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Book Review of "The Year Without a Purchase" by Scott Dannemiller

Wednesday, January 20, 2016  
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Reviewed by Christina Mimms, SAIS

Scott Dannemiller, author of The Year Without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting is an Everyman. He and his wife owned a home in the suburbs, worked well-paying jobs, took regular vacations, and lived “regular” lives up until about 10 years ago, when they felt the need for a change. A need to redirect their focus, live simply, and stop spinning their wheels. Their answer: become missionaries for a year.

They moved to Guatemala and took up a minimal existence in which they accomplished a personal goal of living with integrity, growing in their faith, and serving others. As he writes, “Our lives weren’t perfect, but they were incredibly peaceful.”

And then, “we ruined it,” he says. They moved back to the U.S. and somewhat picked up where they left off with their lives and jobs, and in the next several years had two children and moved to Nashville, TN, to be closer to family. They still supported needy causes but they also “spent a considerable amount of time and energy buying piles of shiny junk.”

In a moment of reflection, Dannemiller and his wife Gabby decide to try to get back to the simpler, more connected lifestyle they experienced as missionaries and make a choice to suspend all shopping for a year. The challenge is not an easy one, especially for parents who live in a suburban bubble, send their children to independent school, and are bombarded with images of “stuff” nearly round the clock. Children have wants they perceive as needs and parents want to give their children the best of everything.

But off they go with their experiment, setting specific parameters and an overarching goal “to live life on purpose, with purpose.” So that means they are buying only essentials, such as food and toilet paper, and focusing more on good experiences rather than goods.

It’s not long before they hit a roadblock to their good intentions with buying a gift for a child’s birthday party, forgetting to pack any socks for a business trip, and eating toastless breakfasts after their oft-used toaster oven gives up the ghost. They cope, they work around, they find solutions, and Dannemiller makes a good point: “All too often, rather than making do, I make excuses for why I deserve something. And this leads me to contribute to the throwaway society … without realizing the value in what I have.”

Sprinkled with facts and research from organizations such as Nielsen, the EPA, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, various authors, and other sources, Dannemiller adds weight to his various points throughout the book. He also includes a healthy dose of humor, saving the book from being dry (a risk with any financial discussion) or preachy (a risk with faith-based writings).

The chapter that perhaps will ring most true with parents of independent school children is Chapter 16, “The Worst Parents Ever.” As their 2nd grade son prepares to enter the basketball season playoffs, other parents band together and decide to purchase matching socks for their boys. Of course, they have to be the designer-brand $13 socks. I’m envisioning similar situations at other schools – the volleyball players wearing matching hair ribbons, or the lacrosse team sporting the latest and greatest helmets, all purchased out of pocket by parents. The Dannemillers decline to buy the socks, prompting backlash from other parents, one of whom even accuses them of setting up their child to be bullied.

Somehow their son manages to play the game without the special socks and by the next game, the socks were lost or forgotten by everyone, and the child never said a word about them. The kids just play the game; the parents are perpetuating the notion that special socks, hair ribbons, or fancy helmets make any sort of difference. “What you own is not who you are,” he says. 

And in that mindset, the family also takes on several service projects, putting in hours and elbow grease by volunteering at a food drive and at a food bank. They really worked hard to involve their children and make them think about how their work was benefiting others.

Service projects are quite common at schools, but so many involve buying or bringing in “stuff,” such as canned goods, toys, books, and clothing. Odds are the parents purchased said items, shoved items into child’s backpack, and sent child off to school to deposit items into a faceless bin. Do the students understand the impact they are making? Do they have an opportunity to connect with the projects rather than just providing them with materials?

When the Dannemillers approach Christmas and the end of their year-long experiment, you can almost hear them exhale through the pages. But it’s also a crossroads of sorts, as they face the biggest "Wantfest" of the year – Christmas with two elementary school age children. But they make it fit with their big picture, pausing for a moment of guilt over shopping for Christmas gifts. The point, for them, was not to deprive their family of every thing. They wanted to free themselves of the burden of things in life and experience life, together.

Anyone who has parented a child or worked with children knows that they are constantly saturated by stuff, images of stuff, and stuff that other people have. It takes a lot of effort to live consciously and deliberately, but the benefits – experiencing, connecting, giving - far outweigh the value of any material object. This book is inspirational to anyone looking to live life in a more meaningful manner. 


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