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May 28, 2008

And just what is "essential" anyway?

Edited to add: Each of the readers I commented here gave me such thought-provoking and good stuff to ponder that I quoted them because they said what was on my mind, too, and I thank them. Thank you, Jennifer(s) and Jasmine!

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When I decided to share my mid-year resolution to stop buying crap for the rest of the year, I didn't expect so many folks to chime in with the amen chorus and it's made me very happy to hear so many others are thinking along the same lines. But I thought this comment from reader Jennifer was really interesting:

I think that's the smartest thing to do right now... but ...I just read an article about consumer confidence falling to a new 16 year low. So ... the more we worry about the economy, the less we spend. The less we spend, the worse the economy gets. It's a vicious circle and everyone doing the smart thing could have pretty dire consequences. Depressing and confusing. But I'm still going to stop spending AND my tomato plant had it's first fruit last night! Yea! Free produce!

Congratulations on your tomato. I am still hoping to make my own zucchini-based fuel for my Jeep. Hope, like zucchini, springs eternal.

But her comment about consumer confidence was interesting because I was recently asking someone here at the Place I Work about the Consumer Confidence Index (CCI) and what it really "measures." For example, if you don't know about it does it really matter to your life? People tell us we need to buy, shop, spend so we can keep our economy afloat, but at the same time we're seeing foreclosures at record highs and more people out of work and groceries costing more every second. Are we supposed to spend to make it better? But what if we go even further into debt, doesn't that make it CRAZY?

I'm not an economist and I don't pretend to be an expert, but while our so-called consumer "confidence" has declined, as a nation we have accrued statistically more credit card debt per person than at any other time in history. So my thinking is... maybe consumers have low confidence because they're already burdened with debt from buying stuff?

All I know for sure is that when I have debt I don't feel good about spending even more money, because that feeling of having debt hanging over me like a dark, ominous cloud of despair is just awful. My life's goal and purpose is not to prop up the failing economy of a whole nation by taking on more debt. I don't believe that's the clean, harmonious path of living I want to be on. I can and will live within my means, and consume less of the earth's resources.

But if the economy is tanking and someone wants to blame it on me -- the consumer -- for not buying crap, I'm totally 100% OK with that. I won't have credit card debt and besides, doesn't blame burn calories?

Another reader also named Jennifer asked:

I have long been trying to extricate myself from the consumerism borg. One question though - does your 'diet' include services things? Like going out to movies or restaurants or getting pedicures? I go back and forth on that one...

Well, the word "diet" makes me want to eat french fries, so I am thinking of this more as a break. Just a little vacation from stuff. My purpose here is to detach from the endless cycle of consuming, buying, shopping, spending and then wondering how on earth I accumulated so much junk!

As for services and experiences, your mileage will vary. I think haircuts are essential, but others may not. I tried having my nails done a few years ago but I got an infection and freaked out because ... my fingers! Take anything but my fingers, I need them for frantic typing! So anyway, germaphobic me doesn't do the nail salon thing anymore (don't bother trying to talk me out of it, it's just my thing.) I don't go out to the movies often enough to exclude it plus it's an experience not a thing that you junk out later at a yard sale. I'll probably still rent the occasional DVD and movies on demand, because I enjoy them and they don't clutter my life.

In general, I think if service/activity things aren't eating up a huge area of your budget they're fine -- especially because you don't have to dust them, store them or vacuum around them! But when it comes to eating out I definitely try to limit this as much as possible because I swear I'm addicted to fast food, and it's HORRIBLE for the body and the waistline and in general it's best for me to avoid it.

The concept of "essentials" varies from person to person. I think buying a a puppy toy (or three) for my parents' new puppy is an essential. For other folks, shoes are an essential but I have more shoes than I have places to wear them so I'll be fine holding off for a few months. I want less stuff and less clutter, so my moratorium is more stuff-related than anything else.

Of course I'm not advocating that all people stop buying stuff. I'm just personally ceasing my crazyass consumerism for the next few months. I'm taking a break. For me, I chose a more radical "rest of the year" approach but I like radical. I began drastically reducing my spending when I got divorced and was dead broke and I owed a whopping amount of debt. I paid it off by living so close to the bone it was scary, and it took me from October of 2004 until June of last year to chip it away and in that time I cut my shopping back to virtually zero, plus yarn. And it worked.

My buy-buy-buy habit started back up again as soon as I was out from under the shadow of that debt. Is that insane or what? It started small... "just this little thing to reward myself for a job well done!" but I could see where it was headed and I'm just not going to walk that road again. I know like I know like I know that I can't buy my way to contentment or happiness or satisfaction, so I am dropping out of buying for a while. I want to focus on life, not stuff.

I didn't mean to suggest that everyone had to go monk and stop buying shoes and wine and yarn. I just personally happen to have enough shoes and yarn to last me a few months. OR YEARS. But for the next little bit I think I can make do with 17 bins of yarn and a bazillion pairs of shoes I already own. If I truly need something it's not like I can't buy it -- no one will send me to Bad Budgeter Jail. This is a choice, something I volunteered for, and I am so relieved for having decided upon it. I want to free myself of the poverty mentality that says I have to hoard for a rainy day. I want to believe -- and live -- with the safety of knowing I will always provide for myself, I will always be able to have (whatever) if truly necessary. I don't want to forever be waiting for the rainy day.

As for wine, it is an essential and therefore free to be purchased liberally and often. (I've discovered organic wine now, I am crazy with the all-organic thing I tell you what.)

By the way, no one at work believes I will make it seven months of no spending. I believe they have an office pool going on how long it will be before I cave in. My co-workers have seen my Zappos.com issue firsthand and they think I am incapable of maintaining a spending cap but they are wrong! When I commit to a thing I am all over it. I am excellent at goofy existential challenges.

And that's what this is, it's a philosophy and a challenge I want to try out for a little while and let it seep into my life and become a real habit. I just want to find the contentment available from anything other than buying more stuff. I'm excited about having to be a little creative and I am really excited about watching my bank account go up a little bit at a time. I didn't mean to suggest that everyone jump ship and move to an ashram, but I know that for me these next few months are going to be really great because I'm focused on appreciation instead of accumulation.

I don't ever want to go back to how I used to be, shopping on credit cards because I was sad and unhappy in my life. Buying stuff I couldn't afford so I'd feel temporarily better. Using those credit card checks they send to rob Peter to pay Paul. Worried about when it would all come crashing down. I spent seventeen years of my life living with credit card and consumer debt and that is way too long. I'm just going to take a few months out to appreciate what I already have and relax from having to purchase, store, move, dust and re-arrange layers of stuff.

That's all. It's just my way of focusing more on what I already have -- my family and friends and cats and using what I've got on hand. Utilizing the library more often, visiting the beach instead of the mall, really finishing the work of paring down so that my home has only what I need and can afford and love. Living within my means like my grandparents used to do. That's all.

If you do want to try it, I'll be here doing this thing I'm doing and probably blabbering on and on about it from time to time. If seven months of no-shopping seems like crazytalk but you like the idea of spending less on crap, you can always start with just two weeks. Or how about trying reader Jasmine's more targeted approach:

I tell myself pretty much every week that I am going to quit buying crap, but my willpower is not equal to to the task, so for the time being I have started small: I've put a moratorium on buying makeup and jewelry, because even though there's a fashion-magazine-reading part of me that believes one more pair of hoop earrings will fix my life, the truth is, they're going to lie at the bottom of a drawer while I wish for my twenty dollars back.

I'm all for little tiny changes that are helpful to your life but not so agonizing they make you want to hide under the covers with a flask of gin. If you like the general idea of de-crappifying your life and spending less on non-essentials, pick a category and stick with it for a month, like "no purchasing magazines for one month." I added up all my magazine purchases once a few years ago and it was something like $40 for one month. NUTTY!

And of course if none of this appeals to you at all I encourage you to completely ignore me and my zealot's wackiness for bringing down the Consumer Consuming Index. You can also join in the office pool that's betting against me, although I assure you it will be a waste of your money. I am SO up for this challenge!

Posted by laurie at May 28, 2008 9:01 AM