We are being buried by “stuff!” There is too much of unimportant material things lying everywhere—I see it all the time. Here at home, at my daughters’ homes, in neighbors’ garages as I drive past. To me, this stuff is not a symbol of wealth or comfort; rather, it is a symbol of excess. And it has become a burden. Direct mail brochures, delivered in our mailboxes, show us that we can have attractive wrought iron dish racks beside our sinks or small statues and fountains in our gardens. Hang this or that on your walls, buy 100 shoes for all occasions—in short, add comfort to your already comfortable lives! For the children, make certain they have everything so that they will somehow be smarter and happier—that is supposedly the best thing we can give them, and it is our duty to do it! And speaking of our goals for the children, when did being smart and attractive with few needs and all wants satisfied become what everyone has to have in order to be accepted? And if we are accepted, we of course will be happy...won't we?
The old saying, “Money does not buy happiness,” while still true, is too general I think. Money is important to have in order to realize the basic level of comfort—a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food in our stomachs—and in that respect it does provide us with peace of mind, a close cousin of happiness. But as I go along in this life, I am learning that material things don’t bring happiness (hearing this and knowing this can be two distinct experiences).
I honestly believe I was happier when I was barely making ends meet. Granted, I was just able to make ends meet—and that gave me a sense of relief so that I could concentrate on my emotional state of mind. And when I thought about where I was—sitting on a ledge somewhere near the top of the pit I had in the recent past fallen into—I appreciated how far I had come as I climbed up and away from fear and desolation. And that made me happy!
And now I have too much stuff! My goal this month is to go through my closets (I now have my clothes in three closets—summer and casual in one, dress-up and winter in another, and in the third closet I have the what-if-I-need-this-someday clothes.) to not only organize them but to weed them out. But I like having something to wear on any occasion, so this will not be easy! I remember when I was first divorced I did not buy anything new—not sweaters, pants, jackets, shoes, purses, nor even underwear—for over one year. I never even went to the mall. My girls had cast off some of their clothes, which I then went through and pulled some tops for myself. I have to say, I weighed about 20 pounds less than I do now so I looked good in the few outfits I had. I took my old shoes to have them repaired and I bought shoe polish. I mixed and matched until I was dizzy. And I liked what I saw in the mirror. So now I am realizing that if I would lose those 20 pounds not only would I ensure a more healthy body, I would not need so many clothes—I buy more clothes because I think that I am just one shopping trip away from finding something that will make me look better.
And then there is the old trap of having the latest thing on the market. We just bought a flat-screened television. The old television was not broken—although the built-in speakers were threatening to go out on us at any time, which proved to be a common-sense reason to go shopping for a new television. The screen is larger and very, very clear. But I must say, there aren't many quality programs on television these days. So we watch the news in high-definition, wide-screen, along with a few nature programs and a couple of sitcoms. And when people come over, there sits our flat-screen television set to prove we are not living in the 1970s—living in the 1970s is a fate worse than death, socially speaking.
And then there is the food! On average, Americans eat about three times as much per day as they need to in order to survive and be healthy. I am painfully aware of this in my journey to lose these 20 pounds. I compare today to my childhood—and I am certain the 1940s and 1950s were more bountiful than fifty years prior to that. I cannot remember eating other than three meals a day, except for a snack after school. I did not start grabbing a large bag of potato chips and munching on them in front of the television until I was about 17. In grammar school, I can remember my stomach growling just before lunch—there was a thrill of anticipation that very soon I would open my lunchbox to see what kind of sandwich my mother had made that day and have a cup of cold milk from my thermos. There was always either a banana or an apple in the lunchbox as well, and maybe a cookie or two. We did not have “snack” at our mid-morning recess—that was the time we ran around and played. After lunch, I didn’t eat again until I got home around three o’clock—and then it was a small healthy snack, usually accompanied by my favorite orange drink, “HiC,” which came in a large can (I don’t know what was in it because ingredient labels were not then required; it didn’t taste like real orange juice—but it was good). By dinner time I was famished again—my mother would cut up some raw vegetables for me to munch on while I waited for dinner to be ready. I always drank milk, not sodas, and never had chips or candy (honestly!). The saying in those days: “Eat to live, don’t live to eat.”
Today, I have the opportunity to eat out at least two or three times a week—and it is tempting! I really have to work at not stocking my pantry shelf with salty snacks and cookies, along with boxed meals—the kind where you add water or milk or soup.
Within the past forty years, we have everything at our fingertips. Heaven forbid we should have to get up and walk to get anything! Telephone ringing? Reach over and pick up one of your cordless phones (if you didn’t leave it in the bathroom). Research? Internet. The big game? Television. A cooked meal? Micro-waved packaged dinners, frozen packaged dinners, take-out. Communication and Internet access? Cell phone/iPhone. Raining outside? Drive to the corner. Hot out? Turn on air conditioning/dip in the pool.
And we are drinking more, taking more medication, hiring more therapists, divorcing more, gaining more weight, and having more plastic surgery. “What is wrong? Fix me!” we cry. Damn.
The more we have, the more we have to display it, maintain it, clean it, store it, donate it. That’s what we have when we get more stuff—after the honeymoon with it is over (and that is usually a customary two to three weeks, but may be shorter depending on the cost).
To really win and feel the happiness, we have to get past the pressure of having something we really don’t need. Not long ago, while waiting for my guy to finish talking to a computer salesman at Best Buy, I wandered over to their appliance department looking for an energy-saving, top-loading washer like the one my daughter bought a couple of years ago. A young saleswoman approached, asking if she could help me. When she led me to the washing machine (sitting beside an energy-saving dryer) I had described, I chatted with her about the fact that I still have a dryer from the mid-eighties and that my washing machine is about 17 years old. I looked at the sales tags on the new appliances—obviously it costs more to get a new machine than it did nearly two or three decades ago, so seeing the total figure of nearly $2,000 wasn’t a surprise. But then the saleswoman said something that brought me up short. She absolutely marveled at the fact that my appliances were still in good working order. Then she told me that these two new appliances have been built to last 10 years. Okay, so my old machines are not so efficient and I am spending a few more dollars a year to run them—but they are working and they are paid for! I smiled and did the old “weight scales” maneuver—held out both hands and lifted them opposingly up and down: “My current working machines, paid for. New energy-efficient machines costing over $2,000 with a life-span of 10 years. Which to choose? Hmmm.” When my old machines stop working, I will go shopping—but not until then.
Now, I did replace all my old, drafty windows in my condo early last summer. But not only are they saving me heating and air conditioning costs, they have added to the value of my property. And, I received a healthy tax credit! And these windows will last until they tear this place down. This is the kind of material stuff that is smart to buy.
I am still driving my third car (third car in 45 years), which is a 1997 Honda Civic that I bought used in November of 1999. I stopped driving my previous two cars when they were involved in fender-benders and were not worth the cost of the repair. I seriously would love to own a “fun” car like a convertible, or the latest model of a luxury car—but spending money on buying a car is not efficient! And my car gets me to where I want to go. Would I honestly be deliriously happy if I drove around town in a new car every three or five years? Nope.
I do believe in spending money on travel, however. It is one of the few materialistic pleasures that actually transforms you. And you don’t have to worry about the upkeep (well, except your body....).
See a similar article I just read on the subject that refers more to packratting but it's interesting: http://www.paulgraham.com/stuff.html.