Andrea Tringo is running errands on a crisp Colorado day, employing her favorite form of transportation – her own feet. “It feels good to be walking,” she says, ambling past turn-of-the-century storefronts.
“Lafayette is great for this. I can walk anywhere.” Lafayette, a quaint community of 26,000 just east of Boulder, boasts striking views of the Continental Divide and an easy bus commute to Denver – which is how Ms. Tringo’s husband, Steven Posusta, gets to work these days.
Last summer, they sold his gas-guzzling pickup truck. When their remaining car, a 1999 Subaru, needed a new engine, they got a rebuilt one. They also frequent the public library to get books and DVDs instead of buying new ones, and they grow some of their own food in the backyard.
The middle-class couple is trying to follow an unorthodox lifestyle even for these frugal times: They are attempting to go a full year without buying anything new. That’s right, a full year. Whatever they need, they try to borrow, buy secondhand, or do without.
Eleven months into their social experiment, they are largely adhering to their commitment to the simple life: Sure, they’ve purchased a few new things – who wants to use recycled underwear? – but for the most part they’ve adjusted painlessly to a life of secondhand furniture and used clothing.
What started out as largely a green initiative – to live more in harmony with the environment – has since transformed into something more fundamental: a journey into what the couple considers a “socially responsible” lifestyle. Tringo says they want to set a good example for their newborn son. Along the way, the couple has learned a lot about their own values, as well as the nation’s.
“It was deciding to create another person who will be consuming resources for a lifetime that made me think seriously about this,” says Tringo. “I don’t want my son to grow up to be materialistic, or to not think about the impact of what he does.”
Tringo and Posusta were never spendthrifts. And they were always environmentally conscious. But with both comfortably employed in the high tech industry, they had disposable income. The question was, what were they going to do with it? As a newlywed couple, they set out to define a lifestyle for their family.
They knew it wouldn’t include being a target for advertisers. “It’s crazy, it’s frivolous stuff – the Kate Spade diaper bags and very expensive shoes,” says Tringo. “I just didn’t feel comfortable with that.”
Then, a little over a year ago, the family heard about an anticonsumption experiment called The Compact, which began serendipitously in 2006 when 10 San Francisco friends pledged to flee the must-have-everything ethos and buy nothing new for a calendar year. [Editor's note: The original version had the wrong inception date for The Compact.]
Espousing a rebellion against bourgeois consumerism and eager to reduce their environmental “footprint,” they vowed to only borrow, barter, or buy secondhand. The only exceptions would be food, consumable products like soap and toilet paper, and items related to health and safety.
By Jan. 1, 2008, Tringo and Posusta were enthusiastic converts. And they were in good company: Today some 10,000 Compact followers exist worldwide – in places as far away as Iceland and Taiwan. Ironically, The Compact originators never intended to start a movement.
“There are about 10,000 people on our Yahoo forum, and people are joining every day,” marvels Rachel Kesel, one of the founders. “At the outset, we thought, ‘There are 10 of us willing to do this! Isn’t that great!’ ”
Of course, some Americans have been living a version of The Compact since, well, the Mayflower Compact, after which the experiment was named. In certain circles, there’s nothing new here except the sudden cachet of frugalness. While the terms thrifty and penny pincher verge on pejorative, being a Compacter sounds novel, adventurous – trendy, even.
“It’s not so much the practice that’s new, but the mobilization of people making it into a community effort,” says Tringo, dressed in secondhand blue jeans and gray pullover. “People have been practicing this recycle-reuse lifestyle for generations in some families. Then there are people like me who decided, ‘I’ve got to stop the madness!’ ”
In this season of frenzied gift-shopping, when it’s practically an American tradition to spend beyond one’s means, Tringo maintains a Mona Lisa calm. “I don’t feel obligated to give big gifts,” she says with a shrug. She, in fact, will be giving homemade baked goods and gift certificates for services like a massage.
But the challenge of gift-giving also drives home an essential point: “The reason it’s so hard to think of what to buy for most adults is because none of us really needs anything,” she says.
Strolling along historic Public Avenue – Lafayette’s version of Main Street – Tringo is toting her 3-week-old son, Victor, in a baby carrier, and reflecting on the experience of eschewing consumerism as a new mother.
“From Day One, I never wanted a lot of baby stuff,” she says. When visiting family members with children, she noticed how their homes were stuffed cheek by Barbie doll. “I wondered how much of it was really necessary,” she says.
These days, Tringo relies on Craigslist, thrift stores, and Freecycle (an online recycling network) for essentials. Thanks to hand-me-downs, getting most of the baby’s gear (including crib, stroller, and high chair) was easy. For now, the family’s modest 2,000 square-foot home is free of piles of brightly colored molded plastic. They used recycled materials when remodeling their kitchen. Their furniture is secondhand. Even their dog Pixie, a 3-year-old Dalmatian mix, came from a rescue group.
“If we have another baby, we’ll probably get the next one used,” Tringo jokes.
When unable to find an item she truly needs secondhand, Tringo will buy it new – such as the Onesies bodysuits she recently got Victor. Other new-purchase exceptions she makes – like most Compact followers – are socks and underwear, and safety items such as bike helmets.
As for food and consumable products, the family buys in bulk, and locally when they can. They also grow their own vegetables. This year they had plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers, spinach, and carrots.
Outside Oasis Books, Tringo pauses to peruse the free book bins. Lifting a text on data analysis software, she grins, exclaiming. “Oh, I need this one!” Earlier this year, Tringo was laid off from her job as a data analyst. Now home with Victor, she’s job-hunting, preferably for home-based work. As family members stretch their one income taut, the savings from their new lifestyle is a welcome boon.
“The cost-savings is the biggest thing for us now, with a new baby and Andrea not working,” says Mr. Posusta, a technical editor. “But we also want to have less of an impact on the environment. And we find that when we’re trying to save money, we’re also being green.”
As with any life change, there have been humbling moments. Over herbal tea at the Mojo Coffeehouse, Tringo says she has learned to smile when relatives bring new items for the baby. It’s more important to keep family peace than to foist her principles on others, she’s decided. “Some people don’t agree with this lifestyle,” she says. “I have to respect that.”
Victor, who has been sleeping blissfully, opens his blue eyes, blinks, and then returns to slumber, snuggled against his mother.
For Tringo and Posusta, what began as a one-year experiment is now a lifestyle they embrace – and plan to continue. “This hasn’t been a chore for us,” says Tringo. “I think life is pretty simple. That was part of the motivation behind it.”