"Do you own a restaurant?" a cashier at the warehouse club asked us.
"No," my wife, Donna, replied.
"But—the green beans!" the woman protested.
We snickered. It was an easy mistake. Our contractor's cart was stacked with 42 giant cans of kitchen-cut Blue Lake green beans and cases of peas, tomatoes, applesauce, and ketchup, mostly in school-cafeteria sizes.
On our second trip through her line, the clerk eyed our two carts loaded with flour, pasta, and cake mixes. "Kids?"
"No," I replied. "No kids."
On our third pass, she was certain: "Cleaning service."
The cases of tissue and gallons of cleanser would support her theory, but again my wife said, "Nope." And we chuckled.
Handing me a three-foot long receipt, the mystified clerk said, "See you soon."
"In about a year," I replied.
On the way to pack our car, Donna and I grinned at our secret: we shop for groceries and household products only once a year.
Lovin' and leavin' Cracker Barrel
Our once-a-year buying plan started of necessity and as an experiment. As Donna and I settled into our first house, we found that the due date for the mortgage payment came with alarming regularity. With a penchant for numbers, Donna tightened the budget, and for a few months it helped. Until the shower incident.
New to home ownership, we were unaware that upstairs showers are a common cause of dripping in the light fixtures one floor below.
"You'll have to take all this out to get to the trouble," the contractor said, pointing to walls and floors with a sweeping gesture. The treatment eventually required remodeling a bath and a half, kitchen, and foyer.
Four months later, using our shower again, we started calculating how to pay for it.
"We'll have to stop eating out," Donna announced one evening, holding up a calculator tape. "Our restaurant tabs last month cost more than the payment on our fix-up loan."
I shouldn't have been surprised. The hostess at one diner no longer asked our names when she penciled us on the waiting list. On our third visit in a week, she drawled, "You must love you some Cracker Barrel." She was right. The Reeds' battle of the budget was being lost at Cracker Barrel. And McDonald's, Wal-Mart, and the grocery store.
"I guess we'll have to eat at home," I murmured, looking askance at the new stove. I did so hate to see its gleaming surface smudged by—cooking. "I'll do the shopping," I offered. I had fond memories of the Saturday mornings I spent tailing my mother at the Food Giant as she selected a dozen items from a carefully crafted list and predicted to the penny the total the cashier would announce, tax included.
My wife, on the other hand, was subjected to laborious monthly buying trips for a family of six, embarrassed by the second cart she pushed behind her mother while complaining just out of earshot about store-brand corn flakes: "Silly Rabbit, Trix are for other families."
Challenged, I would join the best of both approaches: frequent, joyful trips filling multiple baskets.
"We're spending more at the grocery store than we were eating out," my banker-wife announced a month later. "Now what?"
That's when a columnist from USA Today came to our rescue.
Our family project
The man confessed that his weakness was clothes. He couldn't step into a store without buying a sweater or slacks or shoes. So the columnist gave up buying anything for one year. We Americans have far too much stuff, he reasoned.
Good for you, I thought as I read this column online in late July and wondered if Donna and I could pull off a similar feat.
Our temptation was at the grocery store, but also at the discount store, the mall, and Amazon.com. Every trip for a gallon of milk produced a tab for $100. What good is milk without chocolate, right? Pantyhose cost $100 dollars—with the requisite make-up, power tools, and DVD. It was as if the stores could read the balance in our checking account, and we would not be allowed to leave until that amount had been exacted.
"I think we should stop buying anything for a year," I said, relating the columnist's experience to my patient wife.
"Okaaaaay," Donna said. "Can we try it for a month and see if we're up to it?"
One month with no exceptions, we agreed. Not even gifts, because in a pinch one might accept a bucket from Kentucky Fried Chicken as an anniversary present. We bought supplies for the larder and gritted our teeth.
Could we go one month without buying anything?
The first two weeks sailed by. Our project had that new-car smell, all leather and elbow grease. We approached life like frontier people. Ma and Pa Ingalls didn't run down to the Merchantile four times a week, now did they? By week three we were drinking powdered milk, the lettuce was gone, and we really missed fast-food French fries. In week four Donna put her foot through her last good pair of hose and was forced to switch from dresses to pants for work attire for the remainder of the month. I was itching for a midnight run to Target until Donna tallied the results.
"Our expenses were less than half what we'd been spending. We can pay all the bills this month!" she announced. "If we survived one month, could we make it three?"
This was becoming our project.
Based on what we'd learned, we made new lists, including back-up pantyhose. We also began calculating really important matters—specifically, how many rolls of tissue and bars of soap our household uses in a month. Donna counted loads of laundry and the soap required. I measured our chest freezer and estimated what can be squeezed into seven cubic feet.
"Don't forget Thanksgiving," Donna pointed out. "Will a turkey fit in there?"
"Not likely. Maybe a big chicken."
And together we planned three months of meals. "What about milk and produce?" I asked, cringing at the thought of powered milk again.
"Could we buy a few perishables for ten dollars a week?" Donna offered. She stashed 13 fresh tens in the china teapot for the next quarter of a year.
"I can't live without Cracker Barrel once in a while," I confessed.
"And I need Value Meal Number One now and then," my wife admitted. Our compromise: gift certificates. We bought a few gift cards for a monthly meal out and a drive-thru experience. The cards went in a drawer near the teapot.
Encouraged by our savings and the leveling of our shopping-hyped endorphins, we were asking by Thanksgiving, "Can we make it a year?" Soon we were plotting a big, one-time-only buying spree for the week after Christmas when lots of stuff would be on sale.
For a $35 membership at the warehouse club, we bought a year's worth of food in large sizes at about half the cost of weekly trips to the store. "This is like following my mother around Winn-Dixie," Donna said. Then she reached for a nine-pound box of Raisin Bran, the name-brand, two-scoops kind. After small sprees at the hardware and discount stores, we planned to buy nothing else. The only exceptions would be prescription medications, dry cleaning, and car repair—for a whole year.
The year without shopping
"Remember Diane's washing machine?" Donna said one day in early December. Diane, her husband, and two children were serving as missionaries in an Asian country with an inadequate stock of washing machine parts. We'd met them while they were on furlough.
"When they were packing to return to the mission field," Donna said, "Diane told me she had to take everything they needed for four years. Even replacement hoses."
"You want to order parts for the washer?"
"No. I'm saying we should think of ourselves as missionaries."
And so we did. Our absence from the stores took on a spiritual dimension. Wal-Mart was in America, and we, apparently, lived in a distant country.
Did we stay out of the stores for a whole year? Mostly. Our exceptions that first year were the purchase of meat for the freezer in October, a couple of birthday presents for family, and funeral flowers. Was it easy? No. Eating at home requires work, but after three or four months, we appreciated the routine. Evenings became together time—cooking and washing up—but together.
The second year we repeated the buying spree, budgeting one limited clothes allotment for each of us during sale season. While our adherence now isn't quite as legalistic as the first year, we've learned there's a lot of stuff we don't need.
In our married life, I felt God had provided for us sufficiently, but, in all honesty, we'd not spent our money wisely. I didn't think of us as wasteful—we didn't wear Rolexes or drive Beamers or throw out leftovers. But we did fritter away cash in small amounts.
How much became clear as with our monthly savings we started paying off small nagging debts, and eventually large nagging debts. We charged about half the items we bought in the stock-up, but the supplies were all paid off in three months. Then we doubled the payments on our car loans and the new stove and shower, paying them off in less than half the time the financers predicted. Except for the mortgage, we're debt free.
And it's all because we went a year without buying anything.
Eric Reed is managing editor of MP's sister publication Leadership journal.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine.Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.