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Video: She paid off $20K in debt by buying only used items

TODAY contributor
updated 8/23/2012 8:16:41 PM ET 2012-08-24T00:16:41

Katy Wolk-Stanley, 44, of the website The Non-Consumer Advocate, is on a mission to live on less — and not define herself by purchases. Here, the Portland, Ore., writer and mother of two shares her thoughts on why she decided to "de-clutter" her life:

I am a woman who hasn’t bought anything new in five years. But it’s actually not as black-and-white an issue as it seems at first. I do buy some things new, including:

  • Underwear, socks and bras
  • Personal care items (makeup, etc.)
  • Food
  • Harmonicas (I haven’t felt the need to buy one yet, but you never know when the mood might strike!)

It may sound like a pain in the tuchus to stay away from new purchases (an initiative I call “the compact”), but it’s actually turned into an amazing stress reliever. Not because I’ve replaced my new purchases with used stuff, but mostly because I hardly ever buy anything anymore. And when I started to buy less stuff, it made me want less in other areas of my life as well. (It's funny how once you start examining one area of your life, other areas hop along for the ride.)

So out went the boxes, shelves and closets full of stuff we never used, and in came a bit more air to circulate in the spaces left behind. And as a result of our de-cluttering, our home is now easier to keep clean, which translates into less time spent on housework and more time being able to welcome friends and family into our home.

And I began to appreciate life’s bounty a bit more.

Related story: Confessions of a bargain hunter: It's the thrill of the hunt

Of course, I am in a privileged position to be able to voluntarily make these choices. No, I’m not wealthy (as a paramedic and a nurse, my husband and I are both hourly wage workers.) I never worry about how I’ll pay the mortgage or where my next meal is coming from, but that doesn’t mean that my decisions are any less conscious.

The tagline for my website, The Non-Consumer Advocate, is “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” which I take seriously. I try very hard to fix instead of replace, accept that not every one of my possessions has to be the very best, and accept that my family can live without the luxuries than many of our friends take for granted.

At this point you may be saying to yourself “That sounds great in theory, but I could never do that because of A, B, C.”

Yes, your life is different than mine, but that doesn’t mean that what I do doesn’t translate to a variety of lifestyles. There are 10,000 members of "The Compact Yahoo Group"alone, and it’s highly unlikely that we’re all the same.

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It helps that I’m not overly concerned with fashion (note that I left myself a little wiggle room with that statement, as I do enjoy looking cute every now and then) and am satisfied with a relatively small wardrobe. But even if you live and die for fashion, there are a myriad of ways to score amazing fashions without ever stepping into the mall. Consignment shops, girlfriend clothing swap parties, thrift stores and borrowing from friends can all get you that million dollar-look for much less.

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The one aspect of only buying used that rarely gets talked about is that when a person chooses to buy secondhand, they’re not supporting questionable manufacturing practices. We live in a world where a large amount of our goods is manufactured overseas in countries without worker protection laws in terms of living wages, environmental protections and worker safety. When I choose to buy a shirt from Goodwill instead of the mall, it doesn’t create an order to manufacture a new one. One peek into any thrift shop will give you a strong conviction that we’re currently manufacturing too much stuff and there’s more than enough to go around.

One criticism that I’ve received through the years is that by buying used, I am not supporting our American economy. To this, I disagree. I mainly shop at Goodwill Industries, whose mission is to “Provide vocational opportunities to people with barriers to employment.” I pay my taxes, send my teenage sons to public schools and am active in my community. If a strong economy can’t survive without its citizens buying endless amounts of unnecessary stuff, then there’s a problem.

"The compact" is about abundance. You already have enough stuff. And if there’s something you want or need, it’s easier than you think to find it used, borrow it from a neighbor or maybe, just maybe simply do without.

It saves money, is a fun challenge and helps to create a mindful life. What have you got lose?

What do you think? Would you ever be able to go a year without shopping?

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: 'A Shade Of Red': One lipstick, many women

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  1. 'A Shade Of Red'

    Photographer Alyson Fox’s most recent project, "A Shade Of Red", is a book with more than 100 photographs of women - old women, young women, friends, family members, co-workers, sisters and grandmothers - with one common thread: all were photographed wearing the same shade of red lipstick.

    Some of the women had never worn bright red lipstick before, and many had never been professionally photographed before. Fox, who is based in Austin, Texas, found most of her subjects through word of mouth, as news of the project spread.

    “I didn’t know what my subject was going to look like or what my backdrop would be,” Fox told TODAY.com. “I would just show up at my subject's personal space. I would spend no more than an hour. I didn’t want it to be a staged shot, I was really going for something raw. I would just show up with a tube of lipstick.”

    The end result is an arresting and frank portrait of a group of women, from Texas to New York to Florida, which celebrates the individuality which shines through a communal shade of lipstick.


    Some of the younger portrait subjects were captured wearing lipstick for the very first time. “Ruby at the time was 9 years old,” said Fox. “She's not the youngest, she's the second youngest, but I really captured this look that was well beyond her years. She was incredibly comfortable in front of the camera.” (A Shade of Red/Alyson Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Joy

    The photographer strove to capture the women in as natural a way as possible. This picture of Joy, a friend’s grandmother, was the last photograph Fox snapped that day. “We went outside and she just bent down and scooped up this cat and I just shot it at the right moment.” Fox remembers. “I just loved it. This particular cat actually passed away two weeks after I photographed the picture.” (A Shade of Red/Alyson Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. April

    When it came time to choosing a lipstick for the project, Fox had no specific type in mind but she knew she wanted it to be a drugstore brand. “I wanted it to be something that everyone could afford and to me this is kind of about an everyday woman, a community of women so it just felt right being a simpler lipstick.” So Fox went to a Walgreens and headed to the beauty aisle. “I had 6 tubes in my hand. I strictly picked it on the name of the shade: [Revlon’s] ‘Certainly Red’ really struck a chord with me. I bought one tube.” (A Shade of Red/Alyson Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Mimi

    All the women in "A Shade Of Red" were photographed in their own space. “Mimi was photographed in her bedroom,” photographer Alyson Fox tells TODAY.com. “We talked about childhood stuffed animals.” (A Shade of Red/Alyson Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Kaylan

    “Kaylan was shot in her apartment with her sister Laura”, Fox said. “I was immediately drawn to the patterns in her space and on the couch. I first met her at Lamberts, a restaurant in town [Austin, Texas]. She was our waitress.” (A Shade of Red/Alyson Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Jessica and Sally

    The women featured in "A Shade Of Red" all had different reactions upon seeing their portraits. “I had some women who were like ‘You know, you really captured like, the defensive side of me’, and then they examined themselves a little bit differently which was interesting to hear,” Fox said. The two sisters featured in this photograph, “loved theirs, and actually asked for their image to give to their mom for Mother’s Day.” (A Shade of Red/Alyson Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Mary

    Most of the subjects in "A Shade Of Red" were arranged through word of mouth, but Mary was an exception. Photographer Alyson Fox explains: “I was in Martha, Texas on vacation. She walked into the restaurant where we were having breakfast. She had this great pink vest and these blue glasses and I thought 'This is what I want to be like when I’m older.' I introduced myself and the project, and she invited me back to her daughter's house and I walked over and we chatted for a good hour and a half. I got to see her paintings and I got to hear about her studying art in the '40s. It was really fascinating.” (A Shade of Red/Alyson Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Beatrice

    For Fox, talking to the women was just as important to the project as shooting the pictures. It was important to her capture something of the essence of the woman, her history, her narrative. “I just talked the whole entire hour and just photographed the women as we started to get to know each other,” she explains. Beatrice, the woman photographed in this picture, owns a silkscreen company and has recently moved to California. “When I look at each portrait I have a little bit of history or something personal in each woman.”

    For more information on "A Shade Of Red" click here.

    (A Shade of Red/Alyson Fox) Back to slideshow navigation
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