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Forget tidying up. Let's talk about the life-changing magic of Buy Nothing groups

Addie Broyles
Austin 360
I've given away more than 30 items, including books, baskets, games, kitchen gear and crafting supplies, during the past six weeks through my Buy Nothing group, a hyper-local gift economy where participants ask for and give whatever they might need.

In the past six weeks, I’ve given away 36 items in my Buy Nothing group, and it all started with a rug. 

I’d just bought a new rug for my living room that I’d been coveting for about a year. My old rug wasn’t in terrible shape, and I hated the idea of throwing it away. I could have held onto it for some future situation where I’d need an extra living room rug — or to swap out with the new one — but the truth is, I already had two even older rugs rolled up in the corner of my garage. Those rugs hadn’t been used in the six years that I’ve lived in my house, but there they were, awaiting some unknown future.

So, I snapped a photo of the rug and posted it in the Buy Nothing group I’d just joined after hearing about it from Mary Pierce, the Northwest Hills resident who coordinated two massive holiday dinner giveaways with people in her gift economy community.

I hadn’t thought twice about the words “gift economy” before posting that beige and floral floor covering, but within half an hour, half a dozen people had said they were interested in it. One commenter who didn’t want the rug said, “Great give!” 

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I messaged the first person who said they were interested in the rug and told them where they could pick it up. By the end of the day, the rug was gone and I was hooked. I had just participated in an incredibly old way of existing in a community that pools its resources and shares items without expectation of getting anything in return. 

What else could I give away?

Six weeks later, I’ve given away my old Spanish textbooks from college, a half-used sticker puzzle book, fingernail polish, a Yeti travel mug, Pokemon cards, an ice cube tray, a book about leprechauns, half a bag of cat food (RIP, Jimmy), cuttings from my fig tree and a card game I bought my kids for Christmas that we didn’t like playing. 

I've received a brand new pair of Apple earbuds, body lotion, plant cuttings, a leather knife holder, a wall calendar, a book about Buddhism, a pair of snorkeling flippers, a makeup bag and a floppy felt black hat, a pink sweater and well-loved black leather booties that make me wish I was strolling down South Congress. 

In Buy Nothing groups, participants give away more than just household goods. Some people share recipes and cooking lessons, while others ask for or offer help with yardwork. I recently gave away cuttings from a fig tree through my neighborhood Buy Nothing group.

My favorite give during these early days as a Buy Nothing superfan has been a Kendra Scott necklace that looked so pretty hanging on my necklace stand but that I just hadn’t worn enough to justify keeping. A few days before Christmas, I posted a photo of the jewelry that I’m sure I could have tried to sell via Poshmark or at a pawn shop, but I knew the joy of giving it to someone in my group would be higher than whatever monetary value I could extract from it somewhere else. 

I randomly picked one of the commenters and messaged her about picking it up. Because Christmas was the next day, I wrapped it up in a box and put her name on it and was reminded that, yes, indeed, it means more to give than to receive. 

The Buy Nothing groups have few rules but a clear mission (“To give and receive, share, lend, and express gratitude through a worldwide network of hyper-local gift economies”) and value to the people who participate. 

“The true wealth is the web of connections formed between people who are real-life neighbors,” the website states. In less than two months giving and getting with no strings attached, I’m feeling rich. 

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It’s only been a few years since Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” became a bestseller and millions of Americans started keeping the items that “spark joy” and getting rid of everything else. I dabbled in purging some items from my closet, kitchen and bookshelf, but I didn’t experience any “life-changing” magic. 

Dropping off bags of stuff at the Goodwill didn’t do much for my soul. Throwing away a bottle of salad dressing or hair gel that I didn’t like felt wasteful, so I continued to try to dutifully use up anything I couldn’t donate. 

But there’s something different about both giving and receiving in these Buy Nothing groups. There’s no shame attached to two teaspoons of glitter for a kids’ craft project (an actual request from a neighbor that I was able to help with a few weeks ago), and no one is guilting you about whether you really need a floppy felt hat in your clothing collection. 

Before Buy Nothing, people had limited options for what to do with stuff they didn’t need any more: Goodwill and garage sales, Craigslist or maybe Facebook marketplace. Or a landfill. 

But in the Buy Nothing world, “we see no difference between want and need, waste and treasure. ... We view all gifts as equal; the human connection is the value.” (That’s according to the manifesto on the website that now includes a lengthy section on the commitment to anti-racism, which I also appreciated.)

These groups might seem like a place to get rid of kids’ clothes that no longer fit, but it’s also where people ask for anything they need or want: ski clothes to borrow for an upcoming trip, a ride to the mechanic to pick up a car, tutoring for algebra. In my group, I’ve even seen someone ask for help walking a large dog because they are approaching the late stages of pregnancy. 

It’s an abundance-based mentality built around the idea that if you’re willing to ask or willing to give, someone likely will have whatever you need or would be eager to receive what you’re willing to part with. 

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It is against group rules to sell or buy anything in the Buy Nothing groups, and members also can’t trade or barter, which keeps money out of the equation entirely. 

There are no strings attached to these gives, no expectation of reciprocity, so there’s also a lot of trust that people build up with every give, every ask, every comment. People also share gratitude posts, which Jennifer Lansdowne, who has been an administrator for several groups including one of the first groups in Austin, says is what keeps the groups going. “It lets the rest of us share in the joy of what’s happened.” 

It’s been a truly life-changing experience to participate in my community in such a new-to-me way. I have only “met” a couple of the people I’ve been in contact with. I wouldn’t even say I’ve made any friends in my group yet, but I have this strange sensation that we are becoming interconnected in an even more meaningful way. I’m learning how to trust strangers who I knew, intellectually, to be my neighbors but whom I’d never interacted with beyond admiring their houses on my regular walks around the neighborhood.

Now, when I have an item to pick up, even something as small as two cans of sardines that someone accidentally got in their curbside grocery order, I plot the course on my phone and head out on a walk to pick it up, enjoying the exercise and the journey of getting there and feeling more a part of my little corner of Austin while I do it. 

And that’s not nothing.

Addie Broyles writes about food, food culture and home cooking for the American-Statesman. She can be reached at abroyles@statesman.com.