November 10, 2011

Family Fridays: The Story of Stuff

Hi. This is something that has been swirling around in my head for some time now: stuff. You have stuff, you don’t have stuff, you want stuff – but what I’m really interested in is how much stuff is too much? 

I recently transcribed an oral history interview I did with my grandfather in 1997. The part that interested me most was when he spoke about growing up post-Depression: they lived on a farm with very little luxuries aside from running water (which WAS a luxury given the house they lived in before did not have it) and their meals more or less consisted of the same ingredients harvested from their land. In the Fall, they bought 2 pairs of cords, one pair of shoes, a few shirts and sweaters and one jacket. This was to last them the entire year. It got me thinking…do we really need a rack full of coats and a dresser chock full of clothes or can we get by with a little less?

A while ago, there was a great article in Sunset magazine about a zero-waste home in Mill Valley, CA. It was truly inspiring if not completely intimidating. They do not have any waste (aside from their recyclables) and they only own like 7 of each article of clothing. They shop twice a year at consignment shops to replenish what has been outgrown or trashed. They go to the library instead of owning piles of books. They are striped down and simplified. It sounds NICE. This is somewhat easy with kid stuff but when it comes to yourself, where feeling fashionable can be important to you, it gets significantly harder.
I get the desire for new stuff - especially clothes. Throwing on a new shirt with some new shoes makes you feel...important? Fresh? Hip? I think it makes you feel a little different, a little better than your everyday self. Standing in the dressing room at Anthropologie, dressed head to toe in exciting new duds makes you feel like the special, new and improved version of yourself. Does that make sense? But it seems, shortly after taking these fantastic objects of desire home, they start to lose their magic. You feel ordinary again. Darn. Now you have a house full of STUFF.

Shortly after leaving my career in investment banking (where you wanted to feel polished and nice thereby leading to many a lunchtime shopping spree), buying new things started to feel TOO MUCH. It felt wasteful and neglectful – I found that there are just too many amazing deals and options in the consignment stores around town. Knowing that I can probably find what I need at a fraction of the cost without having to produce new materials and that the hunt of it all is so fun, is really what draws me back to buying used.

But that leads us to a new problem: WANT vs NEED. Just because those trucks at the goodwill are 99 cents, doesn’t mean we need 10 of them. I tend to go overboard when things are “such a good deal” and pretty soon, I have way more jeans or books or kid toys than I need. 
I have a friend who keeps his house immaculate. He has a toddler so I am not quite sure how he maintains this but never the less, it is sparse and clean. They have few toys but the toys they do have are nice and high quality. They have very little clutter around their house: no piles of papers, no stack of dishes sitting next to the sink, no bowl of junk next to the door. I must say, I always feel so relaxed there. I often come home and immediately start clearing off the counters, putting everything in their spot and creating a huge Goodwill bag to give away. It feels so good to clear away the clutter!

I think living with less also teaches your children to live within their means, to have only what you can use/need and to appreciate when you DO get that new down parka for winter every year or a new toy (and by new I don't necessarily mean brand new). Perhaps if we all teach our children these skills, our country will be in better shape later in their lives. But that’s a topic for another day.

So, here is a test for myself. I am going to curb the spending and gathering until the end of the year – this timing is purposeful given the holidays coming up and the overindulgence that usually brings. I'll let you know how I'm doing from time to time. I will still admire or desire fashion and new stuff. I will still be all up in my Vogue every month and enjoy browsing through nice design shops. But I will refrain from physically bringing that stuff into my world. I’m going to try to reduce my waste, reduce my stuff – striped down and simplified. Sounds refreshing. 

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