Bible Gateway interviewed Scott Dannemiller (@sdannemiller) about his humorously-serious book, The Year without a Purchase: One Family’s Quest to Stop Shopping and Start Connecting (Westminister John Knox Press, 2015).
Why did a vacation from consumerism sound like a good idea to you?
Scott Dannemiller: Over a decade ago, my wife and I felt like we were on a “hamster wheel to nowhere,” constantly striving for upward mobility that never brought true satisfaction. To find more meaning in life, we followed God’s call, quit our corporate jobs, sold our house, and spent a year serving as missionaries in Guatemala. While the experience was transformational for us, we slowly drifted back into our old behavior once we arrived back in the US. So we knew we needed to do something drastic to remind us of what was truly important in life.
Explain the “family mission statement” you crafted.
Scott Dannemiller: During our year of service, we were challenged by our supervisors to write a mission statement. Though it’s now 12 years old, and written before we had kids, we feel like it still represents how we hope to honor God as a family.
It is, “To tirelessly seek God’s will by living lives of integrity, owning what we have, growing in faith together, and serving all God’s people to build a world without need.” In truth, our year-long break from consumerism was an attempt to bring our lives back into alignment with this mission.
Is it ironic that you want people to buy this book, yet you’re encouraging them to stop buying?
Scott Dannemiller: I think “horribly misguided and hypocritical” is a better term. 😉 Perhaps that’s why God invented libraries.
What do you hope to achieve with this book?
Scott Dannemiller: Honestly, our biggest hope for this challenge was to remind ourselves and our kids of what is truly important. That said, people who’ve read the book have told us that it makes them stop and think before buying things. Some have even adopted the challenge themselves. Whether the goal is to save money, spend less, or give more, I’m grateful our experiment has inspired some people to bring them closer to God and His purpose into their everyday lives. And I believe the intention is far more important than the outcome.
What Bible passages motivated you to begin your experiment?
Scott Dannemiller: There were so many… but one that stands out to me is James 1:22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
Our favorite Bible verse is Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” I believe humility was a big part of why we wanted and needed to embark on this challenge.
What rules did you establish for your year-long non-purchase living?
Scott Dannemiller: We could’ve made it much harder on ourselves by having to grow our own food and fashion undergarments out of burlap sacks. But we knew that wasn’t realistic for us. So we had three basic rules: 1) We could only buy stuff that could be “used up” within the year (think food, hygiene items, cleaners, etc.). 2) We could fix stuff if it broke, unless a suitable replacement was readily available. And 3) Any gifts had to be in the form of charitable donations or “experiences.” Again, our challenge was less about saving money, and more about living with intention.
Why did your rules remind you of John 17:13-19?
Scott Dannemiller: Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert researches happiness for a living, and he found that “People are inherently bad at predicting what will make them happy,” often seeking joy in material good fortune. I believe Jesus’s prayer for his disciples gives us a clue where we can find the “full measure of (His) joy”—by living in the world but not of the world. And our rules were an attempt to do just that; to live in a consumer culture without being consumed by it.
Why did you decide not to tell your children?
Scott Dannemiller: Honestly, we were curious to see if they would notice. While we had created some good habits of not buying random items for them, we had strayed from a life of simplicity. We thought our kids (ages 5 and 7) could be our litmus test to see if we were truly living “in the world but not of the world.” If they didn’t notice a drastic change and feel as if we were ostracizing ourselves from society, then we’d consider ourselves successful.
How was your year like an addiction withdrawal?
Scott Dannemiller: I’ve never experienced an addition withdrawl, but I can see parallels to the struggle being much more difficult early in the process, and the day-to-day becoming easier over time as you develop new habits. Much like any recovering addict, we did avoid places where consumerism was happening like malls and big box stores. We removed ourselves from over 100 marketing email lists and rarely went “shopping”—even just the window variety—to avoid the temptation.
What is an ‘appreciation audit’?
Scott Dannemiller: It’s an exercise where you spend time each day taking stock of the blessings in your life. For thirty days, you write down five things you’re thankful for each day. For us, it was a wonderful way to keep us focused on all God has provided and forget about the things we think we were missing.
How does ‘shiny junk’ cover up the ‘image of God’ inside people?
Scott Dannemiller: During our year, I noticed how I often defined myself by the things I owned. And this made me realize I often judged others in this same way. Our challenge helped to strip away the façade and finally see the truth behind Genesis 1:27. Both in others and in ourselves.
How did Scripture passages about contentment and the love of money guide your attitude and behavior?
Scott Dannemiller: Scriptures like 1 Timothy 6:10 regarding the love of money were helpful, but the biggest driver was Matthew 6:25-34. We realized that so much of our everyday stress and worry was a product of our trying to control our lives and build a false sense of joy and contentment through buying “stuff.” This was one small way we could give it up to God.
How did your sense of humor contribute to the year?
Scott Dannemiller: For us, humor is about not taking yourselves too seriously. We enjoyed laughing at the crazy ways in which we place pressure on ourselves—especially as it related to our kids—to give them everything so they didn’t or wouldn’t feel left out or different. They never noticed, nor did they ever say anyone commented on the things they had or didn’t have.
And while this challenge was tough for us, it wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things, so we had to constantly remind ourselves of that.
What do you mean when you write, “We are so much more than what we own”?
Scott Dannemiller: Advertisements today are less about the function of a product and more about what the product says about its owner. We’re enticed by image. So much so that it becomes a sort of shorthand for knowing a person. Rather than truly connecting with people, we simply look at where a person lives, what a person wears, and what car they drive and think we know something about them. And this is a lie. We’re a product of our stories, and “stuff” can just get in the way. Again, we remained focused on Genesis 1:27—“So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”.
What did you gain—spiritually, relationally, etc.—from your non-purchase experience?
Scott Dannemiller: So much! But the main thing is we feel we’ve grown more in alignment with our family mission statement. A covenant born of our mission experience over a decade ago. If you want to know more, you’ll have to check out the book. And when you’re done, share it with others!
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and/or the Bible Gateway App, especially in light of your experiential year?
Scott Dannemiller: I’m a frequent user of the site, especially if I have a question about a particular subject and want to quickly search what the Bible has to say about it. I know it’s cliché, but you guys have been a Godsend.
Bio: Scott Dannemiller is a writer, blogger, worship leader, and former missionary with the Presbyterian Church (USA). He and his wife, Gabby, reside in Nashville, Tennessee, with two very loud children.