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Book Review: “The Year Without a Purchase”

The Year Without A Purchase

The Year Without a Purchase: One Family's Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting
by Scott Dannemiller
Westminster John Knox Press, 2015 (257 pages), Available from Cokesbury.

Are you ready for a New Year’s resolution that could change your life on practical and spiritual levels? The Year Without a Purchase is about relinquishing our hold on stuff in order to focus more on the relationships and activities that bring meaning to our lives. This book may spark interesting and heartfelt discussions for small groups, book clubs, stewardship and finance committees, as well as church councils. Each chapter begins with a Bible verse that relates to a particular theme or dilemma. The book’s five sections make it ideal to use in a five-week study during January, Lent, mid-year, or Advent. Who knows? Maybe you, your family, friends, or church community will be inspired to take the challenge!

Scott Dannemiller is a leadership development consultant for corporations who lives with his family in suburban Nashville, Tennessee. He and his wife, Gabby, served as missionaries in Guatemala through the Presbyterian Church (USA) before they had children. Dannemiller’s lively appreciation of the absurd is reflected in this book as well as in his blog about living with Christian faith in the midst of our contemporary culture. The author’s engaging, self-deprecating humor and conversational style make it easy to relate to the quandaries he and his family faced. Yet his serious questions and spiritual reflections make this book a down-to-earth devotional work.

The Dannemillers voluntarily took on a personal challenge when Scott turned forty. Their goal was to see if they could go an entire year without buying anything unnecessary. They established three rules: First, they could buy things that could be “used up” within a year, such as food, gas, and hygiene products. They would not buy clothes and would rely on hand-me-downs for shoes. Second, they could fix things that broke unless the repair would cost more than replacing the item. Often, a replacement was readily available. Third, gifts had to be in the form of charitable donations or “experience gifts,” such as dinners together, trips to the zoo, or visits to friends or family.

How successful were they? Judge for yourself as you read the questions they asked themselves when confronting conventional situations that became quandaries due to the “no shopping” restriction. Responses from their family, friends, church, and neighbors shed light on their experiment. Amazingly, the Dannemiller parents managed to take on the challenge without explaining it to their young son and daughter. Experiencing it allowed their children to draw their own conclusions (pages 235-237). The kids had fun making science experiment kits for friends’ birthday gifts, developed greater appreciation for what they already had, and came to value games and toys as ways to interact rather than to increase ownership. They enjoyed participating more fully in one another’s lives and worked together in service to help people in need in the wider community. Saving money led them to be more generous and more creative in finding personal ways of sharing. They discovered joy in being able to have a greater impact through giving and were surprised to realize that they didn’t miss the money.

To put this project in context, Dannemiller includes current research on related issues along with his personal story and life applications. He discusses middle-class excess and wealth in the United States in comparison to the majority of the world’s populations. American consumer culture involves many forms of advertising. Children, youth, and adults benefit from limiting their exposure to commercials, he says (p. 30). Our abundance of resources, such as food, may lead to waste rather than intentional and grateful use (p. 40). “Give ’til it helps” is a motto Dannemiller invokes to reframe the discourse and point to altruism (p. 181). Dannemiller also addresses statistics regarding the self-storage industry, rising average expenditures on children by families, shopping as a pastime— so-called retail therapy—and social media stress in terms of comparisons and subjective wellbeing. We can counter-balance these influences by conducting an appreciation audit or by keeping a gratitude journal, giving a gift such as a goat to help a poor family through Oxfam, purging excess items to share with others, and by sharing a meal with a stranger.

Family faith formation is highlighted through positive practices the Dannemillers incorporated into their daily life. These include child-friendly devotional reading at breakfast, talking about their day and asking questions at dinner, and reading classic fiction such as The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis at bedtime. The parents involved the children in a range of appropriate service projects in the church and community and debriefed the experiences to make connections. The children came up with ideas to show generosity and compassion to others, such as giving small gifts to people working on Christmas Day. Recycling, repairing, reducing use, and even going without are virtues familiar to our grandparents’ generation that Dannemiller lifts up as key values for our time.

The structure of the book unfolds in answer to four questions that were inspired by the family’s mission statement. In “Part One: Living with Integrity”, the question is “How did we get here, and what is it all about?” (3-30). “Part Two: Owning What We Have” describes the process of “Coming to grips with who we are and what we own” (33-96). In “Part Three: Growing in Faith Together,” the Dannemiller family faces the daily struggle of many today: “Before we can grow together, we need to be together. It’s all about connecting” (99-162). In “Part Four: Serving God’s People,” they explores various service opportunities as they realize that “Growing in faith is essential, but what next?” (165-228). The Results section answers the question: “Did we learn anything? Anything at all?” (231-241). Three appendices are included, each of which features eight practical tips, ideas, or resources to apply these principles to readers’ lives (243-249). May we be inspired to try these opportunities and release our hold on things so that we can reach out to others in kindness.

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