Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Is less really more?

Three years ago I had closet full of shoes and nothing to wear. Since then I have simplified. Simplified, streamlined, downsized. At first it was a way to raise some quick cash after I got laid off but after a while it became a mission to reduce possessions. It was oddly therapeutic, this getting rid of things in my closet that had not seen the light of day in a long time. It was as much a letting go of the past, of memories, some cherished, some dreaded, as it was of the physical items themselves. The end result, fewer than 7 shoes and a handful of clothes that I allowed myself to keep, was oddly exhilarating. I felt liberated.

This got me thinking. Why are we so easily tempted to buy? Is it a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, the power of advertising or is it something else, an urge to be prepared, to hoard like squirrels hoard nuts or the ants stock up before a long winter? Is it some kind of a primitive drive to accumulate material possessions in order to differentiate us from the nomads? I don't know the answer. Maybe there is no good answer. What I do know is that in my case it wasn't the first, which made it simultaneously both easier and more difficult. Just as I didn't buy something to keep up with anyone I also often bought things just because I liked them and for no other reason.

I have come some ways from those days but I have to wonder, if I hadn't lost my job in 2003, what would have happened? First year out of school I bought just the basics. A mattress, a TV and a toaster. Next year I got a promotion and bought 2 suits and a couple of tops. And a cute little wallet because I had earned it. The year after that, the year of the big raise thanks to a career change that saw my annual income shoot up from 49k to 72k, brought an onslaught of stylish clothes and designer shoes. I had found my calling in shopping. This trend continued for a while. And then came 2003. Suddenly my company and my only source of income was gone. Evaporated into thin year like so many other companies facing financial and legal difficulties at that time. It was a turning point, one of the many in my life that I resented, resisted, regretted at the time but look back on with a sense of overwhelming gratitude. It changed me, subtly but surely.

Since I started working again I have started adding things back. Last year it was a pair of Marc Jacobs shoes and a Chanel compact. This year a Coach bag, a pair of BCBG shoes, tons of makeup I rarely use, new DVDs and CDs that I could just as easily rent or borrow. It's not stuff, it's reward for my hard work and determination, it's a measure of adversities I have overcome. I have earned it, haven't I?

The fallacy to seeing material possessions as reward, of seeking comfort or validation in them, even if you don't compare your wealth to anyone else's, is that sooner or later you start defining yourself by your possessions rather than by who you are. That's a slippery slope. I know this and I have a decent enough self-esteem not to slide too far down before I catch myself but still, every now & then I find myself caught between wanting the shiny pretty things that call my name from store windows (like the shoes yesterday) and the austerity of self-discipline (like not buying the shoes yesterday). Maybe what I need is balance. That elusive balance between simplicity and indulgence.

I remember once telling my mom jokingly and in the spirit of teenage rebellion that when I grew up I was going to live off of just 2 suitcases and a cabin bag. I would be free to go anywhere I wanted on a moment's notice. I would not be tied down by my possessions like so many people. Well, I guess you can say I have come to the slow and painful realization that that is a little impractical. Even if I could fit most things I am not sure how I will get the sink in there. But maybe there is a way. A compromise. I can't fit furniture or the sink or the tub in 2 suitcases, but how about personal possessions like clothes, shoes, CDs and books. I can do that.


At 10/26/2005 1:17 PM, Anonymous Jane Dough said...

Yes, less really is more. I also struggle with my posessions. Since purchasing my house I made a promise to myself that nothing would be stored in the basement or the attic. Only time will tell if I can keep that promise.

Keep up the good work.

At 10/26/2005 7:34 PM, Blogger Caitlin said...

Check out "Your money or your life" if you haven't already. They have a structure for helping you make decisions just like that. I"ll admit I don't follow it to the letter, but the essence of being able to judge the cost of something in terms of my time/life energy is something that stuck with me (well lots of things did)

It's a great book...even if you don't follow all the steps.

At 10/27/2005 7:46 AM, Anonymous nyc money said...

I wish I could shop and shop and shop. But then I would be broke. Now, I just stop going into stores, easiest way not to impulse purchase. I use to love going thru the sales racks at JCrew and Banana Republic, and buy a grey sweater that I basically already had. I figured it was only $30, what's the big deal.

At 10/27/2005 10:57 AM, Anonymous henry said...

Sometimes I miss the days of college, living on next to nothing. Living light. Now life is filled with five figure salaries and six figure homes. It can be overwhelming.

I just bought a house recently and I always have to tell myself to not buy things to fill up the rooms. I'm still actively downsizing my possessions and I don't even own that much. It's a constant battle. Got to keep in mind whats really important in life.


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