The effort of not buying things 3

Shopping buying hierarchy

There are many good alternatives to buying things… but they take some effort. (Photo: Ian Muttoo, copyright, modified, CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

My biggest news of the past week is that I moved from Hungary to Poland. My girlfriend lives in Kraków, and I had grown tired of travelling the same seven-hour route by bus twice a month. Since she couldn’t easily move because of her work, I decided that I might as well move to Kraków. (If you’re wondering why I write Kraków instead of Cracow, it’s because I’m this guy.) If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed…

I managed to find a nice and modern apartment at a reasonable price a little ways out of the city centre. In most respects the place was very well-appointed: it featured a dishwasher, a big flatscreen TV, and even a classical gramophone player. In other respects if was rather poorly equipped: there were few cooking tools, no office chair, and virtually no towels and bedlinen. These deficiencies forced me to reflect on the concept of minimalism.

Access or ownership

Minimalism in one sentence comes down to not buying things you don’t need. I’ve kept my material possessions limited to the contents of two bags and a suitcase for the past few years. In some ways that’s an arbitrary limit (in others it’s not, as this is the amount of stuff I can easily take with me on planes, trains, and automobiles). This limit depends partly on the things that are already available in my flat. I usually rent a high-end furnished apartment in the city where I put down my bags. These tend to come with all the things I need for cooking, eating, sleeping, working, and relaxing. Thus I can keep my own possessions to a minimum.

This means that I’m effectively paying for access to certain goods or functions, rather than for ownership. This makes sense… to a degree. Ownership often implies a high cost, the need for storage, and risk. But in some cases ownership is the easiest and cheapest way to get access to something. If you want to live in the countryside and have to get to work 30 km away every day, it would be ridiculous to order a taxi twice a day (access without ownership). You’re much better off just buying a (second-hand) car. You have to buy, maintain, insure, clean, park, and eventually sell your car, but still you’re better off than with a monthly taxi bill running in the thousands.

I was confronted with this issue when I moved into my new place in Kraków. I picked the apartment because of its location, quality, style, and access to public transportation and services. That was worth foregoing some furniture and equipment that I needed. But I can’t very well do without a cooking pot or bed covers (Kraków is a place where it can get as low as -20 °C in winter). So I had to either severely limit my comfort (eating just cold sandwiches and sleeping in my sleeping bag), gain access without buying (eating out and heating my bedroom to summer temperatures), or just buy the items I needed.

I spent around $500 on new stuff for my apartment. That’s far from ideal, as I now have $500 worth of things that I can’t take with me next time I move. But in this case I didn’t have the time to go and search for second-hand items that I needed, in a country where I don’t speak the language and know almost no one. Buying something new from the store is often the easiest option to get what you need, although also the most expensive option, and the one worst for the environment.

The Buyerarchy of Needs

I recently came across this cool infographic called ‘The Buyerarchy of Needs‘ (it’s a terrible pun, but the message is a good one) by Sarah Lazarovic. It shows the order in which you should think about options to fulfil a need. You should only consider an option if you’ve exhausted the ones below it. So the only case when you should buy a new item is when you can’t use what you have, borrow it, trade it, get it second-hand, or make it yourself. As you go up the pyramid, both the cost to you and the pressure on the environment go up.

The Buyerarchy of Needs

A perfect example of living by the buyerarchy of needs is how I got hold of a TV after moving to Budapest last year. I had found a group on Facebook where English speaking people sold their used goods. After following the group for a week or three, I saw an ad for a nice flatscreen TV for about $200. I negotiated to knock $25 off the price, picked it up, transported it home by bus, enjoyed using it for some 8 months, and then put it up for sale again in the same group. After a few attempts I managed to sell it for $150, at a $25 loss. So effectively I had given myself access to a TV for 8 months, for the price of $25.

Nothing was wasted: the Irish guy I bought the TV from got to enjoy it while he was living in Budapest, and didn’t have to throw it away when moving out; I got to watch it while I was there; and the guy I sold it to can use it for the years to come. The TV gets its maximum lifespan, and the pressure on the environment is minimized. I used the ‘thrift’ option to get the TV, as I didn’t want to watch movies on my small laptop screen (debatable), couldn’t really borrow a TV for 8 months, and had nothing to swap for one.

The effort of not buying

Something the buyerarchy of needs doesn’t show is effort. Unless you can use what you already have, borrowing, swapping, thrifting, or making all require much more effort than just going to the store. You have to search, barter, and transport, and in the case of ‘making’ do a lot more than that. How easy that is depends on your skills, your connections with your local community, your knowledge of local marketplaces, and your understanding of the language. And even if all of those are great, there’s still more effort involved than when buying something new.

When I moved to Poland all the ‘effort factors’ were bad. Being strapped for time because of ongoing projects, I decided to take the easy way out and just buy what I needed. But this meant putting more strain on the environment than necessary, and wasting money that could have been spent on fun things. So when I will leave Kraków again, I’ll happily sell my used stuff to you at a bargain, and help you stick to the buyerarchy of needs.


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3 thoughts on “The effort of not buying things

  • Mo

    I really enjoyed (and laughed out loud) reading this one and can’t agree more. Although, we now like to own a ‘go pro’, while already having a compact & reflex camera, 2 smart phones and an I Pad to make photo’s and video’s and possibly would be able to easily borrow a friends go pro during our holiday as well. Apparently something else then effort (risk?) is motivating me.

    • Martijn Post author

      @Mo: GoPro is a funny example. They were the first to offer cameras with a ‘selfie stick’. Their success has given rise to the availability of standalone selfie sticks, which in turn has encouraged people to make their own selfie sticks from twigs, old antennas, or anything they happen to have available. So while there is apparently some value in enabling people to take photos from weird angles, there is no need to buy a GoPro; you just need to make yourself a selfie stick. 🙂