How Does the Buy Nothing Project Work?

Using local networks to give and receive can be a way to save money and build community. (Photo: Cabania/Shutterstock).

As we zoom into another holiday season, it’s worth reminding ourselves that giving gifts is (despite expectations, emotions and traditions) a voluntary activity, one that you can choose to “just say no” to.

I no longer give holiday gifts, both because I can’t afford it and because it seemed like an exercise in wastefulness, and I haven’t been kicked out of any groups because of it. And frankly, it renders the holiday experience much more enjoyable and relaxing to not have to find the perfect thing for everyone you know in such a short time frame. I still give gifts, but randomly throughout the year, when I find something the person will really appreciate.

However, I know I’m in the minority! So whether you need to save money (or have to!), but you still feel the pressure to give gifts — or you like to give because it makes you feel good (which is the best reason to do it), there's a great alternative way to do it: The Buy Nothing project.

Born on Bainbridge Island, a small community off the coast of Washington state, the Buy Nothing Project brings together the online usefulness and organization of Craigslist and Freecycle, but adds a community element with in-person meetings. There are 225 Facebook groups around the globe, representing "... over 25,000 members in 150 groups, in 4 countries," according to the site's About page. (Though it looks like that stat might need updating, because I counted nine countries and several hundred groups in the United States alone — just check this list to find out if there's a group near you; and of course, you can start one of your own too.)

The site's motto is "Buy Nothing, Give Freely, Share Creatively."

The rules for the local Facebook groups are simple: “Post anything you’d like to give away, lend, or share amongst neighbors. Ask for anything you’d like to receive for free or borrow. Keep it legal. Keep it civil. No buying or selling, no trades or bartering, we’re strictly a gift economy.”

Because the groups are managed on Facebook, group members can find and see mutual friends they may share with others who are strangers, which is a way to build trust (which in turn allows groups to grow quickly and freely).

How does this go down in real life? The Walker family, which is a large family with home-schooled children, has documented their journey on the Buy Nothing site. Their mother, Jana, used their local Buy Nothing group to set up a challenge:

Since the Buy Nothing Project started in our neighborhood, we have been on board completely and we got to thinking, what if we could get by for a month through a gifting community? What if we could give our children their birthday parties by borrowing decorations that don’t hurt the environment, by borrowing from a community lending library of table settings? What if I could gather up the homeschool supplies I might need from a community that might have things laying around that we could use? I am always up for a challenge and my family is on board for this so we are going to give it a try!

Over the course of the month, the results are impressive: Jana gave away all sorts of things, including toys, food (freshly made cookies, chocolate syrup and Spanish rice), magazines and DVDs and they got travel-sized toiletries for one child's camp, lots of lightly used clothes, a half-dozen bottles of detergent, an ice-cream maker, fresh eggs and bread, (some of these things were items that Jana requested, while others were just given to her) and lots of garden veggies.

Yes, she did manage to pull off several kids' birthdays (including a "Brave"-themed one for her daughter who was very into the Disney movie (and ended up getting a free lesson from the local archery range, as well as plenty of other gifts) and her anniversary celebration using stuff — plus creative ideas for when stuff didn't turn up.

Of her month-long experiment, Jana wrote: "I feel that our Buy Nothing community is thriving not because of a sense of need over stuff but because of a sense of need for ... community."