The Buy Nothing Project

By Pam Holman

Gifting stuff: Sharing skills and resources. Getting to know your neighbors. The Buy Nothing Project is as much about relationships as it is about economics.

I’m hustling across a tree-lined street in Rose Park, three blocks from my house,  one pocketed hand clutching a heavy Ziploc bag threatening to weigh down my coat. I’m making a delivery to a man I’ve never met, although I know who shares his back fence, and two neighbors across the street from him. I know his name, and I know why he needs what I have to give him. And I’m coming through for him because that’s what we do in this neighborhood; we come through for each other. No one would suspect, and I have to shake my head to even think about what I’m delivering.

And how do I know his name and what he needs? Welcome to the Buy Nothing Project, an intriguing social experiment in gift economy, enabled by closed Facebook groups the world over, neighborhood by neighborhood. This particular neighbor logged onto our Rose Park group this morning and shared his predicament. We exchanged a message and it was on. And of course, everything that happens in our Buy Nothing group requires that the members do indeed buy nothing to help each other. All items, favors and lending is 100% free. Before the end of the day I expect he’ll log on again to say a public thanks to the group. That’s another thing that happens here —we ask, we give, and we appreciate on our Buy Nothing page. No advice, no referrals, no debates or opinions; only give, ask, and appreciate.

My group wasn’t by any means the first, almost three years old now in Rose Park, but it has actually turned out to be the most active in the state of Utah with around 700 members. That represents at least 700 shared resources in about a square mile. (Shared resources: Do 10 neighbors need 10 lawnmowers, or 10 snow blowers?)

At first, the idea of ‘free stuff’ definitely grabbed attention. Young families were quick to begin passing along baby bouncers and kids’ clothes in great shape. When we all began evaluating our belongings for ‘sparks of joy’ a lot of photos started popping up on the page. It is one thing to haul off a box of long-time possessions for thrift store donation, but it’s a completely different thing to hand something over to a grateful neighbor.

Like the lamp that lit one member’s late night cramming through college, spent time gathering garage dust, and now is going to its next incarnation. A young woman two streets away is collecting what she needs for her dorm room. We can see our younger selves in the way she looks at the lamp we hand over. Cool, she says, and we wish her, more than she can know, the best of luck.

If we sold her that lamp, even for a few dollars, this exchange would be just done, over, complete and in the pocket. Nice doing business with you. When we’re giving something that’s really needed, for free, we connect in a way that is soul-nourishing. We’re happy to see each other again. A door is open to friendship.

In his book Lost Connections, Johann Hari quotes psychologist Tim Kasser:

“All of us have certain innate needs—to feel connected, to feel valued, to feel secure, to feel we make a difference in the world, to have autonomy, to feel we’re good at something. Materialistic people… are less happy—because they are chasing a way of life that does a bad job of meeting these needs.

“What you really need are connections. But what you are told you need, in our culture, is stuff and a superior status, and in the gap between those two signals—from yourself and from society—depression and anxiety will grow as your real needs go unmet.”

Sandra Eide, a Rose Park Buy Nothing member, moved into the neighborhood from a Buy  Nothing group in Washington. She and her husband were putting together their wedding over the summer and Sandra had decided to make 100 cupcakes for the day. She was gifted cake mixes and frostings and a lot of decor with which to practice. ”I posted pictures of my sad attempts at frosting cupcakes as I practiced, for anyone who wanted them.” Many women in the group rook pity on her and flocked to help  her bake, frost and deliver 100 cupcakes for her wedding day.

“The kindness people show and share is truly infectious,” she said. “I love what buy nothing stands for and how it brings a community together and spreads kindness.”

“Buy Nothing takes me out of the center of my universe,” another neighbor said. “I can focus on my neighbor’s thoughts and needs and pride of ownership, and the fact that all of us have something to offer, something we’re good at or something we know about. At the end of the day, I’m glad to live where I do.”

From Rebecca Rockefeller, an original founder of the worldwide Buy Nothing movement:

“Here’s one of the very personal reasons I wanted to extend the Buy Nothing Project beyond the first group Liesl Clark and I started: For several years, I fed my children and myself thanks to SNAP (aka Food Stamps). The forms I had to fill out always made me feel absolutely awful, mostly because they required a mindset from me that focused on how little I had in a financial sense, and I’d end up feeling even more depressed and stuck. One reason I started the Buy Nothing Project was because I felt so different when I had something to give (things I grew and foraged, in my case) as well as something to receive from my neighbors in the first version of this group, which was an in-person weekly sharing potluck in a local park.

“It also felt much better to receive from my neighbors outside of a “rich person gives/poor person receives” context. Being on that equal footing with people had an amazing positive impact on me and I wanted to share that. There’s a huge difference between how it feels to say ‘Does anyone have any extra greens this week? We’re fresh out of fresh veggies and we’d love to add some to our meals!’ and being told ‘Oh, you can call the local food bank!’ vs. being told ‘Yes! I have a huge crop of kale and chard, and I’d love to give you a bag of it!’ One makes you feel like a have not whose needs will be met in an institutional way, and the other response makes you feel like a trusted, valued neighbor. The Buy Nothing Project is all about finding ways to help us each become that trusted, valued neighbor who has things to give and things to receive.”

As far as gift economies go, the first most striking feature of a Buy Nothing group is a very important structure: Only members within a strict neighborhood boundary are admitted to the closed group. Agreements are made with people around the corner, people you will most likely see again. The neighborhood becomes a place where you know who lives where, who has kids or doesn’t, who loves or hates dogs, who’s just endured a rough loss. These authentically important connections become useful as neighbors begin to know each other. Accountability in a Buy Nothing group is a natural part of living with your neighbors.

For example, when folks suspect that items are being taken for free, then sold for cash, a group with far-flung members might never know. But in your neighborhood, things show up. Taking for free and selling on the side is perfectly OK in a Buy Nothing group—with complete transparency. If I thought you were tickled to use my lamp, and then I spot it in your yard sale, we would have a conversation. Better to talk about it upfront, if I know I can cash in with my neighbor’s giveaways. Gifts always go to whomever the giver chooses, for whatever reason they choose, no justification necessary. I may very well encourage you to sell whatever I’m giving you for whatever you can get! Go for it! Or I may pass in favor of someone who writes on the post why she truly needs to use it. Giver’s call.

In the middle a Buy Nothing group you can hear a gorgeous hum that is the halt of scarcity thinking. What if I could count on finding what I need in the group? What if my neighbor bought a boat and instead of being jealous, I knew he would share it? What if more for you was more for me? From backyard eggs to camping equipment, from giving a ride to the airport to shoveling a snowy walk, sharing from your own abundance is quietly taking hold in small groups around the world. In spite of being saturated with marketing messages that would have me believe otherwise, perhaps I really do have enough stuff.

When you click the Facebook link to “Find a Buy Nothing Group” you will see many countries listed all over the world. Scrolling down the USA list, then down again to ‘Utah,’ you will see there are over 20 active Buy Nothing groups. The four groups in the Salt Lake Valley: Rose Park, Avenues, Sugar House and Liberty Wells/Yale. Several more are busy surrounding Layton, Bountiful, West Valley, Saratoga Springs, Orem and two in Provo. If your address fails to fall within the boundaries of an active group, you are invited to volunteer a little time every week to begin a group. The actual neighborhood boundaries are decided by regional volunteer admins who take on the heavy lifting of creating the Facebook page and supplying resources and training for the fledgling admin and group.

The local volunteer admins admit new members after checking for addresses within the boundaries, making sure the member is at least 21 years old and not belonging to another Buy Nothing group. They check the group feed for compliance with the same rules that make this idea successful all around the world. And here’s the biggie, the hardest guideline for someone new to Buy Nothing—and that is not to offer “kind advice.”

If I’m asking for plumbing help, and instead of making plans to come help me my neighbor wants to describe for me how to find the right valve or use the right wrench or call the best plumber, even if the plumber is another neighbor and will do it all for free, that comment gets deleted. It’s like this—if you don’t yourself, personally, have the item or the service that is being asked for –then just can it. This is confusing to people who say “But my advice was for free!?” or “I was trying to be helpful!” Members can send messages with suggestions if it’s requested, but the exercise is giving from your own abundance, not pointing anyone toward an outside resource. Either show up with the tools or don’t even. Thanks very much.

From Natalie Sandberg: “I’m not bragging but my lists of acquisitions from Buy Nothing Rose Park numbers in the double digits. From small things like a makeup brush or t-shirt to a console cabinet and stove. I started keeping a comprehensive list to remember the good things. We have certainly enriched our lives through Buy Nothing. More than stuff, it has shown me that there are good, trustworthy people here in my neighborhood who, like me, are just trying to get by and improve their lives. I have been inspired by the generosity of all.”

As for me, trekking through the streets to hand over my weighty Ziploc bag, my new neighbor/friend steps out his front door and we smilingly shake hands and introduce ourselves. He’s tall, thirtyish, with glasses and a lean physique in jeans and a t-shirt. I follow him to the driveway where he immediately opens the bag and pours the kitty litter I brought right on the grease spots on his driveway. And as luck would have it, while I was walking, my husband asked the group for a light switch to replace a faulty one in the laundry room. Guess who has one for me to take home? That may be a coincidence, but there are always coincidences. As we chat a bit and discover (of course) we have several friends in common, those “oh, yeah” connections that pop up like little cheerful bubbles before I step toward the curb and raise my hand in a “thank you.”

“Wait,” he says. “If you need…” and I notice for the first time a very slight Eastern European accent, “…I don’t have any older family members and I would be so happy to help if you need anything.” My face must register surprise because he continues, “You know, moving furniture or whatever might keep you from getting on a ladder or…” he trails off, but we look at each other and I am pleased to know I could call on him. Pleased, like a little-moisture-in-the corners-of-my-eyes pleased as I hit the sidewalk back to my street.

Charles Eisenstein, our contemporary guru of gift economy and author of Sacred Economics, says the very wisest of investments we can make today are not in stocks or bonds. He says don’t even try to save up for retirement with cash; silver and gold under the mattress is, in fact, a bad idea. The best investment we can possibly make is in relationships. The hidden treasure in any Buy Nothing community is found quietly in those relationships, worth every moment of asking, giving and appreciation, and all completely 100% free.


Pam Holman has been a Buy Nothing admin for Rose Park for almost three years. She is happily training to be a volunteer regional admin for the State of Utah.


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This article was originally published on June 30, 2019.