A Review of
The Year without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting
Reviewed by Leslie Klingensmith
The “Year of…” premise for structuring a book is getting stale. They are everywhere. I suppose they have always been around, but the past few years it seems as if there is a new one every week. The Year of Living Biblically (A.J. Jacobs), The Year of Biblical Womanhood (Rachel Held Evans), and Sabbath in the Suburbs (MaryAnn McKibben Dana) are recent examples of the theological subgenre of this type of book. I read and enjoyed them all. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Barbara Kingsolver) takes the same idea and applies it to eating only home grown or home raised food for a year. Susan Maushart’s most entertaining The Winter of Our Disconnect operates within a different time frame (six months), but is the same premise – one family living without electronics so they can relate more genuinely to each other. A quick search on Amazon reveals a number of other titles built around the same idea: Do something (or not) for a year, enlist the support and/or participation of your family, and write about what it was like for you all and how it changed your life in the longer term. All of the books I have listed are enjoyable, thought provoking reads that I have recommended to friends. However, lately I have noticed myself rolling my eyes when I spot another “Year of…” book on display at the local bookstore. We human beings are all too capable of taking a good concept and running it into the ground until it is not retrievable.
And yet…I thoroughly enjoyed The Year without a Purchase. I almost chose not to read it, because the genre is in grave danger of becoming a cliché. But the concept of refraining from buying intriguing. Such a challenge rings true in my own life. I do not particularly enjoy shopping for entertainment (except in bookstores), but there is no question that my family buys more than we need to. We live in a culture where we are more likely to replace than repair. Even though I do not spend much time in malls, I am aware that online buying makes it all too easy to “just go ahead and get” that book I’ve been curious about or impulsively buy music. These are just a few examples of places where I sense my own proclivity for purchasing. I was curious to see how the Dannemiller family fared during their self-imposed buying fast.
Scott Dannemiller and his wife Gabby are people I would like to hang out with. They approached their project with sincerity, humor, and flexibility without a trace of self-righteousness. They were intentional (a word that comes up frequently in the book) about what they wanted to do, which was to go for a year without making any purchases except food and other products that run out and have to be replaced (household cleaning products and personal hygiene products both made the list). Such a commitment required them to fix things that broke instead of just buying a new one, or borrowing something that they would only need for a short amount of time. Scott and Gabby knew from the beginning that there might be situations that required them to pull back on their resolution, but they did not want to do such a thing lightly. Over the course of the year, they made two or three purchases (one being new shoes for their son, who had outgrown his old ones).
One of the best parts of the book is the creative approach that the Dannemillers took to social events that normally require spending money (or so we think). Scott and Gabby had set for themselves the additional challenge of not telling their kids about the buying ban, for various reasons. So, they still had to figure out how to participate in friends’ birthday parties, Halloween, and other occasions without buying birthday gifts or other accoutrements. With a little ingenuity, Scott and Gabby created Halloween costumes that delighted their children, using materials that were just lying around their home. I especially liked how they dealt with the quandary of a high school graduation gift for their niece. The young woman had been home schooled, and had not had the opportunity to experience a prom. The Dannemillers enlisted the help of the hotel where everyone in their extended family was staying for the graduation, used a room and lots of leftover decorations that family and friends contributed, and got all dressed up in their favorite finery – all for the purpose of hosting a fun prom for the niece and her extended family. Instead of spending money on a thing, they created an experience that brought their family closer together. They made a memory to treasure for years to come.
The idea of “experience gifts” that Scott and Gabby Dannemiller came up with to deal with their own children’s birthdays (as well as the graduation) is one of the great takeaways of the book. Instead of buying the kids a present, the children got to pick a special outing with a few friends. For example, their son Jake got to take some friends to a baseball game. Our family has started doing some of this during the past few years, as our kids get older (our sons are 12 and 9), but I wish we had begun earlier. I have noticed that money spent on experiences, on making memories, goes a lot further than buying more stuff. The years with our children go by so quickly, and the Dannemiller’s focus on spending time together instead of entertaining themselves by shopping will likely pay huge, albeit intangible, dividends in the future.
One of the books great strengths is Scott Dannemiller’s sense of humor. His chapter about taking his daughter’s lavender colored suitcase on a business trip when his more appropriately hued suitcase broke had me cackling alone in my office. Scott’s brother-in-law loaning him an athletic supporter after Scott had surgery on what he discreetly calls his “nether region” was hilarious as well as strangely poignant. The Dannemiller brand of self-deprecating humor adds a feel of “we’re all in this together” to the book. Rather than coming off as rigid or judgmental, he effectively communicates the truth that we are all just broken people trying to do our best to live faithfully. He does not try to address every contingency that could come up in a calendar year, nor does he imply that everyone should live the way his family did. He does, however, share in a convincing way how the experiment helped his family grow spiritually and in their relationships with each other. He also offers many practical tips for how we all can pare down and consume less, even if we do not have as lofty a goal as 365 days without buying anything.
Even if, as I am, you are getting a little weary of “Year of…” books, this one is well worth your time. Scott Dannemiller takes what could be a guilt-inducing a topic and makes it into a read that celebrates the joy of life and love. If you are already inspired to cease or curb your purchasing impulse, but wish to read this book, I have a copy you are welcome to borrow.