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Meet “The Compact,” a Frugal Group Dedicated to Buying Secondhand Only

One of the keys to living a frugal lifestyle is to shop secondhand. Each person has different rules about what they will or won’t buy used: For example, some are okay with used clothes but won’t buy used shoes, while others buy used DVDs but only new DVD players. But just about everyone who wants to save money shops secondhand for at least a few items, because it’s so much cheaper than buying new.

But scattered across the country, there’s a group of people who have taken secondhand shopping to its ultimate extreme. They buy everything used. Unless it’s a consumable product, such as food or medicine, they just will not buy it new.

This group, called the “The Compact,” began its life as a one-year challenge among 10 friends in San Francisco. They vowed that throughout the year 2006, they would buy no new consumer goods. By the end of the year, The Compact’s online Yahoo! Group had grown to 1,800 members – not just in San Francisco, but all across the United States and beyond – and the original 10 members had all decided to renew their pledge for a second year.

After a decade, The Compact’s online group numbers more than 10,000 people, with about 100 new members joining every day. Numerous bloggers have taken up the challenge and have written about their experiences. Some try it out for a month, some sign on for the full year, and some are sticking with it for the long haul.

The Goals of The Compact

The Compact outlines its major goals on its main Yahoo! page. They include:

  1. Protecting the Environment. Manufacturing new goods uses energy and natural resources and contributes to air and water pollution, as well as global warming. By buying only secondhand goods, members of The Compact – or Compacters, for short – save resources and keep waste out of landfills.
  2. Fighting Consumer Culture. Compacters object to what they call “disposable consumer culture” – the endless cycle of buying and discarding new goods. Upgrading to the latest electronic gadget each year drains money from our wallets, and the ever-mounting bills force us to work longer hours to keep up with our consumer urges.
  3. Supporting Local Businesses. Instead of buying new goods from large retailers, Compacters turn to secondhand sellers in their communities. They also rely on local businesses for services, from plumbing to massage therapy, and for those products that they can’t buy used. For instance, they buy gifts from local artisans instead of going to the mall.
  4. Reducing Clutter. Because they can’t buy anything new, Compacters have to think before they shop. They don’t buy things they don’t really need, so they don’t end up with a lot of unnecessary objects just taking up space.
  5. Simplifying Life. Compacters aim to slow down the pace of their lives. By shopping less, they free up time for things that matter more, such as family and friends.

The name “The Compact” itself has several different meanings that reflect the group’s various goals. In one sense, it’s a shared vow like the Mayflower Compact, reflecting the fact that the group sees itself as “revolutionary.” However, it also means “compact” in the sense of small, based on the group’s goal of reducing clutter and waste. And finally, it’s a pun on “calm pact,” which fits in with the group’s ideal of a simpler life.

How The Compact Works

Obviously, there are some things it just isn’t possible to buy secondhand. Some of these, such as food, are clearly necessities; others, such as makeup, can be labeled as luxuries.

The Compact has specific rules outlining which kinds of purchases are allowed and which are forbidden. For the items they can’t buy new, Compacters use a variety of alternative sources to meet all their needs, and at least some of their wants.

Compact Outline Goals

Rules of The Compact

Rachel Kesel, a founding member of The Compact, lays out the group’s rules in the first entry of her blog, also called The Compact. The most basic rule is, “Don’t buy new; buy used or borrow.”

However, there are several exceptions to this rule:

  • Necessities. Kesel says the group defines necessities based on what a “fair and reasonable person” would allow. Food, drink, and essential medicines are allowed, but “elective treatments, like Viagra or Botox,” are not. Compacters can buy necessary cleaning supplies, but not new cleaning equipment, such as vacuum cleaners. The only clothing items that count as necessities are socks, underwear, and pajamas for children.
  • Services. Compacters are allowed to pay for services of any kind. This includes both necessary services, such as having a plumber fix a clogged pipe or a veterinarian treat a sick pet, and “recreational services,” such as massage, movies, concerts, and restaurant meals. The Compact encourages its members to go to local businesses for services and to encourage them to work with used parts, such as retread tires.
  • Handcrafted Items. Compacters are allowed to buy handmade goods from local artisans, such as paintings or hand-knitted sweaters, as gifts for others. However, they’re not supposed to “over-indulge” in craft items for themselves.
  • Charitable Donations. All donations to charities are allowed. Kesel recommends giving these as gifts in place of physical items.
  • Plants. The Compact allows members to buy plants and cut flowers “in extreme moderation,” and only from local businesses. It encourages them to grow their own plants from seeds or cuttings whenever possible.
  • Art Supplies. The Compact recommends getting these used by exchanging with other artists. However, when this isn’t possible, it allows members to buy them from local businesses.
  • Media. Compacters can’t buy new magazine or newspaper subscriptions, but they’re allowed to renew existing subscriptions or read the publications online. They’re allowed to rent videos and download music, as long as it’s “freely shared and legal.”

Even these rules don’t cover every situation, so the original 10 members of The Compact decided to vote as a group on any purchase that was unclear. An article about the group in The Washington Post relates how one member’s request to buy a new toilet brush, on the grounds that it was a health issue, was vetoed. However, the group okayed another member’s request for a new house key.

Finding Everything Secondhand

Even the original 10 members of The Compact haven’t always done a perfect job sticking to its strict rules. In The Washington Post, Compact member Shawn Rosenmoss relates how he “broke down and bought a drill bit” when he couldn’t find one secondhand. Other members describe slipping up over sneakers, a map, and energy-efficient windows for a house renovation.

However, these slips are surprisingly few and far between. That’s because Compacters have become very skilled at finding ways to borrow, buy secondhand, and shop local.

Their favorite resources include:

  • Craigslist. Schoolteacher Kate Boyd tells The Washington Post how she went to three different sellers on Craigslist to find used bicycle gear, including a helmet, shoes, and a pump. While she admits this was “more of a hassle” than going to the bike shop for all three, she says it was also more interesting, stating, “You get to meet new people.”
  • Online Shopping. Both eBay and Amazon.com have a huge variety of goods for sale secondhand. However, Kesel warns that many items sold on these sites are actually brand-new products listed by major retailers. She recommends that Compacters use the sites only when the seller is an individual rather than a store.
  • Thrift Shops. Compacters describe visiting a wide variety of secondhand stores for clothing, from upscale vintage stores and consignment shops, to Goodwill and The Salvation Army. They also shop at local flea markets and secondhand bookstores. John Perry, a member of the original Compact, boasts in the San Francisco Gate about finding a used Razor scooter for only $15 at a secondhand store called Thrift Town.
  • Reuse Centers. These stores, often run as nonprofits, accept donations of materials, from art supplies to building materials, and sell them to the public. For instance, the charitable group Habitat for Humanity sells reused home supplies, from appliances to paint, at its ReStores throughout the country. For art supplies, Kesel recommends a “creative reuse center” in San Francisco called SCRAP, or “Scrounger’s Center for Reusable Art Parts.”
  • Public Libraries. Even better than buying books secondhand is borrowing them from a local public library. Libraries also offer a host of other resources, including movies, audiobooks, music recordings, and all sorts of events, from poetry readings, to story time for kids.
  • Local Farmers. Compacters prefer to buy food from farmers markets, which support local growers, rather than supermarkets. Kesel also recommends Terra Firma, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program in San Francisco.
  • Free Stuff. Compact members make liberal use of Freecycle, a network of local groups through which members give away unwanted items to other members who can use them. San Francisco Compacters can take advantage of the Really Really Free Market, a large monthly gathering in a local park where residents meet to give away goods.

When all else fails, members of The Compact get creative. For instance, when two of the original Compacters needed to replace their shower curtain liner, the group asked around and found them a secondhand one, still unused in its original bag. Compacter Rob Pisciotto confesses in The Washington Post article that he sometimes takes his son to Target to play with the toys, then leaves without buying anything.

Benefits of The Compact

Living by the rules of The Compact isn’t easy, yet most people who have written online about the experience say they’ve willingly stuck with it, even after their one-year pledge was up. For them, the benefits of living under The Compact more than make up for its challenges.

Here’s what members say they get out of The Compact:

  • A More Relaxed Life. Several of the original Compact members say that they feel relieved to be free of the pressure to have the latest and greatest new clothes and gadgets. The Compact helps them to be more patient, since they know they may have to spend days or weeks looking for an item they want. Compacter Katy Wolk-Stanley, writing for the The Huffington Post, says being more mindful about her purchases has encouraged her to simplify her life in other ways: clearing her house of clutter, hanging her laundry on a line, and walking more instead of driving.
  • A Sense of Community. Since Compacters can’t just run to the mall when they need something, they rely on each other for advice and moral support. Wolk-Stanley says during her first year with The Compact, she logged into the Yahoo! Group nearly every day “for ideas and inspiration.” Two Compacters, Matt Eddy and Sarah Pelmas, met through the original San Francisco Compact group and eventually married.
  • More Savings. Wolk-Stanley writes that her family has “saved countless thousands of dollars” since she joined The Compact. Other members note that avoiding new consumer goods frees up cash for little luxuries they appreciate. For instance, Boyd says she enjoys better wine and dried cherries for cocktails.
  • Bragging Rights. Compacters enjoy boasting about the great bargains they find as a result of shopping secondhand. Perry says in the San Francisco Gate article that members try to one-up each other with stories of their finds, like “the free sewing machine I got on Craigslist.”

Benefits Living Compact

Member Resources

Aside from these general benefits, The Compact’s Yahoo! Group offers a variety of more specific resources for members. In the “Database” section, members can post requests for items they are trying to find secondhand, so other members can help them out – just as the original Compact members did with the secondhand shower curtain. Under “Files,” members exchange recipes and share articles on topics ranging from frugal gardening, to how to design a solar power system.

However, the real meat and potatoes of the group is the “Conversations” section, where members post about anything on their minds – even if it’s only loosely related to The Compact. Recent topics include plastic recycling, donation days for colleges to give away items discarded by departing students, and where to find cheap, healthy recipes. This area is also searchable, so you can enter a topic you’re looking for, such as “sneakers,” and see what other Compacters have to say about it. You can use this section to find other Compacters in your area and possibly form a local “Subcompact” group so you can hold gatherings in person.

Final Word

If the goals of The Compact appeal to you, it’s easy to try it for yourself. Just visit The Compact’s Yahoo! Group and ask to join. It’s completely free of charge, but membership is restricted, so you need to send an explanation of who you are and why you want to be a part of The Compact. Don’t worry if you aren’t admitted to the group right away – when I signed up, my membership was stuck on “pending” for more than a week before it was finally approved.

Do you think you could live by the rules of The Compact for a year?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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