Minimalist stories don’t usually contain much God-talk. Some have hints of spirituality in their suggestions that you can declutter your soul, make time for what’s important, and find peace in a life that’s not so full of stuff. On the flip side, there is plenty of writing about how to grow in your spiritual life. Not many stories combine the two. The Year Without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting takes a stab at it. Scott Dannemiller describes the year he spent trying to get back to basics and the humorous journey of those tricky twelve months.
The family’s backstory is particularly intriguing. Scott and his wife, Gabby, had been married and both working full-time for several years when they started to feel that existential pull telling them that life isn’t about dying with the most toys. They received a call (spiritual and literal) to spend a year living in Guatemala, serving in a ministry of presence with a poor community. Rather than building a school or digging a well, they mostly just spent time among the people and engaged in the sharing of lives. They had very few possessions, little clothing, no computers, simple food, and only one bath per week. It was transformative.
But the transformation didn’t stick. They returned to the U.S., had a couple of kids, and resumed their lives as consumers. When that pull started pulling again, they couldn’t pack up and leave the country for a year, so they decided to try going a whole year without buying anything. Of course, there were rules. Anything that could be eaten or used up within a year (such as a toothbrush) was okay to buy. Essential items that would cost more to replace than to fix could be replaced, but “essential” was defined tightly. (The broken toaster oven had to stay broken, and the businessman had to use a lavender carry-on suitcase.) Gifts had to be experiences—and preferably consumable, such as restaurant gift cards. Most surprising of all, the Dannemillers decided not to tell their kids about the experiment. This probably worked because they were so young (5 and 7 years old); it’d be interesting to see how a similar experiment would work with older children.
Trying to go a year without a purchase was in service of a greater goal. The Dannemillers had a family mission statement, but Scott realized that they hadn’t been trying to live it out at all. So he frames the book and the stories of that year around attempts to fulfill it:
“To tirelessly seek God’s will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing together in faith, and serving God’s people to build a world without need.
Unfortunately, it was the “growing together in faith” section where I started to encounter problems with the theological aspects of Dannemiller’s challenge. He spends an uncomfortable chapter (pun not intended) explaining the process of ensuring surgically that he and his wife wouldn’t welcome any additional children during the year… or ever again. Of course it made me think about the differences between Catholic and (in this case) Presbyterian views of life, marriage, and family, but I also questioned its relevance to the year’s mission. I can’t help but wonder if there couldn’t have been a way to be open to life and still closed to unnecessary purchases. Joining the Society of St. Andrew for some gleaning, overseeing an interesting baptism, and dramatically increasing charitable donations was about as faith-oriented as their adventures ever got.
I will say that I loved the style and tone of this book. It would have been easy to rationalize any missteps and come across as didactic and heavy-handed. It might be easier to market a more heavily religious POV of consumerism, materialism, and excess. Yet The Year Without a Purchase manages to share a realistic story with humor and thoughtfulness. I found myself laughing out loud at some of the family’s mishaps (a family prom as a graduation gift, the first “failure” purchase, and the perils of being “real tree people” at Christmastime). I found myself nodding in agreement with Dannemiller’s conclusions and or letting my mind wander into reflection about my own wastefulness. I definitely found myself wondering if this could ever work with older children.
If nothing else, this is probably the most useful entry I’ve encountered in the “annual challenge” memoir subgenre. Reading the OED or living according to all the rules explicitly laid out in the Bible (for men or for women) seem less useful than forgoing purchases. At least by setting rules about what you probably don’t need, you’ll learn what you really do need, and you’ll grow in understanding what you really don’t need—and why.
I received a free Kindle e-book copy of The Year Without a Purchase from Westminster John Knox Press via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review. Many thanks for their generosity!