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

Related Posts

Greening Your Vacation – Souvenirs and Shopping

We cannot shop our way to a sustainable world.

Free up your time for actual vacationing and reduce your environmental footprint by greening your souvenir and vacation shopping habits.

If you are like most people, you probably have between two to four weeks to go on vacation each year. That is not a lot of time for connecting with your family and friends, seeing new sights, revisiting favorite places, relaxing, and refreshing your spirit.

So, why would you or I spend our vacation time shopping?

I posit that consumerism is so entrenched in our society that we will use our limited and precious vacation time for shopping without really thinking about it.

Nowadays, even rural areas and national parks have gift shops and visitor centers so we can shop even while we are “getting away from it all.”

Besides using up our vacation time, buying at the American or Western level is using up the planet’s resources at a faster clip than Earth can renew them while wreaking environmental havoc on people and other living things.

After a recent trip to Oregon with two long-time friends, I decided to evaluate my souvenir and vacation shopping from that trip. Below is a synopsis of my findings. At the end of the post, you will have an opportunity to evaluate your own souvenir and vacation shopping habits.

My Souvenir and Vacation Shopping Evaluation

Interestingly, at least to me, it was non-souvenir shopping that tripped me up the most.

Souvenirs

Souvenirs Bought on Vacation

My ideal souvenir is a refrigerator magnet so I was on the lookout for one with a quilt on it at the Sisters outdoor quilt show. I did not find one, but I did spot and buy a lovely quilted postcard donated by a quilter for a Sisters High School scholarship fundraiser.

I found my souvenir refrigerator magnet in the Crater Lake National Park visitor center. It has a beautiful photo of the deep blue almost purple colored Crater Lake. Showing some restraint, I did not buy a Christmas tree ornament, jigsaw puzzle (I love puzzles), coffee mug, a book about Crater Lake, or a hat I eyed for a while as I stood in the checkout line.

Near the end of our trip, while we were walking through a Chinese garden in Portland, we came across a young woman playing a Chinese zither. Her music was captivating. I saw she had CD’s for sale and I snapped one up.

Lavender Farm

On a sweltering day in the upper 80s, my friends and I decided to visit a lavender farm. The couple who own the farm shared their knowledge about lavender freely and offered us ice-cold lemonade and melt-in-your-mouth shortbread cookies.

I was not interested in buying a lavender item in their small store, but I felt obligated somehow to buy something from these delightful people. Also influencing me was my desire to support small and local businesses. Why did I feel that just thanking them as we were leaving would be inadequate?

In the end, I purchased a small metal tin of tea with lavender justifying to myself that it is consumable.

Metal Tin with Tea and Lavender Bought on VacationThis is just one example of the millions of purchase transactions occurring at any given moment where the buyer does not really want and/or need the item but is purchasing it out of a sense of obligation either to the seller or to a person they intend to give it to.

Sigh.

Quilting, Book, and Cross-Stitch Stores

One of my friends is a quilter and the three of us like reading and cross-stitching so we often build browsing at quilting, book, and cross-stitch stores into our vacation plans.

In the two quilting stores we visited, I admired the fabrics, tools, and sample quilts with no desire to buy anything, whew.

I pulled these 14 books from my bookcase to represent the books I bought on vacation that got lost in transit.
I pulled these 14 books from my bookcase to represent the books I bought on vacation.

Unfortunately, I began a book-buying binge in Sisters with the purchase of a used book at a library sale and a new book signed by a local author who was signing copies of her books in a bookstore. I purchased four used books in Corvallis and eight more in Portland.

Fourteen books would not fit in my luggage so I ended up mailing the books to myself from a post office in Eugene before I boarded the train to come home (they were lost in transit).

I am a book lover so by not establishing a self-imposed limit on book purchases up front and then visiting multiple bookstores, I unintentionally set myself up for excessive book buying.

We visited two cross-stitch stores during our trip where I bought materials for two projects and a few embellishments (I could not resist the happy face buttons).

Materials forTwo Cross-Stitch Projects Bought on VacationThe weird thing is that I actually prefer finishing one cross-stitch project before buying materials and starting a new one. So, how did I end up with more projects? I think it was partly because, again, the store owners were friendly, helpful, and small business owners. Another and more interesting factor is that many cross-stitch enthusiasts, including my two friends, routinely have multiple projects going at the same time so even though no one told me I am a loser for doing one project at I time, I allowed this to influence me and purchased supplies for projects I am not ready to start yet.

Hmmm.

The Bottom Line

Evaluating my purchases and thinking about why I made them was an eye opening experience. The bottom line for me is that as a person trying to live happily with fewer possessions, I sure bought a lot of stuff on my vacation.

Consumerism is a powerful force that is difficult to overcome, even for a committed environmentalist like me.

Humans excel at justifying our actions and I even wrote a whole paragraph justifying all my purchases, like how I will donate the books to the library after I read them. I later deleted that paragraph. The thing is regardless of how much pleasure you or I might take in the stuff we buy on vacation (or any other time), we cannot shop our way to a sustainable world. Changing our relationship with stuff and shopping less is critical to maintaining a habitable planet now and in the future.

Prior to my next vacation, I intend to set shopping limits for myself before I even leave my house.

Now, it is your turn to evaluate your souvenir and vacation shopping habits.

Evaluate Your Souvenir and Vacation Shopping Habits

Take a moment to think back over your most recent vacation and ask yourself the following questions.

  1. What did you buy for yourself and why?
  2. Did you buy gifts for people back home and if so what and why?
  3. Was most of your shopping for souvenirs or non-souvenirs (e.g. art, books, wine)?
  4. How much time did you spend shopping?
  5. Did you spend more money than you felt comfortable spending?
  6. Are you wearing, using, or otherwise enjoying the items you bought?
  7. Which items, if any, ended up in the trash, back of a closet, or in a charity box?
  8. Did you eat and drink the edible products you purchased and brought home?
  9. Were your traveling companions enthusiastic about shopping?
  10. What actions, if any, do you plan to take to curtail souvenir and vacation shopping on your next trip?

Now, imagine spending your next vacation actually vacationing.

Featured Image at Top: Souvenir Store in New York, NY with an ATM Sign next to a Replica of the Statue of Liberty (hmmm) – Photo Credit iStock/anouchka

Related Posts

Resources