In my final term as a student at the University of York, I resolved to spend absolutely nothing. On anything. I was inspired by Jen Gale’s year of spending nothing. Sustainability – financially and environmentally – has grown from an interest to a vocation for me. And as I leave university, I’m keen to start a life of as little consumption as possible.
Living The Good Life?
Me being a Film and TV student, you’re not going to escape a reference show for this. In the sitcom The Good Life (1975-8), protagonist Tom Good goes through a midlife crisis, quits his job, and becomes completely self-sustainable. Much to the chagrin of his uppity suburban neighbours. It’s a lovely series, and though it’s plagued with uphill struggles and occasional farce, it’s ultimately quite inspiring. Coming to university and having to budget for myself has been my own early-life crisis, in a sense. Having to think about where I’m spending money has put the true value of things into perspective to me. And though it’s not the path of thought everyone will go down, budgeting has made me think about how I could try and not spend that money at all.
Though I do my best to reduce my spending and be sustainable wherever I can, I’m no green-fingered miracle worker. When I started my term of buying nothing, I had cupboards full of tins, packets and boxes of food (and other assorted random stuff) I’ve built up over three years. So in a sense, this is more an exercise in making things last than becoming an uncompromising eco-warrior. But it has changed the way I’ve thought about things, and given me a lot more clarity about consumption.
No Buying Food
In spring term, I was fortunate enough to spend a week on a film shoot where I was catered for. If you want to see it, come to our student film festival LUMA in June. In the week I was being fed on set, I didn’t go to the supermarket, and yet still, my shelf of the fridge filled up to capacity and it took a good week to eat all of it. That made me think about the amount of food that I had built up in the house. It’s often tempting to ‘stock up’ when shopping, but auditing my cupboards in preparation for buying nothing taught me, conclusively, that you’re very likely to have what you want – or something very similar – to cook with.
Going through my cupboard ‘reserves’
So in the summer term, I started making my way through my tins, cans and grains. It quickly became clear that I’d have enough to last months of meals. And you may find this with your reserves too. In this sense, think of the carbohydrate element of your meal (and perhaps protein if, like me, you have about a year’s supply of chickpeas) as being sorted, and maybe think about just shopping for the fresh parts of your meal.
Using the whole vegetable
That was a difficult part of the experiment for me – maintaining enough veg for each meal. Stretching out vegetables did help me to realise that you can eat a lot more food than you might have thought. Skins, tops and tails are perfectly edible if you’re roasting in the oven, where even the hardiest of skins can become soft with salt, seasoning and vinegar. Like the protagonists of The Good Life, I’ve learnt to make no assumptions as to what needs to be thrown into the bin.
Not spending anything has taught me to find joy in that kind of independence from the consumerist world. This probably all sounds very activist, but the thing is, I think it can make things easier too.
Refuse rather than reduce
The first point to make here is that when it’s your decision to not consume, you’re in an infinitely easier position than people who have to go without. However, you can still use your ability to choose to make positive change. In her year of buying nothing new, Jen Gale references ‘refusing’ as being atop the hierarchy for reducing waste, above reducing, reusing and recycling. In this sense, not buying anything is extremely helpful for reducing waste in the world around you. For food, the OLIO app includes posts from local people giving away food for free to stop it going to landfill. And as local supermarkets like Spar are involved, there is almost always a huge batch of bread on offer.
The benefits of choosing to refuse
The key thing that I’m going to take away from this experiment is that there’s a lot of value to be found in choosing to go without instead of reducing. It can be a lot less demoralising than trying to come up with a cheaper or sustainable alternative to what you were having before. A lot of comedy in The Good Life comes from the protagonists making every effort possible to replicate parts of their consumerist life in a sustainable way – including their questionable ‘pea pod pernod’ substituting for all forms of alcohol.
I think there’s also a mindfulness benefit to refusing because I no longer needed to negotiate with myself. It was really enlightening for me to be able to go into student bars and straight to the pitcher of tap water without wondering what could have been if I’d bought myself a drink. The sad truth is that none of us have enough money to treat ourselves all the time, and that’s always been a difficult reality for me to swallow. This definitely won’t be the same for everyone, but refusing has given me a sense of power and pride in myself for saving my money; a serotonin hit that feels like a ‘treat’ within itself.
I think this experiment has helped me to transform my thinking. As well as chipping away at the vast cupboards full of stuff in my student house. As I move on, I hope to use this change to live more of a good life, by being more sustainable in my buying and consumption choices.
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