‘If we don’t feel grateful for what we already have, what makes us think we would be happy with more?’ — unknown
I’m doing an experiment: I’m not going to buy any Stuff for one year. There are some unavoidable purchases such as groceries and basic toiletries, but I am otherwise going to use what I already own, or find a creative solution.
Why, you ask?
I often spend money just because it’s there. And even sometimes when it’s not – which always comes back to bite me from behind.
Because there is no sexier idea in the universe to me than bare shelves and only three things hanging in my closet, I declutter my things on a regular basis – only to find myself soon enough staring at big piles again without being able to recall why I bought them. Completely stopping the in-flow will allow me to enjoy (or at least examine) what I actually need.
Most importantly, I finally accept that even my solo existence can have an impact on the environment and the world I want to live in. ‘Everyone else is doing it’ is no longer an excuse I want to hide behind.
My rules (that I’ve just made up)
I’d have liked to make it a year of spending no money but that’s not feasible. I live on the road so I have ticket and visa expenses. I also have to cover rent, bills and local transport.
Watching a film at a theatre counts as experience. Buying the DVD or digital download counts as a purchase that I won’t make now.
Neither will I buy books though I’m kind of cheating here because despite reading a few per week, I actually have enough new books to read for the next three years without purchasing any more. I know, it’s demented. I’m the bookworm equivalent of those folks who hoard tinned food in case there’s an apocalypse.
Borrowing anything is fine. In fact, it’s great. Sharing economy, etc.
I’m not a bartering kind of person, but that sounds like an intriguing concept to explore.
I have a bunch of gifts to distribute to friends but after that, the only presents I’ll give will be those that won’t clutter up their homes either. I’ll choose consumables such as food and drink, or experiences like theatre tickets or spa treatments.
If something breaks and can’t be repaired, and I absolutely positively cannot live without it, then I will purchase a replacement.
I will allow tailoring expenses to keep my clothes wearable in case of weight fluctuations (drat those weight fluctuations).
My no-purchase exception: I have a long hiking trip planned that will involve some shopping to make it bearable (backpack, sleeping bag, sun hat).
It goes further
I’m on high alert for physical clutter, but mental clutter is also a real problem. Being chained to my computer for most of the day means that the bulk of my consumption is virtual. Just because I can’t hold it in my hands doesn’t mean it doesn’t count.
My home internet was recently down for several days. It was like being thrown into the deep end – only to discover, wow-who-would-have-thunk-it, I can breathe just fine after all. I had forgotten the very real serenity from restricting my news and social media input.
My internet got fixed after three days, on what turned out to be my birthday. And so I made it a birthday wish: spend the next year being really mindful about consumption.
I really should know how to do this already because of my frequent travels where I still do the following:
- Carry a bunch of ‘essentials’ with me, only to realise when packing at the end of the trip that I didn’t use a lot of it.
- Getting back to my base and being shocked by how much I left behind in my drawers because I didn’t miss any of it.
- And how little I really need to make me relaxed and happy.
Though I pride myself on (generally) living like a good minimalist, I need to keep re-learning these lessons because I’m up against the behemoth consumerist machine.
Our consumer society
All the places I move between are shamelessly consumer driven. We are bombarded by both blatant and subliminal messages: buy x, become happy. Buy y, and people will think we’re cool. Buy z, and our problems are over.
Whatever our perceived inadequacies, there’s a shiny promise of a solution offered to us in a box. Possessions have become our armour. They are our shorthand for the life we want. They represent who we’d like to be.
Consumerism, like any other societal construct that requires compliance, preys on our insecurities. It’s the reason big labels still sell for crazy money, even though designers are rarely creating them now and they’re mass produced by infants on slave wages. It’s what compels us to buy giant houses and stupidly expensive cars and throw ostentatious parties. One-upmanship becomes at once the result as well as the engine.
Digital consumption is no different. Have you read up on the latest commentaries on the political situation so you can keep up at the next dinner party? Is your finger on the cultural pulse? Are you following a on Twitter, b on Instagram and c on Facebook? Are you in the know? Are you on?
We’ve learnt to speak this language fluently now. We shop because we’re overworked and think we deserve something nice to make it all worthwhile. We buy because we think our lives will run more smoothly if we’re surrounded by the right things. Sometimes we consume because there’s a hole in our heart and we’re trying desperately to fill it.
When we’re not consuming, we can be just as overwhelmed as a result of our over-consumption – weekends cleaning and organising our Stuff, our schedules tightly packed from Fear Of Missing Out, the mental fog we get amidst too much visual and virtual noise. (When I move from an overcrowded, messy space to an uncluttered one, I can at last hear myself think.)
This is the way our world rolls now. To change what, and the way, we consume has to be an active decision. Even if doing so feels like a revolutionary act.
The reason for doing it is compelling. When we simplify, we engage once more with the real world around us.
Pruning what we already own
Just because I’m doing a no purchase pledge for a year doesn’t mean I expect to hang on to everything I already own. On the contrary, the best way to handle these next 12 months is by clearing away all the excess in my life right now.
I go through my wardrobe and get rid of most of my clothes and shoes, leaving only what fits into a small bag. Stationery, business cards and piles of paper are cleared out. I go through my address book and remove all the names I can’t place or those who bring up uncomfortable memories. I delete books on my Kindle account that I associate with the person I once was and don’t wish to revisit. I dramatically streamline my photos. I get rid of films I won’t watch again, knowing if I ever wish to, they’re still available in the world. I get rid of tons of recipes I’ve saved but never tried making. I delete an agonisingly large number of music albums I’d bought years ago but never listened to.
I could, of course, hold on to any of these in case I need them Some Day. But that day is here. Either I need or want it right now, or it’s out.
The less I own, the more I appreciate what I have – such as Louis Armstrong’s Saga, which is so fabulous I say, ‘where have you been all my life?’ (buried under a mountain of your impulse purchases, it would reply). Letting go of the wrong things makes room for the right ones.
What I’m really after – and what has eluded me despite years of living lightly – is clarity of the mind, heart and spirit. The closest I’ve come in recent times was my Vipassana experience, the intensity of which shocked me into bolting. But the lessons have remained: limit the input, accept what is, and focus on the present.
By stopping the tide of incoming goods and overflow of information, I’ll have the space to examine and identify what’s important.
Just to be clear: this is not a competition. If I get rid of more things, it doesn’t mean I win, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone else.
Notes to self:
- Consume less and consume consciously. Too much of anything dilutes the delight. Savour it.
- Save nothing. Own the knowledge gleaned from the experience and trust that anything that needs retaining has been retained, and let the item itself go.
- Be like nature. Nature sheds its old skins and dead leaves all the time, assured something fresh will take its place. It’s okay to be bare in the interim.
- Stay current. Let go of what was important 10 years ago and be with what moves you now.
If we’re going to be specific about it:
When something resonates, act on it then and there. By putting it away or storing it, it becomes Stuff.
Don’t waste time or energy on people who are not real friends.
Eat what’s compostable. If nature can’t digest it, our bodies can’t either.
Let go easily. Don’t be constipated.
When a new purchase is unavoidable, like a phone, get one with the lowest specs and the most compact size that will satisfy needs. Buying more Just In Case would be like buying a dress two sizes too big in the event of future weight gain.
Miniature toiletries from hotels, airplane pouches of socks and eye masks, conference gifts of logo-ed pens and calendars: unless it’s something you’ll use today, just say no. They might be free, but they still cost in terms of space and headspace.
Try the Rule of 1 by keeping only one of each type of thing. One pair of capris, one pair of yoga pants, one pair of flares, etc. Duplicate nothing (except, okay, underwear). Don’t hoard back-ups out of fear of lack in the future.
Aim for zero. Zero, oddly enough, is easier than moderation, and helps avoid decision fatigue. When it’s zero, it’s clear. Zero emails in the in-box and zero items on the to-do list at the end of each day. Zero debt. Zero waste.
I’m now on a new zero waste learning curve. I already avoid using things like paper towels and other unnecessary disposables, but taking a quick stock of my recent purchases (including food) shows an alarming amount of plastic. Plastic – besides being a by-product of that benevolent and selfless petroleum industry (ha!) – doesn’t decompose. Just about every piece of plastic ever produced is still on this planet, choking our oceans and marine life, covering our land mass in rubbish dumps because bacteria won’t eat it like it does natural matter. I don’t have children but this is not what I want to pass on to future generations.
Decluttering our belongings sounds like home decorating but it’s so much more significant, as is our purchasing power. What we choose to keep and how we spend our money impacts the environment, sends a message to governments and corporations, and shapes the quality of our lives and the earth we live on.
My new mantras
It’s okay to not be prepared for everything.
It’s okay to not know everything.
Spend time with people who recognise what’s truly important.
Spend part of each day on nothingness.
Trust that if my requirements change, I’ll receive what I need as I need it. Trust that I don’t have to pad myself against the scary monsters of fear and disappointment. Trust that I am enough.
We may believe our belongings are not clutter, but anchors giving us comfort and security in this unstable world. But the only thing that truly grounds us is love.
I used to fret about my legacy. I wanted to be sure to leave something behind so my life would count in some way.
I now realise that my legacy will be the way I’ve made people feel. Nothing else really counts.
Our legacy is not what we own, what we accomplish or even what we create (art, jobs, children). Our legacy is that we are loved and are loved in turn.
We measure love in presence, not presents. And the thing about presence is that it can’t be faked, substituted or bought. There’s no half-off sale for it, or a way to hoard it. It exists only in the moment. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.
‘That’s all your house is – a place to keep your stuff. If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.’ — George Carlin
Fresh and exciting for the first half, and treading water thereafter, Fight Club (directed by David Fincher, based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel) justifies its cult status by offering some choice mantras on modern consumerism, such as: ‘You’re not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your f**king khakis.’
Music and lyrics team Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez were given the task to write and compose what was categorised by the filmmakers as ‘Elsa’s badass song’ for the Disney animation feature, Frozen. What they created has won multiple awards, become a veritable anthem, and one of the best-selling singles of all time. Listen (or, rather, sing along) to Let It Go.
I would so fall in love with someone who would do this! Two people + travel + adventure + no luggage = swoon. Read The Craziest OkCupid Date Ever by Clara Bensen on Salon.com.