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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Can Eating Ugly Fruits and Vegetables End Hunger and Food Waste?

Beauty is only skin deep is true for food, too.

Stopping food waste at the farm is a positive step towards ending hunger in the United States. Eating ugly fruits and vegetables is one way you can help.

Thinking about issues as far-reaching and multifaceted as hunger and food waste can be overwhelming. You may feel like you cannot do much about them. The thing is that even if a problem is huge and complex you can learn about a small aspect of it and then take action.

For this post, I chose eating ugly fruits and vegetables because I believe that our perception of what constitutes edible food influences our decisions all along the food chain.

This post provides a 30,000-foot look at hunger, food waste, and the environment so you can get a grip on the big picture. It also includes a section on food aesthetics and ideas about how you can participate in the ugly food movement.

For readers wanting more information, you can find links to reports, articles, and videos at the end of the post.

A 30,000-Foot Look at Hunger, Food Waste, and the Environment

I have a love hate relationship with data and statistics. Information is necessary for identifying problems, figuring out what is causing them, and measuring solutions to find out whether they are working or not. What worries me is that the people counted in statistics can too easily become just numbers in a database instead of living breathing people with lives and loved ones. Please keep this in mind as you review the information below.

Hunger

Over 42 million people in the United States live in a food-insecure household, which is government-speak for these people do not have enough food to eat on a regular basis. It is hard to get your arms around 42 million people (13% of our population), but chances are you know one or more of these 42 million people, even though you might not know they go hungry sometimes (one of these people could even be you).1

There are many reasons that people go hungry in the United States mostly having to do with not having enough money to buy healthy food or not having access to it or both. One part of the problem is that affordable fresh fruits and vegetables are not available and affordable for everyone.

Food Waste

The United States spends over $218 billion (yes, billion) growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten.Reducing food waste even 15% would be enough food to feed 25 million Americans.4

Farmers do not even harvest over 10 million tons of food a year.2 These fruits, vegetables, and other crops are left to rot in fields and orchards, fed to livestock animals, or sent to landfills. One in five fruits and vegetables do not get eaten, at least not by a human.3

Environment

Putting food on American tables eats up 10% of our total energy budget, uses 50% of our land, and gulps 80% of our freshwater, yet 40% of the food in the United States goes uneaten.4

Farmers apply tons of synthetic chemicals and toxins to food crops during all stages of growth including fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and a host of other substances intended to either promote growth or kill something. Land, air, and water pollution cause life and death problems like cancer in people, ocean dead zones, and bee colony collapse. 5, 6, 7

As you can see, these are serious and huge issues.

Next, let’s bite off a manageable chunk (pun intended) of the food waste problem that we can do something about.

Food Aesthetics – Picky, Picky

Your food selection criteria are highly influenced by the federal government and food distributors and retailers.

The U. S. Department of Agriculture issues voluntary food grade standards and most food distributors and retailers adhere to these standards even though they are not required to (in most cases).

These standards cover a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, and grains, both fresh and processed. The standards determine what are acceptable sizes, shapes, colors, and other attributes depending on what kind of food it is. The general idea is that standardizing food quality and appearance makes it easier to market food and provide customers with what they want.

Standards probably do make buying and selling food easier for everyone in the food system, except perhaps for farmers. Unfortunately, it also creates picky food shoppers and leads to mountains of edible food decomposing in fields and landfills across the country.

In all likelihood, you grew up eating these calibrated fruits and vegetables. I did. Today as you and I push our shopping carts around the produce section in our local grocery stores our learned preferences and biases influence our selections.

Faced with a scarred nectarine or a three-legged carrot we may frown and not actually view it as an edible piece of food. It is not our fault; after all, we received training from a powerful industry with a massive advertising budget.

Beauty is Only Skin Deep is True for People and Food

It is not easy to overcome automatically avoiding foods that do not match your preconceived notion of acceptable food appearance. Like changing any habit, it requires making a different choice repeatedly until it becomes routine.

Take a potato for instance. Once you peel, cook, and mash a potato it looks like mashed potatoes regardless of what the whole potato looked like at the store. If you consistently buy potatoes with odd-looking bumps, at some point they may just register as potatoes in your mind instead of imperfect potatoes.

Below are photos of some ugly carrots I bought. I sliced two for a snack and cut up a few to use in a stir-fry vegetable dish. Can you tell which of the ugly carrots I used?

Wider acceptance of so-called ugly fruits and vegetables could lead to several positive outcomes.

  • Farmers – harvesting ugly crops and selling them at discounted prices increases revenue and reduces food waste in the field.
  • Cooks and Chefs – buying and incorporating ugly food into recipes and menus reduces costs, builds market demand, and helps spread the word.
  • Food Shoppers – requesting and buying ugly produce builds market demand at the retail level making fresh fruits and vegetables more widely available and affordable.
  • Food Retailers – expanding offerings to include ugly food brings in additional revenue, creates goodwill, and reduces food waste.
  • Food Non-Profits – keeping more food in the system at a lower cost enables organizations to provide healthy and nutritious food for a larger number of hungry people.

Okay, sounds good, now what?

What Can You Do?

You have an opportunity to join the fledging ugly food movement in the United States and take part in reducing food waste and building market demand for ugly and affordable fruits and vegetables. Here are a few ideas to help you get you started.

  • Buy ugly produce when you can find it at the store or farmers market. Do not worry if you cannot bring yourself to buy a really weird looking fruit or vegetable, start with something easy like a curvy cucumber.
  • Ask the produce manager or store manager at your local grocery market if they have imperfect looking produce for sale and if not ask them to try stocking it.
  • Sign up for an ugly food box service that delivers to your home or workplace or that you can swing by and pick up. Keep it local.
  • Make a tasty dish using ugly produce and share your recipe and before and after pictures with your friends and family and on social media.
  • Volunteer to pick ugly crops donated by a farmer, pack boxes with ugly fruits and vegetables at a food bank, or help make meals with ugly produce at a shelter.

Your willingness to buy and eat ugly fruits and vegetables may not end hunger and food waste in the United States, but you can be part of the ripple that can turn into a wave of change.

You never know, you might begin to look at a bruised apple or a container of leftovers in a whole new light.

Featured Image at Top: Pile of Raw Ugly Carrots – Photo Credit Shutterstock/farbled

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References

  1. Food Security Status of U.S. Households in 2015, USDA Economic Research Service, 2016
  2. A Roadmap to Reduce U.S. Food Waste by 20 Percent, ReFed, 2016
  3. How Californians Are Fighting Food Waste on the Farm, at the Store and at Home, by Danny Jensen, KCET, 04/05/17
  4. Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, by Dana Gunders, NRDC, 08/2012
  5. As Trump’s EPA Takes Shape, Here’s Your Pesticide Cheat Sheet, by Elizabeth Grossman, Civil Eats, 02/02/17
  6. “Dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico is biggest ever, by Ian Hendy, The Conversation, 08/11/17
  7. Is America’s most common pesticide responsible for killing our bees?, Alison Moodie, The Guardian, 02/05/17

Resources