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Living Happily with Less Stuff – To Buy or Not to Buy

Don’t look now but stuff is sneaking back into your minimalist house.

If you are serious about living more lightly on Earth with less stuff, getting a grip on your shopping and buying habits is crucial.

Otherwise, while you are divesting yourself of things that are not necessary to your life, more stuff could be creeping back into your house without you noticing it until you realize you need to declutter, again. Sigh.

The way to own less stuff may seem simple. Stop buying stuff. However, you and I have been honing our shopping and buying practices over years or decades so they are ingrained habits that may take some effort to change.

Shopping and Buying are Habits

Desiring to own less stuff does not magically morph you into a different person who shops only when you really, really need something. I did not automatically cut up my credit cards, banish window-shopping from my life, or delete my online shopping accounts (but if you did, do tell).

I would say I am a careful and mindful shopper, at least most of the time. You may feel you are too. The thing is that making individual mindful purchases can add up to a lot of stuff. By evaluating your purchases over some length of time, you may be surprised at how much stuff you do actually buy even though you do not think you do.

Understanding your habits so you can determine what changes you need to make means answering some questions for yourself like “What am I buying and why? How much money am I spending on stuff? Do I buy more things in stores or online? Do I make impulse buys? What and/or who influences my decision to buy something or not?”

If you are ready to get started assessing your shopping and buying habits, you are going to need some data.

Shopping and Buying Data Collection Ideas

I suggest doing an assessment after you at least begin minimizing your material belongings because you will already be motivated to buy less.

Pick a timeframe that is long enough so that you have ample data to sink your teeth into but short enough that you will actually do an assessment. I am nine months into the yearlong period I chose.

Factual information like what you bought, where, when, and how much it cost is available on receipts, credit card statements, online banking downloads, checkbook registers, and personal finance software reports.

Determining why you bought what you did and what/who influenced your buying decisions are subjective. We, humans, excel at justifying our behavior so you may have to ask yourself these questions multiple times to drill down to the actual answers.

After pondering a way to collect my own data, I decided to record items as I bought them. I am a fan of spreadsheets because they make it easy to slice and dice your data so I created a journal using a spreadsheet program (see example below).

If you rolled your eyes at the word spreadsheet, there are other ways to gain insight into your shopping and buying habits. For instance, you can toss your receipts into a bowl or basket after each shopping trip and go through them once a month contemplating why you bought the items you did. Or you can snap a photo with your smartphone of each item you buy and post it on social media with the reason you bought it. Be creative and please share ideas for other spreadsheet adverse readers.

My “Buy, No Buy” Journal Assessment

My initial idea was to record the things that I bought as well as the things I thought about buying but did not. I also chose to include purchases I made for our home or that were for the family’s use but to identify which was which.

I ran into trouble with my “no buy” items right away. For instance, just before going on vacation, I eyed a travel size Waterpik for several minutes at a store but did not buy it. I realized that since you do not get a receipt for items you do not buy, I would have to record information while I was in a store or on a shopping website. Besides what about all the stuff I would look at briefly and not buy. I decided it was not worth devoting time to this activity but it did reinforce my appreciation for the ubiquity of stuff available for buying.

Below is an excerpt from my journal showing how I set it up followed by a few insights I gained about myself.

Buy Journal Excerpt

Need is Subjective

Although I think I needed many of the items I bought, I recognize that need is a subjective term that we must each define for ourselves.

For instance, I owned a pair of tennis shoes with a variety of rips and tears and worn out tread. Technically the shoes were still wearable but I felt their useful life was over so I threw them in the trash and bought a new pair.

Several months ago, I bought a pair of gardening gloves made from bamboo. I already had gardening gloves so I did not need them. When I was completing my journal entry, I admitted to myself that I bought them because I was curious about material made from bamboo.

Fitbit One Wireless Fitness TrackerHere is a recent example. Just last week, I lost my fitness activity tracker when it fell out of my pocket during the day. Do I actually need a fitness activity tracker? Counting steps, stairs, and distance is part of my daily routine and it helps me with being fit and active. I felt I needed a replacement so I bought one (which is now safely clipped onto my pocket).

Insight: If I ask myself why I really, really want to buy something while I am at the store or on a shopping website, I can avoid making purchases I later regret.

Shopping on Vacation

I suppose it makes sense that you would take your more free-spirited self on vacation. After all, the point of taking a vacation is to have fun, see the sights, and enjoy time with your friends and family.

I pulled these 14 books from my bookcase to represent the books I bought on vacation.
I pulled these 14 books from my bookcase to represent the books I bought on vacation.

Apparently, my free-spirited vacation self also takes a freer approach to shopping. This year I discovered that it was not souvenir buying that tripped me up; it was other shopping. For example, even though I have unread books at home, I bought 14 books (new and used).

The books would not fit in my luggage so I shipped them to myself from a post office before I got on the train to come home (the joke is on me because they were lost in transit).

Insight: I decided that it would help me curtail my vacation shopping if I set limits for myself before I leave home.

Buying Stuff for Insurance

Part of my minimizing strategy was to evaluate all of my own stuff and as much of our household and jointly owned stuff as my spouse could handle. This process led to some interesting scenarios one of which involved our dishes.

We have been eating off the same Mikasa dishes for decades. Some pieces have been broken and our pattern was discontinued long ago. Although I have toyed with the idea of getting new dishes off and on, once we completed our dishes review I gave up that idea forever.

When the reality hit me that I am now committed to using the same dishes for the rest of my life, it occurred to me that inevitably more pieces will be broken in the future and at some point, we might need replacements. As a kind of insurance against ending up with mismatched dishes in the future, I decided to buy some extra pieces now while they are available and relatively affordable.

Author's Dishes, Glasses, and Flatware after Vinegar Cleaning
I also spruced up our existing dishes, glasses, and flatware with a vinegar bath. Voilà, our dishes look almost new.

After surfing the web in search of new and used pieces, I bought 6 dinner plates, 4 salad plates, 4 soup bowls, 3 fruit bowls, 1 serving bowl, a replacement sugar bowl (I had the lid), and a replacement salt and pepper shaker set. I did show a modicum of restraint by not buying more teacups, saucers, or a replacement butter dish.

During my assessment, I had to acknowledge to myself that I bought the equivalent of about five place settings because having matching dishes is important to me. Now, we need to be really careful so they will last for the next thirty years or so.

Insight: Each one of us must define what living happily with fewer possessions means to us. I also realize that I need to beware of situations that encourage me to buy things for insurance.

Summary

Even though I feel like I am hyper-vigilant about shopping and buying stuff, I did indeed buy stuff over the past nine months. Reviewing my purchases resulted in a few laughs and some valuable insights that I hope will help me in my quest to transform my relationship with belongings.

Of course, your insights will likely be different from mine but I hope you see the benefit in doing your own shopping and buying habits assessment.

Featured Image at Top: Green Buy Button on Computer Keyboard – Photo Credit Dreamstime/Alisa Karpova

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Coastal Cleanup Day – Picking up Litter is Empowering

Wherever there is litter, there is an opportunity to pick it up.

Picking up trash during a beach, creek, or park cleanup day is an easy and rewarding way to do something good for the environment and your local economy.

A few weeks ago when I saw a Coastal Cleanup Day notice in my social media feed, instead of clicking on the signup link I scrolled down the page feeling irritated and frustrated.

I was thinking things like, “Geez, if people didn’t litter, then the beaches wouldn’t need to be cleaned up every dang year!” and “Why do people pile up trash around a full trash can instead of looking for another one or just taking their trash home and putting it in their own garbage can?” The thought of people tossing trash out of their car windows as they are driving along our coastline made me feel infuriated and powerless.

After fuming for a day or so, I decided I was not powerless and that I could do something about litter so I signed up for a Coastal Cleanup Day event where I live in San Luis Obispo County, CA. I talked my spouse into participating, too.

Once I had taken this positive step, I returned to thinking about how litter affects people, the environment, and local economies.

Why Do People Litter?

Even though I believe, everyone has littered at one time or another I doubt most of us would say we think littering is a beneficial act.

At the dinner table one night, I posed the question “Why do people litter?” to my family. The responses included people do not care, it is a small crime easy to get away with, and people think someone else will clean up after them.

I think that pretty much sums it up.

What are the Consequences of Litter?

Someone taking the devil’s advocate approach might say, “So what if there is a discarded candy wrapper, plastic bag, or Styrofoam cup on a beach, in a street gutter, or on a hiking trail? Is it really hurting anyone?”

Yes, it is.

Litter Begets Litter

Litter mysteriously seems to attract more litter.

If one person discards his or her empty single-use plastic water bottle on the wall between the beach and the sidewalk, it sends a message for other people to do the same. If someone discards their old mattress in a vacant lot or on open land, it attracts other unwanted items and the area becomes an unofficial trash dump creating a dangerous and potentially toxic situation for the people living near it.

Conversely, if people clean up a trashed area it shows that someone cares and people are more apt to keep it clean.

Litter is Dangerous

In many cases, the littered items are harmful to the people, pets, and other living creatures that encounter them. Below are examples of dangerous litter people leave behind.

  • Sharp objects – fishing hooks, pieces of broken glass, and syringes
  • Entangling items – fishing line, six-pack holders, straws, string, and plastic bags
  • Ingestible bits – cigarette butts, bottle caps, and tiny pieces of plastic and Styrofoam
Litter is Costly

Whom do you think pays for removing litter from public places, dealing with plastic bags clogging up storm drains, and clearing up unofficial trash dumps? You do one way or another.

Any town, city, or region that relies on tourism cannot afford to have visitors deterred by yucky debris filled beaches, parks, or campgrounds. That means diverting tax dollars and fees to clean up trash instead of paying for community programs, fixing potholes, or doing hiking trail maintenance.

Picking up Litter is Empowering

When Saturday, September 16 rolled around, my spouse and I slathered on sunscreen, grabbed some gloves, a tub, and a pair of kitchen tongs (instant trash picker upper), and headed for the Cleanup Day check-in spot at our local beach.

After turning in our release waivers, the site volunteer Dave gave us a tiny pencil and a sheet to record the different types of trash we picked up. Voilà we were now citizen scientists collecting data on marine debris.

Tub of Trash Picked Up on Coastal Cleanup Day September, 16, 2017I was in charge of making tick marks on the trash sheet as my spouse picked various pieces of trash and carried the tub. I did pick up trash, too.

At the end of 2 ½ hours, we had covered our self-assigned section of beach and the adjacent park and we had filled up our tub about half full of trash.

The most numerous identifiable litter items we encountered were cigarette butts, bottle caps (metal and plastic), and aluminum can pull tabs (I was surprised by these because I thought they were supposed to stay on the can). Combined we found about 40 cup lids, straws, pieces of plastic flatware, plastic single-use water bottles, plastic bags, and picnic plates and cups.

We picked up hundreds of little pieces of plastic, Styrofoam, and paper that had begun life as candy wrappers, picnic ware, coffee cups, potato chip bags, and take out containers. The number of little plastic labels that are put on fruit and vegetables that we found lying around the park was astonishing. To me, all the small bits were the most worrisome. They are lightweight so they can blow all over the place and they can be picked up and eaten by curious and unsuspecting toddlers, pets, birds, fish, and other critters who live on land and in the water.

Comb, Clothespin, Chess Piece Picked Up on Coastal Cleanup Day September, 16, 2017One of the fill-in-the-blank boxes on our trash form was for recording the most unusual item we collected.

Our findings of a dog collar, a filthy sweatshirt, a clothespin, a comb, and a chess game pawn were not especially unusual but I bet the person who owned the chess set was bummed when they discovered they were missing a piece.

We returned to the gathering spot to weigh our trash, turn in our tick mark sheet, and thank Dave.

I was glad we participated in the Cleanup Day for a number of reasons. Leaving behind a litter-free stretch of beach and a park for everyone to enjoy gave me a sense of accomplishment. My spouse had spotted and cleaned up a broken beer bottle, which could have given someone a nasty cut. Maybe we saved a seabird from ensnaring itself in the tangled fishing line and hook we picked up off the beach. Perhaps someone who had seen us that day picking up trash was inspired to make the extra effort to walk to a trashcan to throw something away instead of just leaving it on the ground.

People littering still ticks me off.

However, I can empower myself to do something about it and so can you. Wherever there is litter, there is an opportunity to set a good example by picking it up.

See you next year.

Featured Image at Top: Leffingwell Landing State Park and Beach in Cambria, CA (our cleanup site)

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