How to Buy Less and Buy Better with the Less But Better Method

by Tara McKenna, founder of The Zero Waste Collective

Picture of Tara McKenna, author of Don't Be Trashy and founder of The Zero Waste Collective
Tara McKenna

The best way to curb consumption is to not buy anything at all. Did your jaw just drop? For most people, quitting shopping cold turkey might not be realistic. Buying less is the next best option!

Contrary to popular belief, buying less is not about self-deprivation. When you buy less, it saves time (you spend less time shopping), it gives you the opportunity to focus on more important things (like friends, family, hobbies, etc.), you save money or have the chance to pay down debt, and you’re less trashy (buying new things uses resources, creates pollution, and results in waste).

The benefits abound, but chances are, you’ll still end up shopping at some point. Let’s chat about how we can choose to buy better when we do end up trading our dollars for stuff.

I’ve noticed over the years that the high-quality products I’ve invested in last longer and have a better resale value, even if I bought them used. These products also tend to be (mostly) timeless. This has been very true for my wardrobe. The cheap clothes I’ve purchased have rarely been accepted at my local consignment shop for resale, and my friends don’t typically want them either.

In contrast, when I’ve invested in high-quality clothes made from better materials with evidently better construction, those pieces remain in high demand even if I’m no longer interested in wearing them.

This goes for all of the things we buy and own. Clearly, durable and timeless products can have a longer life and be enjoyed by more people as they get passed along, which supports sustainability and a thriving secondhand economy.

Hopefully you’re convinced that becoming a conscious consumer is a worthwhile endeavor. New habits tend to be easier when there’s a framework for us to follow.

The Less but Better Method is the approach that I use for shopping, and it’s one that you can easily
adopt, too! Here’s how it works: Whenever you have a purchase to make, you are confronted with a
choice. Either you can choose to buy something that’s less expensive and cheaply made, which likely means you’ll wind up replacing it multiple times over the course of your life (and probably spend more money and send more to the landfill), or you can purchase something that’s high quality to begin with, that you can repair and maintain and hold on to for much longer (resulting in less waste and more savings in the long run).

Whenever possible, I opt for the latter alternative. But there are a few other important considerations before you decide to make a purchase—like asking yourself if you even need to buy something in the first place.

To apply the Less but Better Method to your own life, consider the following options before you purchase.

  • Keep a wish list: This is my all-time favorite tool for managing my consumption. On my phone I keep a wish list of items I’d like to buy. If I find something that interests me that’s not on my list, I’ll add it and give it some time before I make the purchase. Having some time to “sleep on it” will give you the chance to think it through and decide if you really need it. You may decide that you don’t!
  • Use what you have: When you consider what’s on your wish list, think about how much you need each item you have listed. Take a moment to consider if you could use what you already have. Like, can your chef’s knife do the job of cutting that pizza, instead of your going out and buying a specialty pizza cutter that you know you’ll rarely use? Put everything through this test.
  • Borrow it: Friends and family might be able to lend us exactly what we need when we need it. Similarly, libraries, tool libraries, and other free resources may exist in your community that will let you borrow things like books, tools, kitchen supplies, etc. for free or a nominal membership fee. Consider if you can borrow instead of buy.
  • Rent it: If you can’t find what you’re looking for among your friends and family, and it’s not available to borrow from local resources like a tool library, find out if you can rent it. Take a carpet cleaner, for example. It’s a specialty item that we don’t need to use often and tends to be expensive to buy. Find out if it can be rented at a local hardware store, or even online!
  • Swap it: Think of swapping like a garage sale, only everything is free, and your closest family and friends have brought all their best (but unwanted) things! Consider hosting or attending a stuff swap, and focus on one theme, like fashion, kitchen items, baby clothes, kids’ toys, plant clippings, home decor, etc. Swapping doesn’t have to be an event; it can also happen online through Facebook groups or similar platforms.
  • Find it for free: There is so much free stuff out there! It’s amazing what people are offering and what people are willing to take. Like swapping, free stuff can come from family and friends, online Facebook groups like Buy Nothing groups, as well as online marketplaces like Craigslist or networks like Freecycle. You’ll even find free stuff in unexpected places, like on people’s curbside.
  • Make it yourself: Are you handy? Crafty? Creative? If you’re a maker, consider making what you have on your wish list, from art to fashion to furniture to home decor. Whether you’re crafting it from scratch or upcycling—making existing products, materials, or perceived waste materials into new products—there are so many options to make things. It’s a great way to divert waste and save money while getting creative and having fun!
  • Thrift it: Once you’ve exhausted the above options, shopping secondhand is an affordable and sustainable approach to satisfying your wish list. Secondhand goods are more sustainable simply because the necessary resources have already been extracted, the production process completed, and shipping satisfied (unless, of course, you’re thrifting online, in which case shipping is still a component). The best part is, buying secondhand means you’re giving an old item a new life and keeping it out of the landfill.
  • Buy it better: If you can’t find what you want for free or secondhand, then the last option in the Less but Better Method is to buy it better. What does “better” mean? You get to define this for yourself, but here are some elements you can include: better quality in terms of durable materials, excellent construction, easily repairable; made ethically, with fair working conditions and wages through the entire supply chain; and made sustainably, with the planet in mind from start to finish.

The Less but Better Method, if followed regularly, should help you become a more conscious consumer. Enjoy!

(an excerpt from Don’t Be Trashy: A Practical Guide to Living with Less Waste and More Joy)

2 Replies to “How to Buy Less and Buy Better with the Less But Better Method”

  1. I very much enjoyed this article and already do almost all of your suggestions. It’s still nice to have a refresher!!! Looking forward to reading more of your blog. Martha in Nova Scotia, Canada

  2. Jeanette Hardin says: Reply

    Very useful information!

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