a girl’s guide to fighting consumer culture

For the past year or so since settling into our apartment, I’ve had a mental list of to-do’s. I got into this habit during our five months of wedding planning (budget list, food list, guest list), and it seemed to stick around afterwards. Every few weeks, I took stock of my life and all the big and little things I wanted to change. Exercise more, try new recipes, find a way to use those craft supplies I’ve held onto for years.

Then came this summer. I was working two jobs for a bit, after which we travelled across several states. My husband and I spent more time together and talked a lot, which is one of my favorite things because we always learn something more about ourselves and each other. During one of our conversations, I came to the tough realization that after a year of to-do lists, I hadn’t made much progress. I’d gotten distracted by so many little things that I’d forgotten the big things. I felt defeated, but also determined. I made a real resolution to get things done.

You might be wondering what all of this has to do with consumerism. Let me explain.

This season of high productivity has taught me the art of letting go. I realized so many of my small goals were related to stuff I wish I used (but in all honestly don’t) or the type of person I wished I was (but didn’t need to be). That extra pie pan and those craft supplies represented someone who regularly made pies and repurposed old cloth, buttons, and ribbons into something magical and worth keeping. Neither of these things describe my priorities–they were just distractions from the more important priorities in my life. With each item I gave away (or refused to buy), I gained a bit more freedom and focus to be the person I really wanted to be.

These days, I can honestly say I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m focusing on what matters and taking steps to become the person I want to be. I wanted to share some lessons I’ve learned in the past couple months.

Lesson 1: You’ll have more time and energy if you only own what you use
We make sacrifices to own something. We work to pay for it, then to maintain, clean, store, and move it. I was reminded of this recently when I looked into the cost of moving (Taylor and I have some dreams that could take us across the country in a few years, so we want to save accordingly). I found out that the cost to move our furniture is likely equal to the cost of buying entirely new furniture! To be fair, most of what we own is from IKEA, but what a great reminder that each of our possessions costs us something when we decide to hang onto it. Of course, some things are worth hanging onto–I’m just less inclined to add something to my must-have list these days.

For me, the greatest benefit of limiting what I buy and keep is the extra mental space I’ve gained to focus on maintaining my most precious possessions–including my own body. Less pressure to bake pies or read mediocre books means more time making healthy snacks and exercising.

Lesson 2: Loving something doesn’t mean you have to buy (or make) it
I see plenty of things every day that I think are just great. That cute dress, those knitted owl-shaped mug cozies on Etsy, the tiramisu cupcakes on Pinterest. I’m so happy someone was creative enough to make those things and share them with the world. But I don’t need them. It’s okay to love something and just be happy that it exists. Go ahead and buy it if you really think it will fill a void in your life. If not, approach it the same way you approach priceless art at a museum. Look, appreciate, then move on.

Lesson 3: Invest in experiences
It’s funny how we are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a phone but hesitate to invest those dollars in great experiences. I recently spent a large (for me) sum of money on a year-long membership at my local yoga studio. It was hard to admit that I’m not the type of person who can just work out at home…but I’m not. So far, it’s been a great experience and a concrete step toward my goal of getting in better shape.

Experiences are also great gifts. My husband has started giving me theatre tickets every Christmas and I love getting to spend a special night out with him in the city, complete with a fancy dinner. Experiences can be shared and remembered forever. It’s hard to find a traditional gift to beat that!

Lesson 4: Trust your neighbor
A recent Time magazine article (which I have since recycled…the problem with minimalists is we never keep things long) asked a few experts in anthropology to describe why humans keep so many things. They pointed out that the less secure we are with our surroundings, the more we feel the need to create security though material goods. Thus someone who grew up in need is more likely to collect things than someone who has seen their needs provided for and trusts their community to step in and help when necessary. Sure, you probably want to save for retirement and keep a stash of canned food in case of emergency. But in most cases, you’ll find your needs provided if you have the trust and courage to ask for help. Think about this principle when deciding what to give away. Many communities have Buy Nothing Facebook groups (and similar mechanisms) designed to help people give and get what they need for free. Trust your neighbor to have that extra muffin tin or 3-ring binder when you need it!

One last clutter-busting pro tip: if you’re afraid to get rid of something, stick it in a box in the closet. A couple months later, return to the box and donate anything you haven’t pulled out and used. Use this method as an excuse to be ruthless in your approach to de-cluttering. It’s easier to let go when you’re not giving it away just yet. Just don’t let it live in the closet forever!

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