As my shopping fast draws to an end, here are some thoughts on consumption habits and the place of material items in a simple life for this final monthly update. These are first thoughts to guide me through the future of my purchase habits and material collections, and I hope they can also help if you are looking at yours.
At the beginning of the shopping fast, I asked myself the following question: what can justify a new purchase when you already own all you need, and being "just right" isn't enough of a reason anymore?
Over the course of six months, not only did I wonder about what kind of consumer I want to be, but I also wondered what really mattered, beyond the mere question of buying material items. I will have more general takeaways to write about this shopping fast in an upcoming post, but this sixth and final monthly update will be focused on material purchases and the evolution of my values toward items in a simple life.
What to Buy When You Have EnoughFirst and foremost, my main learning is to buy much less once you have enough. But to stop buying altogether is a difficult answer - because we have passions, social needs, desires - and, even by cultivating the feeling of "enough", it is normal to wish for the occasional material pleasure.
I believe in cultivating this in moderation though, allowing time to desire, plan, buy, then enjoy the new purchase. My example is Kiki's pair of red shoes, for those of you who watched Kiki's Delivery Service. Here is a quick summary of possible reasons for purchase in my version of a simple life.
- New Needs & Replacements: That is the first, obvious reason for new purchases, but which happens more rarely as we grow up, understand our real needs, and buy quality, sturdy items which don't wear out that quickly. This can include: material for a new activity or vacation in a new place with never before encountered climate or conditions.
- Optimizing the Current Collections: Discovered during the fast as I tried to optimize the 'use' part of my items: one well rounded addition to a collection can bring cohesion and enable a more regular use of my oldies. Examples: A warm coloured cardigan that increases the rotation of seldom worn cold coloured tops, a table lamp that makes you actually read more on that armchair that you never used before...
- Optimizing My Everyday Life: Some items, although not exactly filling an unfulfilled need per se, can vastly optimize my everyday life, either by making daily tasks and moments easier and more practical, or by adding a bit more tiny joys and pleasures. This kind of purchase can come from identifying a daily annoyance, and searching for ways to eliminate it. This can include virtually anything, organizational tools, storage, small pieces of furniture, kitchen appliances, beautiful books. A concrete example could be a set of good quality, well cutting knives to make preparing food much easier and quicker.
- A Meaningful Purchase: As I edited, sorted, dated my collection of items, I realized the longest lasting ones, may it be cultural items, furniture, decoration, clothing, are the ones which had a "meaning" when acquired - a present from a loved one, a piece for which I thought and saved for a long time, a trinket brought back from a great travel, a hand-made piece found by chance or gifted by the maker, valuable pieces handed down by older family members. Don't be afraid to give into that art purchase that resonated withyou instantly, this piece of jewerly from a small creator you found at an artist's market... Even though minimalism advocated to have as little emotional link to items as possible, it makes me happy to drink coffee in my great uncle's handmade set from Japan, wear the Comptoir des Cotonniers ballerinas which symbolize the acceptance of my small height, wear the watch from 2010 Valentine's day...
Of course, these reasons above shouldn't become excuses to keep buying more material items. But I believe it is an important part of simple life to ask yourself "why do I want to buy this"? In truth, most of the purchases I feel tempted to buy at a given moment can't really be justified by any of these points, and they help putting back a lot on shelves.
The Place of Material Items in a Simple Life
Beyond the questions about my shopping habits, this shopping fast - especially the second half of it, made me question the place of material items in a simple life. As I stated since the start of this experiment, one of my objectives was to make the most of the "use" part of the buy > use > discard consumerist cycle.
4 years after editing my collections of items, what do I do with the items I've decided to keep? Why have I kept these and not other ones? What is my emotional link to them, and what level of link to material items is healthy? All kinds of questions raised during this shopping fast, which you will probably hear about again on this blog. In the meantime, here is a summary of possible ideas on the subject, which I find helpful when I'm about to buy something new, to try and evaluate if it is going to be a solid purchase or a mistake:
- Items as Tools - In today's society, it feels like marketing is giving too many "magical powers" to items: if only you buy this awesome product, you'll feel more confident, desirable, you'll belong to a social group, get (wo)men, be happy, and carve your own identity. Items don't provide any of these results, you do, with your actions. Items are, first and foremost, tools to help us in our daily life.
- Consuming/Owning Material Items is OK - The difference between consumption and consumerism isn't about the items we buy, but why we buy them. Consumption is a healthy acquisition of needed items that fulfill basic needs, consumerism is a vain attempt to satisfy higher needs with the easy road of purchase instead of working on ourselves. Although I agree that consumerism usually makes us buy more items than healthy consumption does.
- A Conscious Consumer Chooses Who to Give Their Money To - What quality of items, and who I buy them from, is of increasing importance to me. Because it fulfills a need to make a difference, to support the environment and human rights. Because it is the power we have as consumers. As long as we keep buying from brands who make indecent margins on the back of sweatshop workers, they will keep producing unethical items. I noticed there is some fulfillment in purchasing items in line with my values, as often as possible.
- Aiming for Adequacy, not Perfection - As long as your current collection of items is adequate, no need to upgrade them, or to aim for "the best" object. In today's society, the best is always shifting and changing, and the definition of "perfect" always changes. However, adequacy is based on your own criteria, not external ones, so it feels much more stable.
- No Need for New Acquisitions - As I previously suggested, consumerism seems to put the emphasis on acquring something new, more than on owning the acquired object itself. In a simple life, it isn't really important to own the latest trendy item, or to buy something new regularly.
- Bringing the Joy Back to Material Items - Paradoxally, this overconsumption we are experiencing in today's society make us enjoy our items less, I find. We put our old items in storage, or discard them. We buy cheap stuff and don't realize the work and craftsmanship necessary to create them. In a simple life, a proper value is restored in objects - feeling grateful for what we own, thinking about the person who crafted it, enjoying the planning, saving, purchasing and using as we acquire less often, enjoying little moments of joy while we take the time to use these items.
- Creating Stories - As a follow-up of the point above, I believe owning fewer items, and getting rid of the unessential, helps enjoy what's left better, and that includes our collection of material items. But what really matters isn't the item itself, but the story, the meaning behind them. I can drink coffee in any cup, but knowing I got mine from a local craftsman makes me enjoy the moment better.
- Giving Objects their Proper Importance - Owning objects, being grateful for them and using them with joy doesn't mean they are of paramount importance in our life. In a simple life, we let objects improve our lives in the background while we enjoy what really matters: sharing moments with loved ones, learning skills, discovering places and cultural pieces, growing as a human being...
As a conclusion, I'll say I enjoyed this six-months fast, maybe because I like experiments, but also because I feel like I learned a lot about myself, and pushed toward further growth. I have a two-part Shopping Fast post mortem planned for the days to come, to start conversation on several learnings in further details.
As this fast draws to an end, my longer term objective is to make my purchase habits more "organic", flexible and adapted to my few needs, instead of having to take too much time planning, thinking and limiting as I did these past 6 months and will keep doing early 2015. After all, the goal of living a simple life is to spend less time thinking of purchases and more time for other pursuits...