Late last year, two people told me how great Buy Nothing groups are in the course of a single week. I enjoy the idea of a group promoting less consumerism, so I decided to check it out.
On December 12, I searched Facebook and found the Waynedale/Foster Park/Indian Village Buy Nothing Project group
in Fort Wayne. I clicked “Join,” answered the three membership questions, and hit “Submit.” Jennie Renner
The next morning, I received a message from one of the admins, Chelsey Hart-Shilling:
“Thank you for joining the Buy Nothing Project! Based on the answers you provided when you joined the group, I have approved your request. You indicated that you live within the boundaries of this group, are over the age of 21 and are not a member of any other Buy Nothing Project groups at this time. Remember, you can join one group only, the group where you live so you can literally ‘give where you live.’ This is what builds community. Before you begin posting, please take a moment to visit our Files section, where you will find our Rules and a link to our Frequently Asked Questions page. We also have a pinned post with some highlights of the rules. If you have any other questions, please don't hesitate to ask! Welcome!”
I got on Facebook and went straight over to check out the group. I started with the “pinned post.” Here are the first three bullet points:
● Each post requires a header. Acceptable headers are GIFT, ASK, or GRATITUDE. Posts that do not have a header may be deleted without notice.
● Posts are permitted one photo only. Additional photos can be added as comments. Posts with more than one photo may be deleted without notice.
● Comments like "next", "interested", or "want" are discouraged. We don't operate on a first-come-first-serve basis in the Buy Nothing Project so the gifter is able to choose who will receive their gift. To generate a spirit of neighborliness, we prefer language that requests consideration.
The idea that I “may be deleted without notice” seemed a little harsh, but I decided I would reserve judgment until I could see what it was actually like. My primary reason for joining the group is to get rid of stuff I no longer need. I’ve followed posts on Freecycle
in the past and expected this group to be much the same.
For the first month, I read others’ “Gifts,” “Asks,” and “Gratitudes.” Once in a while, people are gently reminded to tag their posts with one of the approved headers or that only one photo is allowed in the main post. It seems fair enough. In fact, I kind of like the order the rules create.
I’ve found myself reading all of the posts, even those with gifts I’m not interested in receiving. It is oddly satisfying to see what’s being offered up, how people are vying to be chosen, and to read the gratitudes of those who receive gifts. I couldn’t wait to see how the stories ended. The group has become another source of entertainment for me, like a good book or television show.
As the weeks have gone by, I’ve begun to notice something else I wasn’t expecting: A group of strangers who are genuinely building a community online (on Facebook, no less!). In a country where divisiveness is so prevalent, these people are being kind and generous and giving stuff to each other for free!
“It seems too good to be true,” I admit to Curtis Liberalis, an admin for the Buy Nothing Waynedale/Foster Park/Indian Village group, when I spoke with him on the phone for the first time. “There is no way that this is for real!”
Curtis laughs and responds, “It does sound like a fairytale, doesn’t it? Nobody gets along this well.”
In early 2019, his friend was planning to start a Buy Nothing group and asked him to join her in the training. Then she learned that the groups are neighborhood-based, not city-based, and she and Curtis didn’t live close enough to be part of the same group.
”She had already gotten me so excited that I decided I would start the training anyway,” Curtis tells me. His friend launched Buy Nothing Brentwood/North Anthony/North Side in Fort Wayne
on April 2. A few weeks later, Curtis got the Waynedale group up and running. There are currently a total of five Buy Nothing groups in Fort Wayne
Besides Curtis, there are two other admins in his group. There’s also a team of “group experts,” who understand the rules and the culture and are active on the site, making sure things run smoothly.
“We have a really good community that is the base of our group, so we don’t have to do a lot of intervening,“ says Curtis. “We have so little drama.”
One of the things Curtis enjoys about his Buy Nothing group is the hyper-local, personal nature of it. He gets to know the people, even if he rarely sees them in person. He and I talk about the beauty of having connections to people—even casual connections, like the grocery clerk who used to ring up my groceries every Friday before the pandemic.
I didn’t realize how much I would miss these interactions until COVID-19 took them away. Experiencing a connection with other humans is vital to our well-being. According to an article on the Mayo Clinic Health System’s website
, “We seek out and lean on human interaction when we are experiencing the stress of life's challenges.” (Like a global pandemic!) “This biological programming drives us to gather in groups, usually shielding us from mental and physical harm.”
I got to experience the power of connection in the group when I posted a gift of cat food that I no longer needed because my cat passed away. I was not expecting members to express their sympathy for my loss, but that’s what happened. Many people reacted with the caring or sad emoji, and several wrote messages of condolence. I felt connected to these people whom I’d never met.
When I posted a gift of cat food that I no longer needed because my cat passed away, I was not expecting members to express their sympathy for my loss.
Curtis is pleased to hear about my experience and says it’s not unusual. Often, members include encouraging notes or surprises with their gifts. He recommends that I talk to long-time member, and group expert, Kali Bonkoski. He says she helps cultivate these kinds of connections.
Kali has been a member of the Buy Nothing group since August 2019. The idea of the group appealed to her because she likes free stuff. “I come from a long line of frugal and thrifty people,” she says.
When I talk to Kali, I tell her one of her posts stood out to me because of her authenticity and humor. She was gifting a piece of vinyl flooring and wrote:
“So, we used this when we remodeled our bathroom. When we bought it, it was at the end of the roll so the salesperson just gave us the extra for free. The extra has lived rolled up behind my couch for two years now ... Please be aware that my cats have covered it in hair. I’ll do my best to remove it all, but I’m sure you’ll get a few.”
I appreciate her admitting that she had the flooring rolled up behind her couch for two years. She says, “I don’t think there is any shame in keeping things that have purpose.”
About two weeks after Kali gifts the flooring, the recipient posts a “gratitude” with a photo of it installed in her bathroom—another happy ending.
About two weeks after Kali gifts the flooring, the recipient posts a “gratitude” with a photo of it installed in her bathroom.
One of the things Kali appreciates about the group is something that is also appealing to me: Not having things end up in the landfill. “It is frustrating to have something that is still good and you don’t know what to do with it when you are done with it,” she says.
Of course, you can always donate items to local charities, but Kali says “it just seems a little mysterious.” She ponders: “Does it actually continue to have use after you’ve donated it?” She likes that by giving to people in the Buy Nothing group, you know who gets your stuff and that they will use it and appreciate it.
As far as what is a good gift on the Buy Nothing group, Kali says you really never know. She got a new trash can for her kitchen because she wanted a smaller one. She told her husband she was going to offer up her old trash can on the group and he said, ‘Why would you do that? Nobody wants our old trash can!”’ So Kali didn’t post it. A short time later, Curtis posted an “ask” for things he wanted for his mom’s new apartment. One of the things was a trash can for her kitchen. “It was exactly what he wanted,” Kali exclaims. “It’s like the phrase, ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.’ It really, truly is in this group!”
“Asks” don’t have to be just for stuff either. Kali has a four-month-old baby, and when she was in her early post-partum days, she was lonely and struggling. She asked people in the group, “Are there any other moms who are home who want to be my friend?” A couple of women from her neighborhood responded, and she is still connected to them.
I speak to another admin, Chelsey Hart-Shilling, and ask her about membership trends. She says that in the last 60 days, 52 new members have been approved, bringing the new total to 447 members. When I check a week later, there are 452.
I ask Chelsey if she knows what is spawning this growth in membership. She says a recent post by Curtis no doubt contributed. In it, he highlights that there are five Fort Wayne Buy Nothing groups and encourages members to share the post with friends and invite others to join.
There has been an uptick of interest in the social movement on a larger scale, too. According to an article on Fortune.com
, between March 2020 and January 2021, the Buy Nothing Project increased by 1.5 million participants for a total membership of 4 million members. Now the Buy Nothing Project
website reports there are more than 5 million members in 44 countries around the world.
Like me, lots of people have undoubtedly felt the loss of connections during the pandemic as social distancing canceled gatherings with friends. Lockdowns have us spending more time in our homes where we’ve started examining our spaces and wishing to downsize our belongings. Many people have lost their jobs and began to question their consumption and look for other ways of acquiring things. At the same time, daily headlines of people dying make us ask ourselves whether we are living our values. More recently, supply-chain issues have made some material goods impossible to find in stores. All of this seems like a perfect storm for the ethos of a Buy Nothing group.
I ask Chelsey whether she thinks “pandemic times” play a part in the local group’s growing membership. She agrees that the unique situation we’ve found ourselves in during the last couple of years has probably played a role.
Chelsey cites one example of a gift that seems to be a sign of the times we’ve been living in.
“With COVID, and quarantining, and isolation, we’ve had puzzles being passed around to give people something to do… Something as simple as a puzzle… making its way around the neighborhood, and it’s bringing joy to people.”
Puzzles have become popular items in Buy Nothing groups.
One of the most memorable gifts Chelsey has received in the group is an old rotary telephone. She says she actually hooked it up and got it working. She likes it because it looks right at home on her vintage desk, and she says her whole family has had fun using it.
“It was so cool to find something in the group that was so highly sought after, and I was chosen for it.”
One of the most memorable gifts Chelsey has received in the group is an old rotary telephone.
While Curtis says he knows some new members feel weird about taking things without giving something in exchange, he assures them that this is how it works. “The value of seeing where an item goes and seeing the receiver's gratitude is greater than the money you might have received for an item.”
So what is my verdict about the Buy Nothing group?
I have received two items so far—a weekly planner and a wall calendar. And while I have not been successful in gifting any items yet, I’m going to keep trying, bolstered by the wonderful stories I’ve watched unfold.
I have received two items so far—a weekly planner and a wall calendar.
But more important than giving stuff away, or receiving from others, has been my experience of seeing the kindness of strangers. For me, the group is not so much about buying nothing as it is about connecting with others who find joy in sharing the things we have bought.
The Buy Nothing group has helped restore my faith in humanity—and that is worth a lot.