—they’re active lifestyle changes where I’m breaking unconscious habits and putting new, more intentional ones in their place. I remember just a year ago when the idea of not being able to go into a Zara seemed so discouraging—that is until I found out I could pay the same price for a garment made ethically and designed to last more than four washes. But even so, the transition has been and will continue to be slow, both mentally and financially. That’s why it’s essential for me to always refer back to the essence of the sustainability movement, remembering it has nothing to do with perfection. Rather sustainability at its core is about everyone doing what they can to make small changes that, in the long-term, will come to benefit us all collectively.  

5 tips for sustainable repurposing

During this month of low-spend, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I have and how to make greater use of it. Although I didn’t necessarily think it then, I now realize how fortunate I was to grow up in a household where “elbow grease” was the prescribed solution for any burnt pan or sticky mess and where a piece of clothing hadn’t served its purpose in life until it had been worn, ripped, patched, worn again, and then used to wipe oil off my dad’s lawn mower. My parents and their parents before them had grown up poor. And being poor meant using everything you had and never wasting a thing. For them though, I can only imagine this decision was purely economic, driven by the need to stretch each dollar. But what they may not have realized is just how sustainable their waste not, want not lifestyle really was. So, as I transition to a low-impact lifestyle, I’m trying to channel some of my inner penny-pincher and striving to put every resource to its fullest use.

One of the simplest ways to get more life out of any household item is learning to DIY. You don’t have to be some crafter extraordinaire to DIY. You just need access to the internet and a little extra time on your hands. A simple and cheap example of this is multi-surface cleaner. Tired of all the chemicals and spending money on products whose companies I knew didn’t have my health or the environment in mind, I started making my own surface cleaner out of distilled water, white vinegar, lemon juice, and essential oils. For me, this was a natural and convenient switch. White vinegar costs under $4 per gallon and can be used for so many household cleaning needs, like dish soap and even removing salt stains from leather shoes. Plus, the solution itself is also very environmentally friendly, with all ingredients being chemical-free, 100% compostable, and available in recyclable packaging. And yes, to answer your question, it really does work.

Another easy DIY project is making your own makeup and nail polish wipes. On top of their non-recycle plastic packaging, makeup wipes themselves contain serious amounts of plastic. In fact, wipes are the cause of 93% of drain blockages in the UK alone and in 2018, there was a 400% (yes, 400%) increase in the occurence of makeup wipes washing up on beaches. For me, the saddest part of this situation is that makeup wipes are totally unnecessary—a ploy made up by companies to sell more product. Water, soap, and a washcloth do an equally good job removing makeup, not to mention cost you and the earth a lot less in the long-run. But if you do prefer the size and contouring of a wipe, consider making your own. All you’ll need are some old clothes—preferably something soft—and a sewing machine. Litterless has a great tutorial on this and while she seems to have purchased her material, keep in mind that using something you already have is always the more sustainable option.

While we’re on the topic, I should mention that sewing is a truly underrated skill. I cannot count the number of times sewing has saved my favorite shirt or underwear from ending up in the trash. What’s more, basic stitching is so easy to learn and once you know how, you become a mending machine. There are of course great video tutorials online and, if its an option, consider taking a local sewing or design course to really master the art.   

Next on the list is cooking. Americans are responsible for over 1.3 billion pounds of food waste per year. To put that in perspective, that’s 30-40% of the entire world’s food waste. Yeah, we wasteful AF. Just like sewing, learning how to cook can mean the difference between very ugly-looking, ripe bananas and delicious banana bread. Unless food has truly gone bad or is inedible, it’s important to try to make the most of it. Lemon rind, for example, can be used to make a basic cake, deluxe. Squishy cucumber can be added to a smoothie. And soft carrots can be seasoned and baked for a healthy and hardy meal. So before you throw something away, type, “What can you do with ________” into Google and see if there’s an alternative to the can. Or, if you really can’t stomach it, hop on an app like BUNZ to give your food to someone who can put it to good use.

Lastly, I want to mention that not all sustainable repurposing is DIY. One of my favorite and most affordable switches is repurposing glass jars. While I made the mistake of going out and buying new jars and containers when I first started transitioning, I quickly found that after a few months of peanut butter, olives, and pesto, I had more than enough containers for meal prepping, food storage, and carrying my lunches to work. Best of all, it didn’t cost me anything extra.

The moral of the story? Just like us, our stuff isn’t here to serve a single purpose. That’s why it’s so important we use our clothes, food, and household items to their furthest capacity, caring for them as best we can and knowing ways to repurpose them when they do eventually reach their limits.  

– A