Free is Fabulous (and where to find it)

Last week Toddler BITA’s school had a superhero day. Toddler BITA owns no superhero costumes, but she went dressed as super(wo)man. How? She wore a cape borrowed from someone in our neighborhood.

When Toddler BITA turned 3 in April, we gave her a little piano and a ride-on dump truck. The total cost of her gifts? $0.

Over the last few months we have acquired water wings, a loft bed, a twin size mattress, fig jam, rain boots, sandals, a tent, sleeping bags and party supplies all for free.

No, we don’t go dumpster diving.
No, we don’t spend every waking hour stalking the free section of Craigslist and pouncing when a good deal shows up.

What we do is we ask politely. We receive from the abundance of our neighbours. We say thank you.

And you can too.


Buy Nothing

We are members of our local Buy Nothing group. Buy Nothing was started by two women,  Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark in 2013 on Bainbridge Island, WA. What started as an experiment in a hyperlocal gift economy has blossomed into a worldwide movement with 1900 groups spanning 20 countries.

Until the time that we started down the path to financial independence in earnest, when we needed something, we bought it. Often we wouldn’t even leave the comfort of our couch; our wish was Amazon’s command.

Inspired by the all the frugality on display by the pantheon of FIRE bloggers, I decided to try and enrich Jeff Bezos a little less. I started down this path a confirmed skeptic. I was doubtful that I would actually find what I wanted when I wanted it. I did not look forward to numerous awkward social interactions with strangers as the price to pay for free stuff. I started my forays into the land of free by half-heartedly browsing Craigslist, declaring that it was all junk, and that I wasn’t at all interested in having my throat slit for some free pants. Even if I did stumble upon something I wanted, I would balk at the idea of driving twenty miles to pick it up. Suffice it to say that our initial experiments with free were abject failures, and our Prime account continued to do the heavy lifting.


Then I found Buy Nothing, and it was a revelation.

Buy Nothing is based on the idea of small local groups of neighbours sharing their abundance and helping each other out. You are encouraged to ask for what you need – to have or to borrow – and folks go out of their way to help you out. The admin of the group strictly enforces the rules that demand polite interactions and zero commerce. The culture of the group is one that embraces joy in giving and gratitude in receiving.

The Buy Nothing folks use Facebook as their platform. You look up your local group and then contact the group admin to add yourself. The groups are closed – you have to be a member to access one of these groups, and you can only belong to a single Buy Nothing group at a time.

Once you’re all signed up, if you have something to offer the group, you make a post starting with the word ‘Gift:’. If you need something, make a post starting with the word ‘Ask:’. When you receive something, you get the address and time for pick up by sending a private message to the person in question. Pickups may involve meeting a neighbour. Sometimes folks will just leave stuff out on their front porch for you at the pre-decided time. Once you get and use your gift, they encourage you to post a note of gratitude to the group. The best part is that since the groups are designed to be hyper-local, you never have to go far to pick something up.


buy nothing
The variety of things being asked for and gifted in my Buy Nothing group


The other thing that makes this superior to similar larger groups, or to Craigslist, is the fact that this is a community of people who plan to interact with each other repeatedly over the course of months. This fact encourages good behaviour – folks tend to treat each other with courtesy and respect. Things on offer tend to be high quality. I tend to be more willing to try out some home-made jelly made by a neighbour than I would from some stranger on Craigslist.

For my first few weeks as a member of my local group, I lurked shyly. I’ve never been comfortable with asking for stuff, so to start with I decided to offer stuff to the group. After I had given a few gifts to my neighbours, I finally took the plunge and tentatively asked if anyone had rain boots in Toddler BITA’s size. I received what I needed, and I’ve never looked back.


I Came for the Money, I Stayed for the Karma

When I first started using Buy Nothing, it was all about the money. Every time I scored a ‘deal’, the thing that made me happy was how much money I had saved.

These days, while the savings still please me, the karma pleases me more. I love the feeling of being a part of a community and contributing to making it better. I love the idea of neighbours pulling together. I love the idea of neighbours willing to turn to each other for help and support.

Initially I used to offer stuff that was small potatoes to my Buy Nothing group – a romper that Toddler BITA had outgrown, baby shoes, an old handbag. Now, the Buy Nothing group is my first stop if I have anything in my house that I no longer need – even if could make some money by selling it on Craigslist or to a consignment store. Why? Because I value the karma I get from such an action far more than the $50-$80 bucks I could make if I sold the stuff instead.

buy nothing

Not only does this local sharing economy that I am now a part of give me the warm fuzzies every time I help someone out, but it also makes my halo shine brightly from an environmental perspective. As a community we help each other reduce and reuse every day. Not only do we reduce acquisition of stuff, we even make good use of consumables. People often offer up the abundance from their gardens and extras from their fridges (leftover ice cream and pizza from parties, meat from freezers that is approaching its best-by date).

Some ‘asks’ are weirder than others:

And yes, the neighbourhood rose to the occasion (sorry, that was awful, but I could not resist).

The community is also great for just borrowing stuff. An excellent example is the tent that is currently set up in my backyard. We’re going camping at the end of this month – and it is my first time camping ever. Mr. BITA camped as a child, but has never been camping as an adult. We’re eager to try it out, but were less than eager to acquire stuff, even used, before we knew whether we were going to enjoy it. Our Buy Nothing community came to the rescue. Neighbours have lent us a tent and sleeping bags for our first rodeo. If camping becomes something we think we might do with some regularity, we’ll look into acquiring our own gear.

People also ask neighbours for favours, and I’m amazed at how folks step up when someone asks for help.

buy nothing

My Buy Nothing group has taught me that there is grace in asking. You give others the opportunity to be their best selves, and to enjoy that wonderful feeling that comes only from giving.


Join the Gift Economy Today

Check if your neighborhood has a Buy Nothing group that you can join. If it doesn’t, consider starting one

  • You wallet will thank you.
  • You will soon be greener than the Hulk.
  • You will be part of a community that loves to help each other out.
  • It will make an excellent addition to your happiness portfolio. Even on those days when I am neither giving nor receiving anything, just watching my neighbours perform random acts of kindness all day long is so uplifting.

12 thoughts on “Free is Fabulous (and where to find it)”

  1. This is so neat! We don’t have a Buy Nothing group in my area, but I think I plan on starting one. 🙂 We do have Freecycle, though, which has been a fantastic resource to both find and give things away. There’s so much free stuff in the world if you know where to look!

    1. Do it! Do it!

      I should try out Freecycle. I also use Nextdoor, but the thing that is unique about Buy Nothing is the fact that you can ask for what you want, not just wait and hope that something shows up. That and the fact that you can ask for stuff, ask to borrow stuff, ask for a favour, or even ask for someone to give you the gift of their skill in a particular area!

  2. I’m glad your experience was so positive! I joined a buy nothing group in my area but it was shut down six months later because no one offered or asked for anything – apart from a couple of really crap things that should have gone straight to the trash heap.

    1. L A M E.

      My group is insanely active. It is the only Buy Nothing group I’ve had experience with though, so I have nothing to compare it to. Maybe I just lucked into the best Buy Nothing group in the world!

  3. I’m a member of my Buy Nothing Group in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. It’s a great way to meet people (not that you have to) and I love that we’re all helping the environment as well as our wallets at the same time.

  4. I signed up for Buy Nothing after learning about it here. It’s right up my alley since I also try to shop at a store that sells donated leftover arts and craft materials. I love recycling! Unfortunately, the local group here doesn’t seem that active.

    1. Welcome to the extended Buy Nothing community! I hope your local group picks up over time. I think it just needs a small kernel of active members to make the community vibrant and encourage others to participate.

  5. There are 4 around us, but most are at least 30 min+ away… It might still be a decent option to check into though. It sounds like it could be amazing if you get the right group started. Our neighborhood giveaway/craigslist’ish site has slowed to a trickle for items available or even people wanting free stuff. I’m guessing the local economy picked up and people are back to buying retail and not looking to save $$.

    That’s great you have such an awesome group around you.

    1. 30+ minutes away is ouch. Maybe you should look into starting your own. Since I wrote this article my group has launched a ‘library’ of items to borrow. Basically it is a facebook album associated with the group where folks can put pictures of items that they are willing to lend to their neighbours – things like carpet cleaners, or cupcake stands. I’m stoked.

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