By Christina Krost
I am sitting on the floor trying to reconcile fifth- and first-grade school supply lists with things we already have on hand when my daughters wandered in to inspect my neat piles.
“Isn’t that my stuff from last year?” Yes, I kept those blunt-tip scissors.
“Why can’t we just get all new stuff like everyone else?” Because that three-ring binder and pencil box can be embellished with patterned duct tape.
And so begins a typical battle in the war I’m waging against excess. It’s true that we can afford all new school supplies, but does that mean we must buy everything new, every year? Of course we all want the best for our kids, but does it always have to cost us?
This is the basic premise of Jen Hatmaker’s book 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. Hatmaker, her family, and “The Council,” a group of close friends and advisors, embarked on a seven-month experiment against waste in their households. Hatmaker chose seven areas in which to reduce: food, clothes, possessions, media, waste, spending, and stress. She focused on each area with her family of seven for an entire month.
Hatmaker, a pastor’s wife, writer, and speaker, journals her struggles and successes giving up what we would consider common American comforts while working through her desire to follow religious teachings about possessions. For example, during the food month she and her family chose seven foods to eat: chicken, eggs, whole-wheat bread, sweet potatoes, spinach, avocados, and apples. During the clothing month she chose and wore only seven articles of clothing. She gave away much of what remained in her closet. The possessions month went the same way–she gave away seven items each day.
The media month shut down seven screens including TV, gaming, Facebook, Twitter, and radio. Cell phone use was limited to emergencies and the Internet was only used when necessary for jobs or schoolwork. The family learned to recycle, compost, and garden during waste month. They drove only one car and bought only local or thrifted goods. Spending month had them funnel their money to only seven vendors—a gas station, farmer’s market, online bill pay and Target. During stress month they kept one night a week as a “sabbath” to recharge as a family.
Though Jen Hatmaker is an author and was likely paid in advance to turn her experiment into a book, her purpose was to see what would happen to her heart, her family, and her close friends by living with less. No one died from lack of anything. In fact, the family started truly living.
How? Hatmaker’s family began living with purpose. Instead of falling victim to the affliction of immediate gratification, they started watching their dollars carefully and intentionally. They saved more and gave more away. They found that their basic needs could be met with far less than originally thought. They waited before making purchases to see if after a month they still needed it or simply forgot about it. They stopped being slaves to stuff. As they stopped consuming they started reducing their impact on the Earth, but increased the impact they were making in their community.
7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess is written by someone raised in a Christian tradition. I would have liked to read more about how other faith traditions handle consumption or prosperity theology. I am certain we have much to learn from each other and that much common ground exist between us.
It’s been a few years since the Hatmaker experiment with excess, and I’m curious if all the lessons stuck. In my work with an Earth care non-profit, I see this happen frequently: people are inspired to make real change after presented with information about smart energy and climate change or sustainable food and land use, but a few months later they’ve slid back into old routines. But in the end, Maya Angelou’s famous words ring true: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
I sent my kids off to school this year with old backpacks and lunchboxes, reused pencil cases, binders, scissors and folders. We bought new crayons and markers because, well, I’m not a monster. We purchased tree-free bamboo tissues and paper towels for the classrooms. I spent slightly less than usual, but I feel slightly more in control of our consumption. And that’s an excess I can live with.
Christina Krost is teacher, mother, and United Methodist pastor’s wife who works for an Earth care non-profit. She lives with her husband and three young daughters in rural central Illinois and blogs at thekrostfamily.blogspot.com.