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Less is more: finding the freedom in frugality

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Christina Salvi, a coordinator of Freecycle New York City, organizes items at a FreeMeet, Nov. 4, 2006. Freecycle groups organize FreeMeets to give away goods. (Photo by Dave Sanders)

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Spring-cleaning FreeMeet in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 17, 2008. (Photo by Dave Sanders)

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A happy customer leaves a FreeMeet at New York University with a bag full of other people's unwanted items. Freecycle groups have been gaining in popularity. (Photo by Dave Sanders)

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Freecycle members at the Autumn Clutter Harvest FreeMeet at New York University, Nov. 4, 2006. (Photo by Dave Sanders)

In January 2006, a handful of friends sat around a dinner table in San Francisco, drafted a manifesto and posted it online. It began, “Tomorrow is the start of our 12-month flight from the consumer grid.”

The Compact, as the manifesto was called, was named after the Mayflower Compact, the founding legal document of the Puritans in America.

Instead of freedom from religious tyranny, this new group sought freedom from the tyranny of relentless consumption. The rules were simple: They couldn’t buy anything new for a year except for the essentials—food, medication and underwear.

In the three years since it was born, the idea has attracted thousands, and “compacting” groups have sprouted up from Indiana to Iceland.

The groups are one example of a larger trend of people joining networks built around a desire to opt out of what they see as a consumption-obsessed society.

Millions are joining Freecycle, an online marketplace in which people give away, rather than sell, items they no longer need. And growing numbers are gathering in self-help groups called simplicity circles to support one another as they try to break free of habitual consumption.

For many, the attraction to such groups is about more than reining in spending habits. They are seeking to redefine themselves and their values after decades of materialism.

“More people now are more conscious of the environmental consequences of their actions than ever before,” says Daniel Horowitz, a professor of American studies at Smith College who has written two books on America’s vexed relationship with consumption.

Despite shifting attitudes, Horowitz acknowledges the obvious—that many are driven more by economic anxiety caused by the faltering economy.

Both were at play for Kate Shropshire, 34, when she decided to try compacting at the beginning of 2008. The Atlanta native had recently lost her job as a project manager at a design firm. But she also wanted to get rid of clutter, physical as well as mental.

She admits she loved to shop and didn’t think she’d go a full year without buying anything new. By February, the urge was getting hard to bear. Shropshire called her friend who’d been compacting for a year.

“Oh my God, Amy. I’m dying for a shopping trip. It’s killing me,” she remembers saying. Her friend suggested thrift stores.

“I got my shopping fix, spent a total of $30,” Shropshire recalls. Over time, she says, she noticed a shift in her behavior. She learned to examine urges to spend more consciously, and gradually they faded. “I’m happy to report that that craving is pretty much gone,” she says.

The real challenge came when she had to attend eight weddings in three months last year. “Regifting is not usually what you think of for a wedding gift,” Shropshire says.

For her brother and his new wife, she found a carved wooden Asian screen at a local consignment store.

Shropshire, who did get through the year, says not being able to buy whatever she wanted on a whim taught her how to be much more patient and creative. It also gave her back her time, which she could now spend with friends, by herself or with her new fiancé.

Freecycle groups also aim to make it easier for those who want to avoid buying anything new.

The idea for the online group began six years ago in Tucson, Ariz., with a frustrating problem. “I wanted to give away a bed,” says Freecycle founder Deron Beal. But Goodwill and the Salvation Army didn’t take beds. “I had this perfectly good item that was destined for the landfill,” Beal says.

At the time, Beal was working for a recycling nonprofit. The group received many donations of items that were in great condition but weren’t recyclable, so he would drive around town trying to donate them to charities. Sometimes they’d take the goods, but just as often they wouldn’t.

So Beal started an e-mail group in which people could list items they wanted to give away and others could list things they needed. It went out to about 30 or 40 friends and a handful of local nonprofits. Today, Freecycle groups have spread from Tucson to more than 4,600 communities in 85 countries and have 6.5 million members. Beal says since October, the growth rate has gone from an average of 30,000 new members a week to anywhere from 40,000 to 75,000 a week. The whole operation runs on a staff of two salaried employees and 10,000 volunteers, who moderate the online forums.

Beal estimates that by finding new homes for old objects, the network diverts 700 tons a day from landfills. The Freecycle founder is proud of the environmental benefit, but he’s most excited about the relationships that are forged between members.

“The first time you give away something,” Beal says, “you get this super infusion of warm fuzzies. That’s what really makes it work.”

The new spirit of self-reliance and thrift has made its way into the political discourse. Horowitz says since the repudiation of President Jimmy Carter’s policies, as expressed in his “malaise” speech, with the election of President Ronald Reagan, “excess became increasingly the dominant cultural mode.”

But he says President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, with its emphasis on responsibility, marks a shift back toward a sense of excess being immoral.

Still, Horowitz thinks after a few years of austerity, society will regain its hunger for greater consumption. “There is a tension at the heart of this,” he says, “between saving and spending, between pleasure and restraint, and the balance between those historically shifts constantly.”

Whether it’s a fad or a harbinger of a deeper change, more and more are learning to enjoy less. Shropshire is now planning her own wedding and trying to stick to her vows of simplicity.

“I’m borrowing a friend’s dress, which is exquisite, which I never could have afforded on my own,” she says excitedly. And she found an antique ring on eBay that ended up being appraised at 2 1/2 times what she paid. “So far,” she says, “it’s been really easy.”

Email: jge2103@columbia.edu