Friday, May 26, 2017
The storage tote on my porch: A Buy Nothing Project story
I passed a woman on the street this morning, each of us carrying random items in old grocery bags, our names written on them in sharpie. I had never met her, but we gave each other a friendly look and nod, knowing we were both up to the same thing. We had just taken something off of someone's porch, someone we quite possibly had never laid eyes on.
Two and a half years ago a friend sent me an invitation to a local Facebook group called Buy Nothing (our neighborhood name) and while I belonged to several local buy/sell groups, I had never heard of this before. The premise is that you post your unwanted items for offer to other neighbors in the group, people comment on them if they want them, and then you pick a recipient. You can also ask for items that you want, and if someone has one they don't need, they might offer it to you. After that, arrangements are made to pick up the item, either face to face, or often from a bin on their porch.
I was already several months into an ongoing massive purge of our belongings, in order to avoid the expensive prospect of upgrading to a larger house. I started posting items to give almost right away, and commenting on things I needed.
The group quickly spread like wildfire, everyone in love with the idea. While my basement slowly emptied of dusty items we hadn't touched in years, finding new love in other homes, I was being given countless items we wanted or needed without having to spend a cent. With me working part time our budget is always tight, but after joining Buy Nothing it started to seem a little less imposing, with so many items suddenly falling into our hands for free. Hand me down clothing and shoes for our children, partially finished bags of pull ups, excess garden produce, bedding, ice skates, soccer cleats, toys and books were available from sources reaching much farther than our inner circle. The more I received from Buy Nothing, the more money it left in our budget for the other things we needed to purchase.
Some of the most amazing things we have been given over the past years have been a wooden doll house, a private swimming lesson, a bicycle, a new mailbox, an IKEA loft bed, a dresser, fresh baked goods and fudge, an 18 inch doll, a hair cut, a Keurig machine, a children's gift basket full of treasures, and basement shelving. Half the toys under our Christmas tree this year came from the group, most of them still new in the package, and twice when families have moved to another city we have received the entire contents of their fridges, freezers and pantries, saving us money for months. Any time I need something, I know I just need to ask and 90% of the time, it will likely appear. Just this week when my fitbit band broke, I put up a request in the group. Within 5 minutes I had an offer for 2 new ones, just a few blocks away.
Knowing such generosity is available to me, it makes it really easy to give as well, and keep this house free of clutter. As soon as my youngest outgrows anything, out the door it goes without the time consuming hassle trying to nickle and dime some money back through consignment stores, selling sites or yard sales. I also don't need to deal with the guilty feeling about how much money might have been spent on it. I'm giving back to a giant communal pot of hand me downs, knowing that whatever I put in will come back to me in some way, and sentimental items are easier to part with knowing that another, younger child will love it the same way my children love the items that are passed to them, and another mom will feel the same ease in her budget when she doesn't need to pay for it.
But really, the very best part of the group have been the amazing friends I've made. When the Konmari method swept through the group (and with it the hilarious volume of clothing and books suddenly being offered) a little group of 6 of us formed to chat privately about it and have since become a tight knit group that talks multiple times a day. Another group formed to work on sewing projects together twice a month, where I work on a quilt made of old pajama scraps and eat treats at a friend's house. One summer we even formed a park tour, where members would meet up at a different local park for a play date each day, until we had visited every park in the entire area. There have been adult coloring nights, crafting nights, pot lucks and outings. One woman opens her house to members every Thursday morning to drop in for coffee, a chat and fresh baked cookies.
There is a dark side as well. I've lent out items that haven't been returned. I've had items sitting on my tiny porch getting destroyed by the rain when people don't show up to pick up, and food rotting and attracting bees when people haven't come to get it. There are people who comment on nearly every single item posted, either hoarding items or selling them for profit. There are people who ask and ask for things but never give back. There are people who dramatically overshare their every woe. There are rules that stifle people, like not being able to give advice, tell people where to find an item for sale cheaply, or banter about something without an admin deleting their comments or giving them a stern talking to.
Over time though you learn who to trust, to lend only what's replaceable, and who is reliable and punctual when it comes to pick things up. I have a long list of people I will no longer give things to, and an even longer list of people who I know will be there within hours of having their name picked. While some people prefer to give their most sought after items through a random number generator, I pick those who I know are going to come quickly. Most times I don't even need to post items anymore, but give them directly to people with daughters just a little younger than mine, the same way another woman gives bags of clothing directly for my oldest now, and another gives my children all her happy meal toys for their collections. We've developed a sort of efficiency for keeping our houses free of clutter, and a cunning at keeping our children provided for at very little cost.
Whenever the group reaches 1000 members, it needs to 'sprout' into two or more groups. The first time it happened, my friends and I were devastated. It was like being put in separate classes! There was a lot of drama and unrest in the group that led to online fighting, unfriending, and even a renegade spin-off group, of which I am still an admin. The group recently sprouted again with little fanfare, because what we learned the first time was that any friends we had already made were ours to keep, and there was still plenty available being given, it was just much easier to pick up now that the geographical boundaries were smaller.
I wish this had been around when my children were first born. While I was lucky to have been given so many hand me downs from my sister in law, many times I would run out to buy an item only to find out a friend or neighbor had just recently donated the same thing and vice versa. Had we been in the group, they would have known I needed it, or I would have known they were getting rid of exactly what I needed. My web was small back then, and now it's very large, and continues to grow.
If you don't already belong to a Buy Nothing group, I would highly advise that you do. You can find yours by typing Buy Nothing (your neighborhood name) in the search bar on Facebook, and most likely one will come up. Some groups are more active than others, but you can expand the membership by inviting nearby friends, the way my friend did years ago with me. Years later I'm still a proud member with a telltale storage tote on my porch to prove it.