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February
A Year of UnNew: Month Two

Welcome back for month two of my “Year of UnNew” chronicles—I’ve pledged to buy nothing new for an entire year and to write about the experience. You can find the first installment (and an explainer) of the series here

This month, I learned three things:

  1. You can furnish most of an apartment for less than $250.
  2. There’s some truth in the statement “less is more.”
  3. And, fighting the power of advertising is just plain annoying.

When you change a habit, you start to see the world a little differently. Say the habit you’re trying to break is the compulsion to look at your phone right when you wake up in the morning—when you resolve to break the habit, you start to examine your morning in new ways. And it goes beyond the immediate act of waking or the effort it may take to wait 30 minutes before looking through your phone. You also start to examine how those 30 minutes are spent, how you feel after reuniting with said phone, and how a new morning routine affects the rest of your day. We grow a little more conscious when our actions are motivated by resolutions, and growth takes work. How much work depends on how much growth, or what kind of change.

My office space a used desk chair $25 two second hand lights $10 each a $20 side table and a meditation altar I built with natural materials and a hot glue gun.

With a habit as routine and vague as the action of “purchasing goods to live/survive in Colorado, USA,” the work of change has felt more or less consistently present. Every time I’ve gone to purchase something in the past two months, I’ve first had to ring up the thought: can I get this second-hand? The answer has been almost exclusively yes. I’ve gotten intimately familiar with Facebook Marketplace (and its woefully annoying notification system) and Craigslist is now a suggested browser on my internet homepage. Forcing myself to think more deeply about the origins of the objects I bring into my home has jostled subsequent thoughts about the objects themselves. Do I really need [insert objects here]?

In adding up all the little actions I’ve taken over the last sixty days, one measuring stick of this new consciousness is how my life does indeed feel a little simpler. Repeatedly I recognized I do not, in fact, need many of the things I once thought I did. Now we own less, but what we own we enjoy more.

February: the good, the bad, and the ugly 

First things first: the good. Throughout both January and February, Jordan (my husband) and I felt somewhat motivated by the fact that our abstention from the new-item market has continued to spark conversations among our family and friends about the breadth of the second-hand industry. People will sell anything online! I think it’s gotten the folks around me thinking about whether or not it matters to them where and how their possessions originate. We’ve also appreciated the prospect of saving money—objects with previous owners are so much cheaper than when brand-new. Of course the quality of used items will vary, but I often found high-quality used items for the same price as low-quality brand-new items. In addition to this, knowing we were helping keep things out of landfills and reducing demand (however small) for virgin materials brought me a small sense of purpose in this rapidly weirding climate. (Hello, snowy Texas, 65-degree Colorado mountains, and ice storms down the southeast coast.)

We bought the side tables with the dresser for $50 total. Were waiting to build a bed frame from scrap lumber.

The bad: I quickly learned about some of the barriers people face when attempting to furnish and create living spaces out of secondhand goods: namely, lots of time and access to transportation. In mid-January, Jordan and I moved from our one-bedroom apartment into a shared house. Now instead of one, we have two bedrooms at our disposal. When moving, all we could take with us was our mattress—we needed to furnish a bedroom and a small office space for me to work, and it took more than three weeks to find everything we needed: a desk, office chair, dresser, clothing rack, side tables, bookshelves, bathroom shelves, trash cans, and light fixtures. I spent hours after work searching across online resale websites like Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, and NextDoor. Then many more hours on top of that, driving around neighboring cities to pick up the various items. Altogether, I drove over 60 miles to retrieve our furnishings. I don’t know how I would’ve proceeded without my own car and the time after work for online research. And if I had kids or a parent to caretake, say, it would’ve been ever-harder to research and pick-up the goods. Altogether, though, we spent less than $250 creating an entirely new-to-us, livable space.

Mac the cat hangs out on our $30 dresser courtesy of Craigslist, the mirror was a $10 find at Goodwill.

The ugly: Back to habits. Buying only second-hand things has made me realize how persistent advertising campaigns are. Ads are everywhere! Always trying to get you to buy new things! Some of them won’t leave you alone! And without being able to purchase anything advertised, I started to feel these ads were poking a bruise with each flashy, enticing campaign. I’d be scrolling my Instagram feed and BAM, an ad for a cute new hemp clothing line, BAM, an ad for a new lavender body wash, BAM, an ad for a new lightweight tent. I’d open my inbox and feel swarmed by subject lines reading: “Comfortable clothes for cozying up at home,” or “An outdoor prize pack for you and a friend 👯‍♀️,” or “OUT NOW — FIRST RELEASE.” (All real examples.)

Paco relaxes in front of a 20 thrifted clothing rack

Each time I came across something, a two-part tango played out in my mind: one side of my brain drifting off to fantasy land, imaging myself wearing the cute hemp t-shirt while Zoom-ing with colleagues—the other side of my brain swooping in to remind myself nope, can’t buy that. It isn’t new. Over these weeks, I’ve started to feel that reminder evolving to: nope don’t need that. 

To remedy the bruise-poking and simply how annoying it was to ignore all the flashy sirens, I set out to unsubscribe from as many marketing emails as I could—easy but somewhat time consuming. On Facebook, you can manage your ad topics, but none of the available opt-out topics (Alcohol, Parenting, Pets, and Social Issues, Elections, or Politics) quite nailed my desire to “see fewer ads” that promote obsessive consumer capitalism. As far as I can tell, Instagram doesn’t give you an option to filter ads. So while I’m more aware than ever of how intensely we are bombarded and solicited to buy things, and how social media amplifies this, my inbox does feel lighter. Better. Less cluttered. I’ll take it for now.

Have any questions about my Year of Unnew? Ask away in the comments below, or email us hello@geartrade.com  I’d love to hear what you’d like to know about embarking on this journey.

Emma Athena is an award-winning journalist and fresh-air lover. She writes about adventure and the environment, where humans and nature intersect at their most impactful moments. When she’s not glued to her keyboard or curled up with a book, she’s running in the mountains with her dog or camping with people she loves. To read more of her work and get in contact, visit emmaathena.com.