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The privilege and necessity of a no-spend challenge

Written by

Polly Barks

We know that buying and consuming too many resources is bad for the environment, but what’s the alternative? If you feel caught in the endless loop of consumption, why not try a no-spend challenge?

Stop buying stuff you don’t need, save money, put a little less stress on the planet… but also recognize the remarkable privilege you have in even taking part in a no-spend challenge.

What is a no-spend challenge?

A no-spend challenge is exactly what it sounds like – you buy… nothing… for a set amount of time. (Things you define as necessities are of course excluded from this. Please buy food!)

Usually challenges start with a month but some extend to a full year or even indefinitely!

The privilege and necessity of a no-spend challenge -

The privilege of a no-spend challenge

Let’s get it out into the open right away: the concept of a no-spend challenge is inherently privileged: it sets its foundations on the premise that you have enough – and more. From that foundation, it occurs to us that some sort of serious control is needed to stop overconsumption.

More broadly, trendy minimalism and a desire to seek less comes from a place of privilege. There is our minimalism by choice, and the minimalism of necessity.

It’s fine to recognize this need to pare down a necessity – because it is, as we’ll discuss in the next section.

But we must acknowledge that those of us with privilege let go of physical possessions in the hopes that it somehow absolves us of the sins of existing with privilege. Minimalism by choice requires a robust bank account and, likely, a family home to return to when you run out of your money after your round-the-world “discovering yourself” adventure.

The minimalism of necessity

The minimalism of necessity exists in a very different experience. I think about my Russian partner’s family who hoards because they very vividly remember times during the collapse of the USSR when every shelf was bare and a pair of blue jeans was an unattainably expensive black market commodity.

It’s small Section 8 apartments crammed with goods because a single mom working several minimum wage jobs doesn’t have the opportunity to declutter.

“Letting go” of a few outfits could prove disastrous should a child rip their clothing and a bank account reveal no extra budget to replace it.

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Even my husband and I – with such immense privilege, relatively speaking – lived minimally in the US because working for $10-12/hour while paying for a college degree, a shitty car we needed but couldn’t afford, and rent on a 420 sq ft studio forced it.

There was nothing sexy or freeing about it.

Know that we consume too much and must radically reimagine our relationship with stuff comes from a place of privilege. But no matter the ugly feelings that come with that realization, we must let them catalyze us to action.

The privilege and necessity of a no-spend challenge -

The necessity of a no-spend challenge

Let’s start simple: Earth Overshoot Day.

In 2020, Earth Overshoot Day happened on August 13th. That means the Earth couldn’t actually produce enough resources for any consumed after August 13th.

Put in another way, we’d need more than one planet’s-worth of resources to make the planet livable for the future. And about 4 Earths if everyone lived like the average person in the US.

Want to see how many planets we’d need if everyone lived like you? Calculate your ecological footprint!

The fact is, at our current unsustainable rates of consumption, even green growth is bullshit. To truly decarbonize and divert the worst effects of the climate crisis, we need to execute significant de-growth – and fast. 

A recently released paper came to the conclusion that the most fundamental driver of environmental destruction is the overconsumption of affluent households (while noting, of course, there are many actors who together perpetuate environmental destruction).

“Our paper has shown that it’s [affluence] actually dangerous and leads to planetary-scale destruction. To protect ourselves from the worsening climate crisis, we must reduce inequality and challenge the notion that riches, and those who possess them, are inherently good,” Steinberger said.” (source)

And while none of us have the individual ability to transform a globalized economic system, we do have ways of very quickly starting our own de-growth models by consuming less, thus creating less of a reliance on work. Those of us with privilege can all personally start to fight the disastrous economic cycle of work to consume to work.

And that’s critical. Because aside from being terrible for the planet, a focus on consumption – whether “green” or not – has been demonstrated to lead to a negative effect on our well-being.

The dual effect of materialistic values on overconsumption in financial and environmental domains can potentially compound effects on young consumers’ well-being, here understood as the subjective assessment of life quality in various life domains (Kahneman, 1999). A growing empirical literature demonstrates that proactive behaviors can increase well-being (Zambianchi and Bitti, 2014).


So we know that a no-spend challenge is both a privilege and necessity for most of the Global North.

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So, then, how to actually do it?

The privilege and necessity of a no-spend challenge -
For an effective no-spend challenge, I recommend lots of reading, coffee, and cat-petting when possible.

How to do a no-spend challenge

Now that we’ve done our requisite philosophizin’, it’s time to get practical and take action.

Here’s how to do a no-spend challenge:

  1. Make a list of OK spending. I sat down and brainstormed what were essentials and nothing else. Your list should be limited to what you can’t survive without – things like food, replacement toiletries, medication, etc. If you struggle to maintain an appropriate level of spending on essentials (hi, me and food), it can be helpful to set a stricter budget within those categories.
  2. Make a list of forbidden spending. Look, we should know from our previous list, but it’s always helpful to be explicit. What are those temptation categories you need to remind yourself to stay away from? For me, it’s alcohol and eating out. By writing it out, there’s no way to wiggle it into my food budget.
  3. Pair with redistributing your excess. Hopefully your no-spend challenge reveals a lot of ways to pare back. With that, should come an ability to give back. Whether it’s extra home goods you realize you don’t need, extra time from not mindlessly internet shopping, or extra cash – give back!

And that’s that! Best of luck on your no-spend challenge!

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