11 Jun 2016

Michelle McGagh: my year of buying nothing

From Saturday Morning, 8:12 am on 11 June 2016
Michelle McGagh

Michelle McGagh Photo: Supplied

Michelle McGagh is co-founder of London Minimalists and is half-way through her year of buying nothing. Horrified by the horrendous consumerism of Black Friday - traditionally the Friday after Thanksgiving in the US when retail stores have huge sales - Michelle was inspired by the counter-movement, Buy Nothing Day.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

If everyone did what you’re doing, the country would grind to a halt, right? You’re not prescribing this as a lifestyle, are you?

No, not at all. I don’t think it’s possible to do it for… well, hopefully I can do it for a year, but I don’t think it would be possible to do it for longer than a year. I’m trying to make a point that we don’t have to be trapped in cycles of consumerism. It’s not about living off grid, or extracting myself from normal society. It’s about: ‘Can we all have a little think about what we’re doing with our money?’

I was really bad with my money, the irony being that I’m a financial journalist. I write about saving every day, and I was terrible with my money. So let’s all have a little think about how much we buy, and whether we really need what we’re buying, whether it’s a want or a need. I don’t think that is a bad thing to sit back and think about, whether we are trapped in this mindless cycle of buying stuff that we don’t need.

I looked at your website and you had a warning to people to not obsess about how little they have and how much they abstain. You said minimalism is a tool to a better way of life, not a better way of life in itself. Can you elaborate on that?

Exactly. When people hear the word minimalism, they think of people sitting in an empty white box and there’s lots of things online about people who live out of a backpack or who own less than 100 things, and it’s almost become an odd competition. Sometimes people compete to see who can own the most expensive watch, other people are competing to see who can own the fewest things and I think each of those are as bad as the other.

I think for me what minimalism is about, is saying, ‘Okay, do you know what, we don’t need to just keep buying. Let me just think about what I really want. If I give myself the time, the space and free up some money from the shops because I am not going out and spending, if I give myself all of those things, maybe I can figure out what I really want in my life.’ And people might have a think about it and think, ‘Do you know what, if I didn’t go spending so much money I wouldn’t have to work as many hours at work, I can spend more time with my kids.’

I think it can be a tool to help people think about what they want. I don’t think people have to sell all of their items and everything they own, I think it’s just about stopping and having a little think about our money and what we’re doing with it.

Is it a middle class thing, Michelle? The fact is, you would have had to have a relatively high standard of living in terms of comfort and material possessions to decide to stop spending in the first place, right?

Yeah, I think you do have to have disposable income. I wouldn’t necessarily say middle class because I’m not from that background. But, I say, yeah, you have to have some disposable income, definitely.

As a buffer.

Yeah, definitely. You have to have disposable income that you’re going out and spending, and maybe spending mindlessly.

No, but to do what you’re doing, you have to have a certain number of comfortable things like clothes to wear, tins of food in the cupboard, in order to gain, say “spending money”.

I owned clothes before I started it, and I buy food every week, exactly. Lots of people have said to me, ‘It’s called poverty.’ This is not poverty. Poverty is not a choice. Being frugal is a choice and I think there is a huge distinction between that. People don’t choose to be in poverty, but you can be frugal and yes, you do need, in order to be frugal, the benefits of being frugal (frugal in the extreme, in my case), you have to have had some disposable income to save, definitely.

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