One Small Change: Practicing Justice by Owning Less

I had the privilege of getting to meet Allison Vesterfelt and her husband Darrell during they’re way-too-short stint living in Minnesota this year. They are wonderful people, and they’re doing beautiful work at their online magazine Prodigal. Ally’s got a book coming out this September called Packing Light, and it looks amazing. She’s joining us this week for the One Small Change Series to talk about their year of buying nothing new.

buying nothing new for one year

Growing up in an Evangelical church, I’ve heard the parable of the Rich Young Ruler my whole life. A young, rich ruler comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to experience the Kingdom of Heaven?” And Jesus tells him to sell all of his stuff and give the money to the poor. The young man walks away sad, because he is very rich.

That was Ally Vesterfelt’s translation, in case you were wondering. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it.

Anyway, I always assumed this passage was a nice story about what happens when “rich” people forget how much they need God. I never once considered I might be the rich person Jesus was talking to, and never pondered, even for a second, that God might be asking me to give up my actual physical possessions.

But a few years ago, I started to feel really convicted about how much stuff I owned, and I read this story again around that time, and it struck me in a totally different way. I started asking myself what would happen if I took the story literally.

So I did. I decided to get rid of everything.

It was totally crazy, I’ll admit, and a little more extreme than what most people are willing to do, but I was young and unattached and I’m pretty sure nothing I owned cost more than $20, so I just went for it. I congratulated myself and patted myself on the back and even thought about how, if I got rid of everything now, maybe God would bless me with nicer things after my experiment was over. It’s funny how we do that with God, bargain with him for better stuff.

Instead, the opposite happened. After my first experiment came and went, I fell in love and moved across the country to marry my husband, and had to get rid of even more stuff. Then, a few months later, we moved together to a new state for my husband’s job, and had to purge again. It wasn’t until I found myself crying actual, physical tears over my things (pillows and old clothes) that I started to see the pattern clearly.

I was way too attached to my stuff.

So this year my husband and I decided to do something a little less drastic, but equally sacrificial, to keep our “stuff” in check. We decided to buy nothing new for a whole year, only used or second-hand.

Instead of going to Target or IKEA to furnish our new apartment, we went to Goodwill and Salvation Army. We found furniture, trash cans, and even a used mattress. When my husband broke his iPhone we didn’t go replace it. When we needed a power strip, or warmer clothes for our new (freezing) Minnesota climate, we browsed the racks at thrift and second-hand stores until we found what we wanted.

We searched for months for a microwave and a rice cooker, but never found either, so we lived without.

This small experiment in living with less helped us practice justice in a couple of ways.

First, we laid down our privilege and admitted how “rich” we really were.

I spent so much of my life focusing on people who had more than I did, comparing myself to them, feeling sorry for myself that I never got to own the things they got. This experiment reminded me about how much I truly have.

I am rich. I own a car and have a roof over my head, and have the power to purchase things I need and want. I am rich, like the young ruler from the Bible.

Second, it forced us to take a consumer “pause” to think about our purchases.

Consuming comes so naturally to us in this the United States, sometimes I think we get moving too fast on the treadmill and all we can do is just keep up. Consume-consume-consume. Taking this natural pause forced us to think before we purchased, to think about how our purchases impacted those around us, and how they impacted us.

Third, it reminded me I have choices.

One thing that happens when we move too fast as consumers is we forget we have choices, and that our choices matter. There is more than one place to buy something. Always. I don’t “have” to buy it where I usually buy it, and I don’t have to buy it where everyone else is buying it.

I have lots of options, and slowing down the consumer train allowed me space to explore those options and make the best choice I knew how.

Fourth, it reminded me I am not what I own.

This might not seem like an issue of justice, but for me it really was (and is). I am not what I own. Which means, other people are not what they own either. People with boats and luxury vehicles and fancy houses are not more important, or more “blessed” by God than those without those things. And vice versa.

We haven’t been legalistic about our experiment. My husband bought me a new book for my birthday, and I bought him a pair of shoes for his. I also bought a shower curtain for our bathroom, and oh yeah, some underwear (while I’m being candid) because that was one thing I just couldn’t bring myself to buy used.

But I think all of that’s okay.

Because justice isn’t really about following rules, I don’t think. I can’t imagine there is any set of guidelines we could follow that would prevent us from inflicting injustice on anyone, ever. But I do believe that if we’re willing to challenge our habits and patterns, we’ll see things from a new perspective, and in that seeing, we’ll learn to treat others with the same dignity and humanity we hope to experience ourselves.


Allison_VesterfeltAllison is a writer, managing editor of Prodigal Magazine and author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage (Moody, 2013).

She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband Darrell. You can follow her daily on Twitter or Facebook

3 thoughts on “One Small Change: Practicing Justice by Owning Less

  1. In all three accounts of that story, there is an interesting nuance. In the list of commandments, which are the six love-your-neighbor commandments, there is one missing. The ruler was certainly mentally checking them off as Jesus listed them. And just as he was thinking, “Wait! You forgot Do Not Covet!” Jesus hit him with the rest. And note that Jesus does not say to give away all your STUFF. He says to convert it into money (sell it). Money is much easier to leak through our fingers to our neighbors in need than anything we own. And, depending on your translation, none of the synoptic accounts say “give all”. It just says to distribute or give (generously) from the resulting pile of money overflowing your outstretched hands. There is grace-filled freedom in that.

    Downward mobility. I highly recommend it.

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