Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Money Crashers: Meet "The Compact"

As I've mentioned before here, I'm oddly fascinated by frugal lifestyle challenges. I've spent a week each eating on a SNAP (food stamps) budget, living on a minimum wage budget, and subjecting myself to WWII-style rationing, and I've posed myself not one but two local shopping challenges. And, while I haven't done these things myself, I've devoured books by families that have spent a year eating only local food, or refusing to buy anything made in China, or refusing to buy anything at all except necessities.

So for my latest Money Crashers post, it seemed like a natural choice to write about The Compact, a group of people who have pledged to do all their shopping secondhand (with certain obvious exceptions, like food and fuel). After all, buying secondhand is one of the linchpins of the ecofrugal lifestyle: it keeps waste out of landfills, saves the natural resources and energy that would be used to make new goods, reduces pollution (including greenhouse gases), and as the icing on the cake, it saves money. So I went into the assignment fully expecting to come out of it with a profound admiration for the "Compacters," and possibly even be inspired to try their secondhand-only lifestyle for myself.

To my surprise, my reaction ended up being just the opposite. The more I read about The Compact and its members, the more they started to annoy me. I first started to feel irritated when I read the basic rules for the Compact on its official blog. Along with such reasonable rules as "charitable donations are allowed," blogger Rachel Kesel offered such stern admonitions as:
  • New socks and underwear are okay, but they must be "utilitarian--non-couture or ornamental."
  • It's okay to spend money on services as long as they're "utilitarian services," like calling a plumber to unclog your drain. "Recreational services," such as movies and massages, are fine for gifts, but "should not be over-indulged in for personal gratification."
  • Plants and cut flowers are acceptable to buy "in extreme moderation," and only from local businesses.
What was that all about? I thought the point of The Compact was to reduce clutter and protect the environment. A new pair of undies takes up the same amount of space and uses the same amount of resources whether it's "utilitarian" or "ornamental," so why insist that only plain panties are acceptable? Kesel's preachy pronouncements against excessive "personal gratification" seemed to smack of puritanism.

I might have thought it was just Kesel, but I seemed to encounter this same emphasis on self-deprivation in other members of the group as well. A story about The Compact in the Washington Post, for instance, told how during its first year, members would petition the group for permission to buy things they deemed necessary, and a member who asked to buy a new toilet brush on the grounds that it was a "health issue" was turned down. A new toilet brush? This is their idea of hedonism?

Now, admittedly, all these stories were about the ten members of the original The Compact group in San Francisco back in 2006. The group today has over 1,800 members who connect on Yahoo!, and some of them presumably are less strict than others. In fact, I joined the Yahoo! Group as part of my research for the article, and I saw a recent question in the discussion area from a woman who wanted help finding new shoes to fit her husband's extra-wide feet. So she was clearly willing to buy new in a case where her husband's health (at least the health of his feet) was at stake. Still, the whole experience kind of left a sour taste in my mouth, and it left me with no desire at all to take on the challenge of living under The Compact for myself, even on a temporary basis.

I didn't mention my personal reactions in the article itself, which you can read here: "Meet 'The Compact,' a Frugal Group Dedicated to Buying Secondhand Only." But I'd be curious to hear from all you readers whether the group's attitude strikes you at all the same way it did me.
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