LiMin Hang Fields furnished and outfitted much of her three-bedroom Alexandria rowhouse with items she found through the Buy Nothing Old Town (North) Facebook group. Her furniture, rugs, art, mirrors, and a gadget that makes 3D waffles in the shapes of cars and trucks — very important when you have two toddlers — came from Buy Nothing. She used chalk paint to upcycle many things, and her yellow coffee table, which she says is “my pride and joy,” is covered with painted handprints, her own and those of her two sons.
Fields, a law librarian, divorced last year and lives with her boys, who are 3 and 4-and-a-half years old. “This group has been a lifeline of support” during a rocky time, she says. “I honestly can’t imagine how I would’ve survived without all of the clothes and other paraphernalia I have received from this group.”
A New Community
While the free stuff remains indispensable, Fields also credits Buy Nothing with helping her find some of her closest friends post-divorce. The group of approximately 1,900 members is part of a global network of communities with 7.5 million members where neighbors can post things to give away, lend, or share, as well as ask for free stuff or to borrow items. There’s no buying, selling, or trading, and the communities are all-volunteer. The concept is two-fold: reduce waste and meet your neighbors.
“Buy Nothing is in my blood,” jokes Erin Blackford, one of two neighborhood friends with whom Fields organized an “Unsale” last year in Fields’ house and backyard. Carla Pinto is the other neighbor who helped put together the yard sale where everything was free. Blackford is originally from Bainbridge Island, Washington, where Rebecca Rockefeller and Liesl Clark originally created Buy Nothing in 2013.
“As someone who was new to the area, throwing myself into the middle of the Buy Nothing action has helped me develop a sense of community,” says Blackford. “For the first time since I was a kid, I actually know my neighbors.”
“It’s a great community event, and when non-BN neighbors show up, we spread the word about the BN community and invite them in to ‘shop,’” Pinto says about the “Unsale.”
In an area like Northern Virginia that can often feel transient, this is no small feat. And it’s not an uncommon story that a group like Buy Nothing, or one of its offshoots, helps pull someone into a community. While it’s easy enough to simply post an item, message with a neighbor to arrange pickup, and leave the freebie on a doorstep, all without face-to-face contact, in practice there’s so much more to these types of social media groups.
When real estate agent Kristi Guidry moved to Reston from Hawaii in 2010, she didn’t know a soul. Her husband traveled much of the time, and she stayed home with three young daughters. “I very quickly had to create a community for myself,” she says. She dove headfirst into being a Girl Scout leader, teaching sewing and cooking at the Reston Community Center, and volunteering. And then, in 2014, her sister told her about a then-new organization called Buy Nothing.
While home with their fourth daughter, Guidry founded the first Reston outpost of the group. She has since helped the project expand to over 500 individual groups across the mid-Atlantic region, including many here in NoVA. When she got busier with work, she stepped away from the group but has since started Reston Shares, which has four branches and 3,500 members. It’s not affiliated with Buy Nothing, but functions in much the same way. She has met many good friends through it, too.
“The idea behind the group is that the value of the group and the value of the gifts you receive is not the monetary value, necessarily,” Guidry says. “It’s more about the connection you’re making with that person.”
One of the wackiest, and most wonderful, aspects of Buy Nothing and similar groups is the unexpected items people post. Guidry has a “fairy garden” in her front yard that her kids created, full of miniature birdhouses and the like. “Somebody in the group’s mother had recently passed away and she was trying to figure out what to do with birdhouses or little ceramic houses of some sort,” she says. “And I sent her a picture of my fairy garden. And she came over and bawled her eyes out seeing it and was like, ‘This is the perfect place for it. This is where it was supposed to be.’ So that was really cool.”
You never know what you might have that could be helpful to a neighbor. In Guidry’s group, people often share leftover meals: “People are saying, ‘Who wants the rest of this cake or sodas?’” In my own Buy Nothing Old Town (South) group, I once posted a Starbucks matcha latte received by mistake — I don’t care for matcha — and somebody came to pick it up minutes later. (For anyone wondering, it came sealed with a sticker and I never opened it.)
“Our group gifts everything,” says Blackford. “I’ve seen things as small as a half-dozen eggs when eggs were expensive, promotional pens and mugs, clear plastic name tag clips, and half-eaten cake. We take nothing going to waste very seriously.”
Members of Fairlington Shares, an offshoot of Buy Nothing, shared some of the most memorable items they’ve seen: “I always love when women pass along unused pregnancy tests and ovulation strips. It’s like the passing of a torch from a woman ending one phase of her life,” wrote one member. “As a teacher, this group has saved me so much money on lighting, seating, snacks, books, and school supplies. I am so grateful!” wrote another. Others have helped source items to help Afghan refugees and find a walker for a neighbor’s older family member.
In recent years, Buy Nothing groups have had some drama, from people being removed over honest mistakes to controversy over “sprouts.” Buy Nothing wants groups to stay hyperlocal, so it advises splitting into smaller groups when a group reaches about 1,000 members. The organization says this creates more focus on connection and less on stuff — and is less likely to overwhelm administrators. In some cases, splitting neighborhoods has spurred discussions about wealth disparities.
Some Fairlington community members were unhappy when the group “sprouted” into North and South Fairlington in 2021. This led to the creation of Fairlington Shares, an alternative group with fewer rules.
“The admins didn’t ask the neighborhood and they basically said, ‘We’re doing this and it’s not up for discussion,’” says Christine Philp, administrator of Fairlington Shares. Philp and others said they have friends on both sides of Fairlington, and it didn’t make sense to split the group. “The tone was very offensive, and really I feel like Buy Nothing overcomplicated what is really just a simple thing, which is people giving their stuff away, and that should be a fun and positive thing.”
Fairlington Shares wanted to avoid some of Buy Nothing’s protocol. Buy Nothing prefers that the gift giver let items “simmer” — sit for a bit before choosing a recipient instead of practicing “first come, first served.” Some Buy Nothing members say they like the simmer because giving things away to the first person who responds could favor those who have more free time. With simmer, you can check Buy Nothing after work without feeling like everything has been picked over.
Sometimes, though, you just want someone to take your stuff, points out Philp. As an interior designer, she likes a clean, neat space, and has a lot of stuff to give away. “There’s just too many rules and you felt guilty if you didn’t do things like let it simmer,” says Philp. “You were criticized for doing things not the right way, so it was just annoying. We started [Fairlington Shares] and … we had almost zero rules, and we also have no problems.”
Still, “Sprouts” have resulted in more positive experiences for others. “While I missed the larger group after the first sprout, I grew to appreciate having a smaller group in Old Town North because it allowed me to really get to know some of my neighbors,” says Fields.
Simmering, while not universally beloved, also helped Fields deepen her connections. “Once I was giving away a bike that someone had left behind, and I ended up choosing a single mom who needed it for her commute because I am a single mom, too — so I felt a connection.”
Feature image of fairy garden courtesy Kristi Guidry