Sunday, November 30, 2008

Buy Nothing Day

Every year, I think I should join in the celebration of Buy Nothing Day. I never quite make it though, and I have mixed feelings about it. Sure, I am trying to limit what I buy. I am not getting rid of all this stuff from my home just so I can cram more stuff into every nook and cranny (and on every flat surface). I also love the whole idea of sitting out on one of the busiest shopping days of the year. Black Friday is consumerism at its most rampant. You should see some of these crazy people! I say crazy not because I think they are crazy all the time, but because many of them get an absolutely crazed look on their faces as they pile more and more stuff into their arms, bags and carts. They are caught up in the frenzy, for sure.

On the other hand, I shop on Black Friday with my mother and my aunt. It is our tradition, and it is a nice way to get in some quality time with them. This is the big one, the reason that I get up at an ungodly hour of the morning and face those crowds. Without them, I would not do it, I am pretty sure. But there are a few other benefits.

  • There really are some good deals. If you plan ahead, have a budget, and don’t go overboard, you can save some serious money at these sales. Even in years where I have done some shopping ahead through the year, I like to look at the sales on household goods I need, because they are hard to pass up. And if you go in with a list of things that you need rather than an amount of money that you have to spend (meaning, you don’t buy more stuff with the money you save on your deals), you can actually end up spending less money for the season overall.
  • Shopping on this day actually reinforces my desire to get by with less stuff. When I look at all the people and all the extra merchandise the stores put out, with movies crammed in the clothing sections, and the major aisles filled with extra pallets of goods, I actually want to buy less. I have put stuff back on the shelves after looking around a bit and seeing the excess all around me.
  • I am mostly buying gifts for other people on these days. I try not to buy stuff that will just clutter up their homes, but unless you get things that are truly not wanted or wasteful, the social bonding benefits of gift-giving outweigh the stuff for me. I am thinking though, this is an area I could improve on. If it is the thought that counts, why does it have to be something bought at the store? Still, I like the focus on gift-giving and other people of this shopping trip.

Like I said before, though, the biggest sticking point for me is the time with my mother and my aunt. I don’t have many opportunities to spend such a long stretch with them. I could wish that they wanted to do that with some non-shopping activity, but they don’t. I am willing to make a few compromises for that family togetherness, I think. Well, obviously I am willing to do it, otherwise I wouldn’t be yawning my way through a line at 4:30 AM every year the day after Thanksgiving. At least I am not doing it alone!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The house sucks up new things

Ok, so I am still getting rid of stuff. As I unpack boxes, I am putting many things in the Good Will pile, and I have made a few trips to actually get it out of the house. I have also given a lot of hand-me-downs to a friend, so that freed up some space.

What I am struggling with is the decorating. How much stuff is reasonable to buy to decorate my new home? If I am buying stuff that I love, is it a sign of affluenza? How much do I need to have a stylish home? Why am I never free to go garage-saling? Or, rather, I am now, but now it is cold and people are not having so many sales. When they were having sales, I was going to soccer games. Maybe I will try again this weekend. But I need furniture, and I don't have a truck to haul it--buying new with a delivery person is easier.

I love my house so much, I keep wanting to improve it and make it mine. But this feels like a lot of shopping. I am not aiming to completely eliminate shopping, but I am trying to reduce it to what I really need. The problem is defining "need." Making my home feel beautiful, and like it is mine and in my style feels like a need, but I am not sure. I am trying to make some of my own art, which is saving money at least, and making it more personal.

I am thinking I will just slow down on the decorating for now, much as it kills me. At the very least, that will lower my consumption for any given month, and I will be forced to think things through a bit more, and prioritize.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A very big purchase

Here it is, my new house! Obviously, this is a big purchase that has led to many other big purchases (a washer and dryer, a new couch, new curtains, new artwork, a lawnmower, etc.), but it also led to me getting rid of A LOT of stuff.

When I moved into a larger apartment last summer, I got rid of a lot of stuff. It sounds weird to say I got rid of stuff to move someplace bigger, but really, we had so much that I couldn't even go through it while we crammed into the small 2 bedroom place. So, as I packed for the move, I sorted, and brought many, many things to Good Will (about 6 carloads of stuff, according to the posts below). Throughout the year, I continued to purge as I went about my daily life, and I took 2 more carloads of stuff to donate, in addition to throwing away and recycling as much as I could. When my offer on the house was accepted, I got back into purging--I took 5 or 6 loads of things to Good Will, and threw away the equivalent of another 2 or 3 carloads. I even tackled my basement storage unit, getting rid of most of that stuff, since it had been down in my storage unit for over 5 years by that point.

After a while, though, I just had to get everything in boxes and get it moved. So, once again, I am faced with a mountain of boxes. I put them all in my dining room, so that I didn't have boxes everywhere. I needed to have rooms that were fairly calm and peaceful, not all cluttered. And I have an eat in kitchen AND a dining room now, which is a big step up from the tiny breakfast nook that was all my dining space in the apartment. I have been unpacking and continuing to purge, and resisting the urge to toss all the unpacked boxes onto shelves in the basement rather than look at them for one more day. That time is coming, though--the boxes are stressing me out.

In the meantime, I am buying new things for the house and not feeling guilty about it. I am buying things I love, to make my new house a home. I am not shopping as therapy, or spending money just to be doing it, bringing home things I don't even want. I am carefully considering each item, buying things that make us happy and comfortable in our space. I think that affluenza recovery allows for some shopping, it is not all or nothing. It is mindless shopping just for it's own sake that is the problem.

On the plus side, I love being in my home. I have started cooking more, and bringing my lunch to work, rather than eating out all the time. I am proud of my home, and I spend time making it nice, time that I might have spent out shopping before. I have been getting better for a while, but the house seems to be helping me to rise to a whole new level. The was definitely a smart purchase, on all levels.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Skipping around, socioeconomically

Like most people, my relationship with things is related to my relationship with money. When I was a child, my family started out working class, and worked its way up to middle class. I had a lot of typical middle class experiences, with private school, and my parents helping me out financially long after I moved out, but I remembered our not-so-secure start. We had friends and family who were still there.

College was a mixed bag—I wasn’t well-off, but I wasn’t poor. I worked hard, with at least one job all the way through, but between my jobs and my parents help, I had plenty of money to buy new clothes and go out partying. I wasn’t buying the designer stuff, but I wasn’t avoiding the mall, either.

When I got married, things went downhill, money-wise. I had my daughter 10 months and 2 days after we got married, and we didn’t have much money. We didn’t fall under the poverty line at first, but we were just over the top. After my ex and I went back to college, we did fall under the poverty line, but we had enough financial assistance to get by. Plus, my parents were still helping out. This was a really hard time for me, because it was very different from any other time I remembered. I avoided stores, because the amount of stuff I simply could not buy depressed me. When I went to the grocery store, I had to keep a running total in my head to ensure that I didn’t exceed our extremely meager food budget. I couldn’t afford to decorate my home in a way that I liked—it was all hand-me-downs or doing without.

Around the time I got divorced, I got my first professional job with my new college degree. I also had a second child, increasing my expenses. It took a while to pull myself out of the debt and just get some of the basic things we needed, and get out of the expensive daycare years. But now, I am doing well in my job, comfortably ensconced in the middle class, no full-time daycare fees to pay, doing pretty well.

I still remember vividly those poor years, though. They make it even harder for me to moderate my spending. When I go to the grocery store, I buy what I like. At a minimum, I can think about how much we will be home, and whether I am just buying too much volume, but I simply cannot keep a running total of what I am spending, even when I am buying groceries near the end of a pay period with not too much money in the checking account.

I did without so much for so long, that it is hard for me to see many of my purchases as extravagant. Sure, I don’t need 4 winter coats, but a knickknack for my shelves seems reasonable. We live in an expensive area, and I want my children to look nice at school; all of their friends have lots of nice clothes. But my 5 year old has finally started stabilizing in his growth, and I have somehow ended up with nearly 2 months worth of shirts that still fit him. I have to struggle not to buy him another shirt when I see something particularly nice in the stores, though, still.

I used to avoid malls and other stores because I couldn’t afford to buy anything. Now, I find that I need to avoid the stores because I CAN afford to buy things, and I WILL buy too much. I need to find other ways to feel better-off, not poor, than bringing a bunch of extra stuff into my house. One thing I have started doing is going to more plays. I have season tickets to the Rep for the second time this season, and I will do the summer Muny shows again this year.
For now though, I am still trying to avoid the stores and the temptation. Or I will be as soon as I am done buying new furniture for my front room. And new bookshelves. And some storage for my kitchen. But I really need these things, don’t I? I think I do. I think that by making my home inviting and pleasant, maybe I will calm some of my acquisitiveness. Maybe then I will be able to look around and think I have it pretty good.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Consumption at the Macro Level

I started to right a great post on why Christmas time is not so good for my affluenza recovery, but it got kind of depressing, so I never got around to finishing it. I am not far enough along in my recovery to delve that deeply yet, I think.

But I did read a great article in the Times today that I wanted to post here on global consumption. It is very encouraging to see that people are taking the problems of consumption and sustainability seriously on a global level. Also, that it is not realistic to complain about consumption in the rest of the world when we (Americans) are the largest contributors to the problem. That is why I am working on an individual basis to figure out how much I can cut back without lowering my standard of living in any way that matters to me. There are ways to cut that consumption and actually raise my satisfaction with my life, but there are lines I don't want to cross. I figure that if I gradually push those edges, I will lower my consumption more and more.

One thing I have been looking at lately is electricity. My electric company has a new program where you can pay an extra cent and a half per kilowatt hour to support sustainable energy programs. I went out to look at my account online to see how much this would impact me, and I realized we are using a lot more electricity in this apartment than we were in the old one. Part of that is the extra bedroom. Both kids spend more time in their rooms now that they have their own spaces. They leave the light on all the time, too. So, now I am reminding them to turn the light off when they are not in there. It's not like it is difficult to turn the light back on when they go into the rooms. Another issue is the computers. We have two now, and I have gotten into the habit of leaving them on all the time. No more. When we are done, we shut them all the way off.

Those are the wasteful things I noticed when I went sleuthing, but there are other things affecting this as well. I found my alarm clock radio and plugged it in. So now I listen to NPR to gradually wake me up in the mornings, and keep me going as I get ready for the day. The dishwasher uses electricity. It is a fairly new dishwasher, so I think it is pretty effiecient with the water, plus I LOVE IT, so I am not giving that up. And, as we have been de-cluttering, our home has become a more pleasant place, and we are just plain here more often. Overall, I think the slight raise in electricity use is offset by the increased contentment with our home, and decreased driving time to go out and do other things. We are also getting more use out of things that we have here at home, since we are here to use them. I think the net effect of our increased time at home is probably actually a decrease in consumption, although I don't have any numbers to back that up.

After a month of cutting our electricity use where we can, I am going to go out and see what kind of affect this has on our total usage. Then I am going to join the Pure Power program, although the thought of what it will do to my electricity bill in the summer is scary. Still, if I can support a program that is working to reduce our consumption effects so that I never have to give up my air-conditioning and dishwasher, it is worth a little extra money--or even a not-so-little extra money.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Boxes, boxes everywhere (and not a shelf with space)

Despite the mountain of unpacked boxes in my front room, I am nowhere near done unpacking from my June move. This move was by far the most organized of any move I have ever done before, with much unpacking and putting away during the move itself so that I could re-use boxes, but when you are dealing with as much stuff as I had, heroic efforts are necessary. And even then, there are still more boxes to unpack.

I worked on it on and off all summer, unpacking, making a monster stack of good will donations by the front door, and organizing my stuff. I tried to unpack at least one box every day, although I didn’t always make it. I did get a lot done, and I was feeling pretty good about it, so I was resisting the urge to put all my yet-to-be-unpacked boxes in closets, out of sight. I was afraid I would never take them out again. I wanted to keep the unpacking momentum going.

But then, school started. My little one started Kindergarten this year, so now I have two backpacks to inspect every day, two sets of papers to fill out for everything, two lunches to make, etc., etc., etc. It is always amazing to me how far we fall out of the school routine in 3 brief months, and what a shock it is to start back up again. I was too tired from all the changes to unpack anything at the end of the day. All those unpacked boxes were mocking me. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore—I started to put them into closets. I did unpack a few boxes as I went, but mostly I just went through the living room, bedrooms and kitchen, reclaiming floor space, and making my apartment look more like a home than a storage unit.

I have to say that it is still appalling to me how much stuff we have. I have about 30 unpacked boxes in my front room, but I was still able to load up all of our closets with unpacked boxes—and these are fairly large closets. I probably have 40 or more boxes left. Where did all this stuff come from? How is it possible to make 6 trips to Good Will, car brimming, and still have WAY TOO MUCH STUFF? The mind boggles.

When I talk to people at work about how I am still unpacking stuff, 5 months after the move, they laugh at me. They say if I want the stuff unpacked, I should just unpack it. But I find going through these boxes exhausting. All the decisions! Everything has to be evaluated—do we need this? Do we love it? Can I get rid of it without the kids complaining? If we are going to keep it, where will it go? Do I have something else like it that I can get rid of since I found this one?

I am currently reading The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, by Barry Schwartz, and he addresses this kind of decision overload in shopping. I am not too far into the book, but I won’t be surprised if he makes this connection, too—all the decisions that come with owning so much stuff.

One nice thing about de-cluttering—when I went shopping the day after Thanksgiving, I kept looking at all of the stuff in those crowded stores and thinking, “Ugh, more stuff.” Not, “Hey, that’s neat, I should buy that!” Really thinking about all the stuff I already have makes the thought of adding even more stuff so much less appealing. I hope this will be a long-term trend in my thoughts.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Recovery starts here

When I moved into my new apartment, I made a resolution. Since this apartment is bigger, with more closet space, I wouldn't let it be so cluttered and messy. Considering the vast number of boxes waiting to be unpacked, it was clear that keeping this resolution would have to involve getting rid of a LOT of stuff.

So, I have been working on it. Some things are easy to get rid of, like old mail, or outgrown kids' clothes. Kitchen gadgets and utensils were a bit more difficult, but I only have so much storage space, and I don't have time for a lot of elaborate cooking anyway. Books are almost impossible. I love my books!

De-cluttering has lead me to spend a lot of time thinking about how much stuff I really need. I can't think of myself as a minimalist, who only has a few absolutely needed things. On the other hand, I clearly have too much stuff now--and I say this after 5 or 6 full carloads of stuff taken to Good Will. What I am working on now is, where is that line? What amount of stuff will let me enjoy my life and my apartment without overwhelming me? I think maybe I need the books, because they make me happy. But, do we all need enough clothes to get through 2 or 3 weeks without doing laundry? Probably not.

I decided to start this blog to give myself a place to figure some of this out. Maybe if I chart my progress here, it will help me to clarify what I really need, what I really want, and what I can do without.

Oh, and if you don't recognize the name of the blog, I took it from a book I read based on this PBS series. Check it out--it is very informative.