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Spend shift

Last year, Matt Watkins embarked on a Buy Nothing Year. Hillary Lindsay catches up with him again to see if it was worth it.


One year ago this week, Matt Watkins was

almost halfway through his Buy Nothing Year—a yearlong commitment to abstain from using cash. Three months later—and five months short of his goal—Watkins bought a bag of groceries.

This Saturday, November 25, is Buy Nothing Day, a day most people can’t get through without buying a coffee, gas or groceries or whatever they think they need. That’s just one day, let alone a year.

Watkins began his Buy Nothing Year on July 6, 2004.

“I stopped using money in order to express my discontent towards a capitalist system of exchange that I believe to be exploitative, oppressive and destructive,” he said. Disgusted by an economy that values profit over people and the environment, Watkins began dumpster diving, gardening and bartering for food, and house sitting, camping and couch surfing for shelter. In the time saved from not working, Watkins did things he loved and found meaningful including volunteering with community organizations, spending time with friends and working in his garden.

The BNY experiment attracted a lot of attention. After last year’s Coast story on Watkins was published, journalists began seeking him out.

“Before I knew it, people were tracking me down wanting to make a movie, have an interview etc.,” says Watkins who felt uncertain about how to deal with the spotlight. “Buying nothing—for however long—was essentially a very personal and quite private experience for me. I felt that this somehow commodified my experience. Halfway through the year I felt that I was losing touch with some of the reasons I began BNY.”

Watkins hunkered down in a cabin he was house-sitting for the winter. Planning to spend the coming months chopping wood, reading and living quietly, Watkins hoped the remainder of BNY would pass without incident.

That wasn’t to be the case: Before the year was out, Watkins would be a father.

“At a certain point last year, I faced the difficult decision of choosing between completing BNY and helping to provide for my new family,” explains Watkins. “My priorities quickly changed when I became a parent. Suddenly, my family was more important than my personal goals.”

Watkins did not, however, drop his ideals for a suit and shopping spree at Toys“R”Us. “In no way have I gone back to buying more or having more than I need, and I certainly haven’t given up on the dream of being money-free and self-sufficient,” says Watkins, who is building a yurt which he hopes to live in with his family next year.

When BNY first ended Watkins started work doing odd jobs. He later got a part time job at a small bakery then worked at a summer camp for autistic children. In each case, it was important for Watkins to ensure the arrangement and wage was fair.

“In the past I’ve had jobs in which I felt exploited,” he says.

These days Watkins spends a couple of hours a day making jewellery to sell along with the soap made by his partner. “I spend a lot of time with my family and work from home as much as possible.” Preferring to spend time with his new baby boy than time at the office, Watkins rarely buys anything other than groceries. “I stretch my money out as long as I can.”

Refusing to allow work and money to control his days, Watkins has a quality of life that many millionaires dream of. At the moment, he is travelling with his family in Barbados visiting relatives.

“This is the last place I expected to be when I started BNY 16 months ago,” admits Watkins. But even on an island known for its all-inclusive resorts and decadent spas, Watkins and his family are spending time together—and not spending anything. “We went snorkeling yesterday. It was great!”

Though a lot has changed in Watkins’ life since this time last year, his plan for Buy Nothing Day remains the same. “I’ve participated in hundreds of days of buying nothing over the past year,” he says. “I’m definitely going to celebrate this Buy Nothing Day by not buying anything.”

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