A Short Guide to Consumer Disobedience

I live a minimalist lifestyle for many reasons: for example, I love the freedom, the flexibility, and the financial benefits of not owning a lot of stuff.

But I must admit, it’s also a chance to indulge my inner rebel. I’ve been a straight-A student, model employee, and overall law-abiding citizen; yet when it comes to consumerism, I can’t resist my desire to stick it to the man. ;-)

When I see ads for luxury cars, designer handbags, trendy clothing, and electronic gadgets, I become more determined not to buy them. When I see promotions for loans, mortgages, and credit cards, I become more convinced to stay out of debt.

When politicians implore me to go shopping to “improve the economy,” I’m inspired to swap, borrow, and make do with what I have. When I hear that more stuff means more happiness, I become that much more passionate about living with less.

In short: the more I’m told to consume, the more enthusiastic I become not to.

I don’t know if my contrarian response is a minimalist thing, a frugality thing, or an environmental thing, but I do know this: the purchase of all this stuff is benefiting someone, but it’s certainly not us. And the last thing I’m going to do is trade my financial security, my precious space, and the planet’s resources for a pile of unnecessary material goods.

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience. The premise: people shouldn’t allow government to overrule their consciences. In our modern world, I think we can use a little consumer disobedience—to make sure banks, corporations, and other profiteering interests don’t do the same.

Are you with me? If so, here’s 14 acts of consumer disobedience for you to consider:

1. Pay with cash. Don’t give credit card companies another penny in finance charges – they grow richer at your expense. Save up for stuff instead of charging it; by the time you have the money, you may not even want it anymore!

2. Say no to logos. If a company wants you to be a walking advertisement, they should be paying you.

3. Be brand disloyal. Check out generic alternatives to name-brand goods; the products are often nearly identical.

4. Ignore trends. They’re just a clever ruse to get you to part with your hard-earned money. Don’t buy stuff that’ll be obsolete, outdated, or out-of-style in the blink of an eye.

5. Be a borrower. Whether it’s a book, a ladder, or a dress to wear to a special event, explore borrowing options before you buy. Check out the library, tool shares, car shares, toy shares, and other programs in your area.

6. Swap. Trading your old stuff with others is a great way to save space (one in, one out!) and money. If you can’t make a swap among friends and family, go online: sites like Swap.com, Paperbackswap, SwapStyle, and Zwaggle help you trade books, CDs, DVDs, video games, clothing, accessories, toys, and more.

7. Go on a spending fast. Select a specific time period—like a day, week, or month—and during this time, don’t buy anything but necessities (like basic food and toiletries). Find creative ways to meet your needs, and make do with the things you already have.

8. Have a gift-free holiday. Instead of exchanging store-bought goods, celebrate the holiday with gifts of service (like babysitting, tax help, or a massage), gifts of charity, or by simply spending time with loved ones.

9. Tune out the ads. The easiest way to stick it to the ad man is to stop listening to him. Cancel magazine subscriptions, turn off commercials (or ditch the TV altogether), and install an ad blocker in your browser.

10. Go car-free. If you can walk, bike, or take public transit where you need to go, consider going car-free. Then you can avoid the expense of gas, maintenance, parking, and insurance as well as a car payment.

11. Right-size your space. Live in the smallest space you need, not the largest you can afford. Not only will you save money on your rent or mortgage; you’ll have less incentive to buy stuff to fill it up!

12. Fix your stuff. Try to repair items before replacing them with something new. Darn your socks, mend your clothes, and take your lawnmower to the repair shop instead of running out for a replacement.

13. DIY. Grow your own veggies, make your own furniture, sew your own clothes, bake your own bread. Use your particular skills and talents to avoid buying mass-produced stuff.

14. Want less. Advertisers, marketers, and corporations will do everything in their power to make you want more. But to be richer, happier, and freer, all you need to do is want less.

If you’re tired of the clutter in your home, the finance charges on your credit card, the commercialization of your holidays, or the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, you don’t have to accept the status quo. Channel your inner rebel, and fight back.

Practice your own version of consumer disobedience, and let your conscience, compassion, and creativity—not corporations—shape your world.

77 comments to A Short Guide to Consumer Disobedience

  • John

    I’m working on the gift free holidays thing – for items coming to me anyway. I’m sent out a request telling people not to get me a gift (though a current picture would be appreciated). Does anyone else have any ideas on how I can make sure that request sticks with people?
    As for what I will do for others this holiday season, they will get a nice card from me (bought, since I’m just not that crafty – nor have the time – to make my own).

    • HK

      John, I am doing the same thing. I am working on a mass email as we speak that will be sent to family and very close friends. I am stating that I would appreciate consumable items only, either gift cards or just cold, hard cash. It may seem rude, but IMO it is no different than a child shoving their Christmas list under your nose.
      I just don’t want another knick-knack to dust or clothing I will ending up donating six months down the road.

    • Esther

      Hi, pretty new to the minimalist world,but on the other hand, seen the way we’re living, not so new either. We live abroad and when people come over to see us, we always warn them that if by all means they want to bring us something (which is not necessary, than it should be either eatable or drinkable. We don’t want stuff we have to dust off every week.

    • Jackson

      I wish I could help you there. Just the other day I suggested to a family member that we not exchange gifts anymore because it’s basically swapping money and it didn’t go over well. This occurred in the same conversation that I informed them that I’ve been getting calls from someone that wants info about them because their car is being repossessed. And they called ME silly…

    • Marie

      Hi John,

      Many years ago, my family decided that only kids would get gifts… for adults, the only things that would be offered/accepted had to be eatable or drinkable. It has made our holidays so much nicer, less expensive and definitely less stress too! It brought back the meaning and fun of the holidays. :o)

      That said, one family member had a real hard time not buying gifts. We would simply say thanks and trade them for cookies or a bottle of wine. It took many years before she did realize that we were serious about it, but it did happen!

      Just give people a chance to offer something that will not clutter your life and you will appreciate. A photo is a good idea, but a bottle or wine or cake was also a good solution for us.

  • That was great! Seriously, what a good list. So many of those struck home. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • “Pay with cash.” While every minimalist believes this is better, I don’t. It’s way more time consuming and dangerous to alway have enough cash on hand. I rarely even use an ATM. I don’t have to worry about getting cash, finding or traveling to an ATM, losing cash, someone stealing it, change which i don’t want to carry in my minimalist wallet or taking up space at home, etc. I just hand over or swipe my cc and it’s done quickly. I use a credit card versus a debit card, also because it’s safer. I tend to buy very little in general and buying mainly specialty items that usually can only be found online. So I don’t have an issue with buying many unnecessary items. I also tend to do tons of research when buying things to try to get the best products for my needs. I always pay off my bill every single month.

    The one challenge I have is that I’m good friends with a shopaholic. A frugal one, but still this is all she likes to do and doesn’t like to do much else even though I’ve attempted to find other activities (these all end up costing more money than I want to spend every time we do something). I also have to constantly remind her I don’t want much stuff because either she’s talking about where I can buy something or she buys it for me (luckily she doesn’t mind my turning things down and also will return things to the stores). Sadly, I suspect someday we won’t be friends or just will spend very little time together.

    • Ashley Laurent

      I agree dimond, I never spend more on my credit card than I can fully pay off.

    • Karen (Scotland)

      I totally agree – I use my credit card for everything. It costs nothing as I pay nothing for it and I pay it off in full each month. Also, I get a cashback every summer, which is a nice bonus – cash for nothing!
      I find it keeps things simple as I can see ALL my purchases in one simple statement every month.
      This was a great article, Miss Minimalist – I’m a born goody-goody so I too enjoy being a “rebel” against what we are all expected to do, that is, buy, buy and buy stuff.

    • Jenn

      I’m annoyed when I can’t put something on my cc. I attempt to run everything through the card and pay it off every week (yes weekly, not monthly). I square up the estimated amounts in my spending plan with the actuals and pay the bill. I think of it as a debit card with a few days delay. Nothing goes on the card that I couldn’t have paid cash for, but why wouldn’t I collect the flight miles along the way? We’re currently planning our next European family vacation. We typically earn 2 free tickets each year so we go every other year. Love flying free just for swiping the cc rather than paying in cash.

  • well said. i never thought about the fact that most of what i’ve done my entire life is to somewhat buck trends. if that makes me a rebel, then i think that is fantastic. this is a good post now that the holidays are upon us. sadly, the people that need to read it most are probably out shopping.


  • JET1980

    This is an excellent post as we approach the holiday season! This will be my first christmas where I am consciously living a minimalist lifestyle and I have told all my friends and family not to waste their time and money going out buying me stuff I don’t need. I thought it would be difficult, but upon my mentioning that we all get together for a lovely meal instead of a gift exchange, nearly everyone seemed incredibly relieved. And so was I.

    Now I sit back listening to everyone talk about their christmas shopping and am so very glad that it isn’t me this year.

  • I have consistently practiced #2, 3, 9 and 12. #1: I use a debit card so I don’t have to worry about having more than a bit of cash on hand or in the house; I can also track spending more easily online and catch my “impulses.” Cash disappears too quickly and invisibly: I had a $10, then a $5 and ones, then nothing… huh? I am working on #4, 5, 10, and 14–which is okay. The hardest is #10, car-free: I live in a place where groceries and pharmacy are a hard bike-hike away, and mean crossing/using dangerous highways in a city that doesn’t like the bike. I can walk/bike to work and to restaurants, but necessities are more difficult. It is a change I am struggling with, but determined to make. I have tried #6, but the online services for books and DVDs found me sending out multiple packages (and paying the mail costs) and receiving little (my desired items were too popular or scarce!). Cost me, without equal return; now I simply sell to a local used book place and receive cash. #7, 11, and 13 sound good: perhaps in 2011? For #8: I have given gifts from World Vision to my family and friends for several years. It is great: no clutter, no junk, and a good feeling. My dad’s name has been on a herd of goats in Africa, and my mom’s for women learning sewing trades in Asia.

  • Chris

    What is old comes full circle. The old term is “Depression Mentality”. Those folks who lived through the hardest of times tend to remember and heed those lessons well.

    This is life style I introduced to early on in our marriage by my wife whose parents did grow up in the depression. It was something that I embraced early (not always easily) and we have lived this way for >30 yrs. Because of this, we have not been beaten up, so far, in the current depression. That is not to say that one major illness could wipe out all of our savings.

    We use a Costco credit card for nearly all our purchases and bills. It is a cash back card, from 1-3%. We get back every yr $600-800. The price of everything is inflated by 1-3% to cover the cost of the credit card merchant transaction fee. So you are actually paying a higher price if you pay by cash. However, If it is a small local merchant I do pay cash to save them the fee…keep more money circulating locally.

    My 2, early 20’s, young men, for the most part, have also subscribed to the frugal lifestyle. Though, it was a daily challenge to overcome all the outside influences that push in the other direction. There are still family dinners where the remembrance of second hand toys is brought up with humor :)

    I, many times, told my wife during the early and mid ’00s, as we watched the real estate credit boom blossom fully, that if everyone did what we do; however, all at once, the economy would take a big dive. Economists call this “the paradox of thrift”. So unfortunately, we are in for a long slog here in the US as families deleverage and our economy stumbles along. A perfect time to be a minimalist some by choice, some by necessity.

    Enjoy your blog. Minimalism is a process…always can learn new tricks :)

  • We can’t do #10 because we did #11. We moved into a 35′ motorhome and are enjoying seeing this wonderful country of ours. But living in such a tiny space sure helps with the process of minimalizing. :)

  • I have grown to dislike advertising very strongly. I’m also not happy with the governments pushing people to keep purchasing more to strengthen the economy, while at the same time telling us how much they’re trying to do for our environment. That is a total oxymoron.

    The more we can spread these ideals the happier people will be and the better it will be for our environment. The hard part is reversing the deep set conditioning these corporations have instilled on people for so long now.

    This is the best post I’ve read in a long time.

  • Number 14 is definitely the key. People seem so desperate to spend. Working all day to buy a particular shirt, cd or game boggles my brain!

  • Mike Allen

    Excellent post.It seems government are encouraging people to produce their way out of the current economic situation rather than to change our way of thinking and living.Buy, buy, buy, and produce more needless plastic junk that we don’t need until we use the last tree to produce the last catalogue of plastic toys made for chump change in China.Like the post- your getting punk.Keep it punky.

  • Ashley Laurent

    Great post Francine! I know that we desperately pay a high price for convenience, I just wonder, DIY is great and everything, but would the supplies, equipment, time, and storage be worth it? As citizens of any society, we enter an unwritten social contract that allows us to trade goods and services. Would learning all these skills really benefit, or would it be more like Jack of all Trades, Master of None?

  • Grandy

    Great post. “When I hear that more stuff means more happiness, I become that much more passionate about living with less” goes in my folder of memorable quotes.
    I’ve been “sticking it to the man” since 1985….by being my own boss and refusing to be a servant in a corporate hierarchy. I could go on and on…..(time to start my own blog?)
    I, too disdain advertising. More and more every day. When you see any ad, remember- the corporation isn’t your friend. The corporation’s sole reason for existing is to maximize profits regardless of the human or environmental costs.

  • I loved the whole list, of course, but I really have to say DIY is my favorite. I think a high level of self sufficiency, when possible, is huge way to stick it to the man. They count on us being helpless zombies who are dying to waste whole paychecks on the crap they think up!

  • A suggested addition to your list: Give directly to charities, rather than falling for the “a portion of proceeds will go to” marketing gimmick.

    I recently attended my first PTA meeting (Parent Teacher Association – my child just started kindergarten). I was surprised that a) the majority of the time was devoted to discussing all the various fundraisers that would be held throughout the year, and b) the majority of the fundraisers took the form of “get people to buy X and half the cost goes to the school.” So, pester all your friends to buy something they don’t need, so that the school will get a portion of your friends’ money. I wanted to yell “Here! Here’s the $50 you’ll probably collect from me this year, now can we please talk about our children’s education!?”

    I was amazed at all the “support Haiti” campaigns that cropped up last year. As one example, a knitwear designer offered a scarf pattern, specially designed, and half or all or some percentage of proceeds would go to help Haiti. Uhm, excuse me, but why wouldn’t I send my money directly to Doctors Without Borders? What does a consumer exchange such as buying a scarf have to do with donating money to help disaster victims?? Why should you have to entice me with a scarf pattern to get me to help?

    • suzyn, i couldn’t agree more! my son is now a junior, but i’ve been so disheartened over the years at all the stuff the school wants us to sell to others to raise money. like you – i’d much rather just donate the money than peddle things that i myself do not want to buy.
      – tera

  • This is the best thing I’ve read in a very long time.

  • Julia

    Another great post.

    Regarding Christmas and birthday gifts, I stuck my neck out about three years ago and said that I was opting out of all gift giving in favour of doing good stuff with my friends and family instead – like going somewhere nice for a meal, or going on a great picnic in the summer.

    It was hard at first but definitely has paid off in the long run – I’d much rather spend time with a friend doing something special (and possibly out of the normal budget).

  • Tim Wilcock

    Havent seen you mention Freecycle to aid the free redistribution of excess ‘stuff’.

  • Awesome post! I wish I’d never been introduced to fashion magazines with their glossy pictures and ads.. and being fooled into thinking that this was the way to be and it would make me feel better about myself. Of course it was just the opposite.
    After getting that out of my system I’ve been sticking it for a long time, and will continue doing so, as a minimalist stay-at-home mom and artist who doesn’t make money :D Never could stand working 9-5 for money anyway.

  • Kim

    Great post! We’re observing a very small Christmas again this year. Last year we instituted the $5 rule. Gifts can cost only $5. Mostly that meant mp3 songs — it was wonderful. We spent the day together rather than each person huddled over their treasure.

  • Miss Minimalist you bring out the rebellious minimalist in me!

  • I cut up my credit cards two years ago, and now live only on cash. It’s hard, yes. But every time I’m tempted to open a credit card, I remember what criminals they are, and I remember I no longer do business with criminals and exploiters, who can keep raising interest rates at random, until the interest payments and balance due is more than double what you purchased in the first place!

  • Great stuff! I feel like printing this off and putting it up on my fridge as rules to live by.

    I do most, but theres some i could do better. ‘Pay with cash’ and ‘go car free’ are two things i’m focssing on right now.


  • Miakat

    I agree with Suzyn, I recently made one of my (very rare!) shopping trip to replace some basic clothes that wore out, and was offered an “environmentally friendly carry bag,” and a bottle of water, both at a price of course, to help relief efforts in Haiti. Um, since when is peddling crap I don’t need that will probably end up in landfill in ANY WAY environmentally friendly? I have no doubt the very small percentage of those items that actually go to the charity are sucked up in administration costs and very little actually ends up where it can make a difference.

    I am hosting a dinner for Christmas instead of gifts amongst my friends, we all bring a dish and watch movies instead of buying things.

  • Marie

    I’d like to add one of my favourite sites to give/get books:

    List your books (you can restrict the distribution to your area), or release them (leave them in a shop, etc) with a label saying that they are free… and get free ones to read the same way!

    It’s also fun to track your books and see where they are. :)

  • Everyone should read this before we start preparing for the Christmas season. I am sometimes tempted with the stuff that I see online but when it comes to actually handing over my money, I always have second thoughts.

  • The Anti-Consumer Manifesto! I’m in!

  • Hi, I love this post :-)

    It’s how I feel about consumerism and I really relate to you saying it’s your inner rebel, it made me giggle as that’s how I feel about it all.

    Lovely blog too, very inspirational x

  • Clea

    The list was great. Aside from our house is too big, we’re trying very hard to do those things and I love the lable consumer disobedience. But I have to say that it gave me a chuckle when below your post it says “if you like this then buy my book.”. :)

  • […] and time you’ve wasted on things that don’t add any appreciable value to your life. It’s especially hard to break the consumer cycle. (You can do it!) Minimalism is its own reward much of the time, but there’s one more thing I recommend, and […]

  • I am so with you. You know, I have never ever liked logos or trendy clothes, electronics, etc. etc. I’ve been known to pick out the stitching and pluck labels off bags, I don’t buy logo’d tee shirts, far preferring plain. I find anything logo’d is a real turn off. I love DIY and buy generic. I do use a credit card but always always pay it in total. I grew up in the ’60’s and have lived most of my life “sticking it to the man.” Love your list and glad so many other posters are on board!

  • Canadian Minimalist Wannabe

    Swap.com – Disppaointed to see that it’s only available in the USA. Sigh!

  • love this post! i’ve been living this way for some time, having simplified from 3000 sq ft of house (for ONE guy!) to a 600 sq ft cabin in the mountains, growing some veggies in my greenhouse, etc… i bake my own bread, make a lot of my own stuff, and generally try to do the opposite of whatever the corporate culture tells me i should be doing… (there’s a little bit about that here and there on my writing blog at wwww.obscuriousmoo.com …. is it ok for me to mention that here? if not, feel fre to edit…) never understood people who walk around as billboards for the corporate swine, actually PAYING the corporation for the “privilege” to be a walking advertisement for THEIR goods!

  • I am a fairly new reader to your blog and I absolutely love this post! I am on a path to minimalist living, trying hard to get rid of more than I am bringing in, lol! We have young adult/ adult kids, plus 7 grands. We plan to give an annual pass to a local natural attraction/park for the oldest and her kids, it is something they can use year-round and will provide many memorable experiences!

  • Ashley

    I love this post! Thanks for sharing such a powerful manifesto.

  • Karen

    Francine, another fantastic post!

    Suzyn, I too hate to see schoolchildren spending time selling stuff I don’t want so they can “earn” money for field trips, etc. I never buy the junk, but I do write a check to our school’s Parents’ Club every year. I also never volunteer to work on these types of campaigns — what a waste of time and energy, all to enrich some corporation instead of the students or teachers! I like to give time by volunteering to help a teacher by correcting papers, putting up a bulletin board, or whatever they need.

  • I can join you in your consumer disobedience! I pay with cash, debit cards or PayPal. I do not have credit cards. I just bought a nice used car with cash and I’m saving up to buy a house in cash. A lot of people believe you may be able to live without debt, but still believe that “it’s a reality” to have to finance cars and houses. If you become a practiced saver and shop smart, perhaps be willing to do a little DIY, live in a tiny house, a less pricey city or in a good car-free locale, you can even buy cars (or not) and houses with cash. It’s absolutely possible to live 100% debt-free.

    You are absolutely right on with what you said about paying with cash. Learn to live without that instant gratification. By saving before purchasing, you will learn a sense of patience you never knew before and like you said, you will avoid a lot of unnecessary and regrettable purchases. It also gives you time to research the best product or alternatives.

    It’s better to take that interest you’d be giving credit card companies and let it be yours by allowing your money to build in savings and investment accounts. Reverse the system.

    I also liked #10. I lived car-free for years in Boston. I walked to and from work every day. Best memories of my life.

  • Gil

    As always, Francine, remarkable posts.

    After digging myself out from debt, I “divorced” myself from my credit cards forever. I Will never, ever have one again. However, I do have a debit card for basic purchases.

    Getting rid of my cards did NOT affect my ability to buy a house, despite our society’s unwritten “rule” that they are somehow essential for economic survival.

    To touch on what Miakat wrote, it seems that more than ever, retailers are upselling, upselling and upselling. On a recent trip to a large electronics retailer, I must have been offered 5 items upon checking out in addition to having add-ons pushed on me when I purchased my IPOD. I also have noticed as I venture on my minimalist journey, going into a store no longer has the “joy” it once did. In fact, I now find it quite suffocating. it seems things jump out at me from the aisles and displays, but I “just say no” :).

    As for the holidays, I told my wife and mom to just donate the money they would have bought me a gift with. I simply look forward to spending time with people this year instead of chasing after things.

  • Thanks for sharing. So often people say that less is more (which is true), but also more is less. Literally, having more leaves us less money, space, time, and energy to do the things that are really meaningful to us. Thanks for sharing!

  • The second noble truth of Buddhism: “Desire is the source of all suffering”.

    Blaise Pascal: “I have discovered the source of all evil, and it is this: the inability of a man to sit still in a room.”

    I find it really ironic that a site on minimalism discouraging people from buying stuff ends with an encouragement to buy your book on not buying stuff :-).

  • ElizMc

    I don’t believe in paying in cash, unless you cannot manage your credit cards. I pay for everything with credit cards and take full advantage of the points I earn. I’ve earned lots of free trips, hotel rooms, meals, dollars off my credit card bill, cash back, etc. It is the practice of being the inverse consumer – earn something for spending. This also allows me to analyze my spending at the end of the year and compare year-to-year spending, which I’ve done for the past five years. I’ve been able to assess and change my spending behavior accordingly, although I probably spend less money than anyone I know. I think I’ve been anti-consumption almost all of my life.

  • runi

    We are both retired and the “Great Recession” hit our income hard. I thought we might have trouble. . . until I looked at the expense spreadsheets for each year 2002 through 2010. (I know 2010 isn’t finished yet, but our spending is.) We started taming our spending before 2002 (when I retired), and it has really paid off. Not that we’re wealthy, but we are certainly not uncomfortable. The numbers of expense categories, and the number of vendors are have been greatly reduced, along with the actual expenses.

  • […] I was intrigued. Then a friend (a member of my first church back in the 70s) on Facebook mentioned this site about being a consumer minimalist, so I sent the link to the initial […]

  • Heather

    I love this post. We have only one car in an area where there is no public transit and every family has AT LEAST two cars, even if one is a stay-at-home parent. I could drop my husband off at work if I need to use the car one day, but I find that is more disruptive to mine & my little kids’ schedules than it is worth, so I usually end up walking where I need to go. It helps me shop (really really) local, consider my purchases carefully because I have to carry it home, consolidate trips or maybe even stay home if it’s not worth that long walk. Plus, I’m getting exercise!

  • Muddauber

    Thank you for articulating the thoughts many of us share. We need to become active in our disobedience to consumer products, corporations, newspapers and TV Media that perpetuate toxic ideas and harmful products to our society.

    Consider http://stopbeck.com/category/sponsors/ and how we can help weaken the voice of hatred and bigotry.

  • […] first post I read, A Short Guide to Consumer Disobedience…stirred up the rebel in me, the desire to NOT conform to the pulls of this world. I live a […]

  • […] Embrace your inner rebel. Start showing those marketers they ain’t nearly as clever as they think they are. You will feel so much better for it. […]

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