04 June 2015

One Year Later: Simple Consumption

Personal picture // Summer 2014 in Provence

Does it make sense to speak about "simple consumption" when minimalism and simple living is about consuming less and focusing on other life areas? Well, just like a shopping fast is rather a recasting, most people who lead a simple life in our society still need to purchase some items. One year after I decided to start a six month fast experiment, here are a few ideas on what "consumption" bas become in a simple life.

The Mindset

First and foremost, the major change with simplicity is the mindset towards objects and purchasing new items. As I wrote in details last year, to me consumerism is about the acquisition of new items, the best, the most fashionable, the newest, the latet high-tech, the most trending brand... More than the object itself, the use and place it will have in your life, a consumerist attitude is about keeping up with the Joneses, making new acquisitions to impress people or soothe a flinching self esteem for example.

With simple living, objects get back to their place: the acquisition of a new item is based on internal criteria - what do I need, what are my ethics, what do I like best, what characteristics do I favor - rather than a need for social acceptance or to feel 'up to date'.

Concretely, how does this mindset evolution reflect on consumption habits in a simple life? I can only talk about myself here, but I hope it's enough to start a trail of thoughts and discussion for you too.

First, the reasons to purchase an item have changed. It doesn't mean my taste have suddenly changed, or that the objects themselves are objectively superior to what I used to buy before simplifying my life. It means the objects I choose to buy are more adequate to my actual lifestyle and preferences, which means fewer purchase mistakes, and an overall better use of what I own.

It also means I approach acquisitions with a different mindset. Two examples to make it clear, as it's difficult to express in general terms here:

  • Say I'm looking for a pair of summer flats for objective reasons (it's hot and my old pair broke). Before, I would look at the sales rack, find a pair from one of these "Masstige" brands (expensive because well perceived but mass produced in China or wherever) because I know my colleagues know about that brand, and think I made a deal because it was 50% off. Only, the pair still costs 150€, it's uncomfortable and one year later it's in the bin.

  • Now, same situation in a simple life. I know I'll need a pair of summer flats for the warmer months - I'll make a (usually mental) list of characteristics before I set out, and, instead of going shopping now, I wait for the occasion to stumble upon a pair within my taste (because let's be honest, unless I don't have any shoes at all, no need is so immediate it can't wait a few weeks). If it is from a brand I don't know about, but ticks all my boxes, I don't mind. 

The end result is the same: a new pair of summer shoes. But the mindset, and as a consequence the money spent and the durability of the pair, are different. This actually happened - I remember getting a pair of Sandro ballerinas at a sales rack a few years ago, without preparation, because it was on sale and it was a brand my colleague were talking about. It didn't make the distance - not because that brand is objectively bad (I never purchased again from them so I wouldn't know) - but because my mindset, my reasons for purchase, were a fertile soil for purchase mistakes. I didn't like the style as much as I thought, and they were awfully uncomfortable. I hope this examples makes the concept easier to understand.

The "Acquisition" Process

As a consequence of this mindset evolution, I found the acquisition process has evolved in a simple life. How much time does the average person spends, in a week or a month, checking out e-shops and brand collections or catalogues, checking out sales sites like Groupon (or Ventes Privées in France), opening newsletter and checking the content advertised, looking for sales, crafting wishlists, planning out this and that?

Since I started simplifying my life, and even more so after the fast experiment, I realized how much less time I spend planning new acquisitions. I no longer keep an eye on sales operations from my favourite brands, click on adlinks from blogs, keep a wishlist on my notebook, or plan a "shopping afternoon" in town to check my favourite stores. Platforms like Pinterest have become purely inspirational, and I no longer have purchase lists on Amazon.

Also, I more rarely feel the need to "check out shops" when I go to an unkown city or neighborhood. I don't even buy items at airports anymore, something I used to love doing because I'm a sucker for travel size items. For example, when I went to Ireland last August for my cousin's wedding, we went to town at some point during the long week-end as tourists. I thought I might check out if they have nice little shops, but once there, strolling along the river and enjoying the sights, I realized I didn't care for shopping at all.

It doesn't mean you don't acquire any items at all when living simply. In a way, acquiring new items is no longer that important anymore. In my case, there are two types of situation when I acquire new material items: 

  • Either there is an identified need to fill in, and I do a little bit of research to determine my criteria and priorities (must have, nice to have, for bigger or unusual purchases I look for consumer advice etc.). Once determined either I plan for a trip because it's urgent, or I keep it at the back of my mind for future reference.

  • Or I happen to stumble upon something unplanned, a nice little souvenir, a tea cup, a mineral or whatever, and I decide it is worth the price and has a place in my home.

In both cases, there isn't too much overthinking - I think overthinking purchases is an enemy of simplicity - and there is little place for mistakes or regrets (even though those aren't completely eliminated, let's be realistic) because I have prepared, I know myself well enough, and I base my purchases on internal criteria and not external ones.

Is "Quality over Quantity" a Myth?

The most well-known effect of simplification on item acquisition is that mantra "quality over quantity". However, I find this concept has sometimes been distorted, especially when it comes to clothing. "Buy one 200€ shirt instead of 10 20€ ones".

First, I think this mindset focuses too much on cost. I'm sure some 20€ shirts are more adequate than 200€ ones, depending on what you plan to do with it. Besides, with these "Masstige" brands (it means mass-prestige, giving some prestige to the masses, get it?) I mentioned above, many items are overpriced on brand notoriety, therefore the cost of an item is hardly a reliable metric for an item's quality. Besides, this mantra becomes too often an excuse to get expensive items without further careful consideration as to whether it is actually adequate. And I'm not judging here, I have fallen into this pitfall myself.

Second, what does "quality" means? Does it means a fabric as noble as possible? A perfect cut? Something hand-made? Where do you fit ethics and environmental considerations in all this? If you are looking for a sturdy shirt to go trekking, one to wear daily as you clean the house and go gardening, or one to go to the office with, surely your criteria will he highly different. Try to take care of a new born with a 200€ silk shirt instead of having 10 laundry-machine OK 20€ ones and we'll see which option is the simplest...

I do like the initial concept behind this "Quality over Quantity" mantra though. The idea is to say, invest in a quality item which will be sturdier, more comfortable, longer lasting - basically, doing its job better - than getting several low quality ones, which will be clumsy, impractical, and which you'll have to change often. I'm all for avoiding cheap mass-consumption items when possible, and, even when I was a student with limited income, I've always prefered saving for the "real thing" (for example an actual leather bag) rather than setting for one or several knock-offs.

However, I believe that "quality" in that context may not be the best term. Basically, I prefer one adequate item, even if it isn't cheap, rather than collecting an amount of badly finished items for the sake of diversity. But it also works for well-known brands: I prefer one adequate item, even if it comes from an unknown brand or an unfancy shop, rather than an "iconic" item which won't be practical for me.  So, rather than "quality over quantity", I'd broaden the expression and say "Adequacy above all" perhaps?

The concrete effect on a "simple consumption", is that, in my humble opinion, simple living isn't necessarily about scandinavian interiors, fancy candles and A.P.C closets - even though it is fine to turn to these brands and items if they are adequate. An adept of simplicity could virtually be found in any type of store, buying any type of item. But they would know exactly what they are looking for in the item they are purchasing. Some would say they are picky customers, I prefer the word mindful.

A Word on my Consumption Habits

I am not going to detail here how many items I buy a year or what are my favourite brands or what are my shopping rules, because that's the point: I don't have any rules and numbers for you. To me, a "simple consumption" is exactly what is sounds like: simple. I have needed rules, boundaries, experiments, hard numbers in the past to help me simplify my life, question my habits and find what works for me. There is no shame in that and I may need it again in the future.

However I believe that a simple routine, a "post-simplification" daily habit, if you will, should, like a "post diet food habit", be organically integrated in my life, taking place in the background while my mind is free to think about something else. That is not to say I never research products, manage my accounts or consider money when making purchases - I am far from rich enough for this luxury - it just means it isn't something that drains my energy and thoughts. 

I think Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist has mentioned it several times over the years, but one of the most incredible benefits of simple living is that, unless your income is very low, you never feel like you don't have enough money anymore. For the first time in years, I feel like I have enough money for my needs. And that's from a middle class woman, coming from a working class family, who lives off an almost junior French salary in the most expensive city of the country. 

As I progress through simple living, here are the evolutions I have noticed:
  • I do purchase fewer items than I used to - especially when it comes to cultural products, which I tend to rent or borrow.
  • I keep purchasing items that make me happy from time to time (a few minerals here and there for my collection, a little golden necklace, a couple of replacements or additions for my wardrobe, a scented candle...)
  • I identify my lifestyle constraints, tastes and preferences easily now, and I tend to figure out  when something won't work out for me
  • Even though I sometimes celebrate the upcoming season, or a good news etc. with objects, simplicity has taught me to turn to other ways to rewards myself or cheer myself up
  • Overall, my purchase habits have become quite organic - I give much less thought to item acquisition than I used to, and I rarely feel the need to acquire something new. When I do find something I want to get, I don't fret over it for ages and don't feel guilty for indulging once in a while

Of course, I'm far from having "figured it out". We are all human and most of us live in a consumerist society, so life simplification and mindful consumption are an ongoing journey. But I feel like I have learned a lot since last year, in June, when I decided to engage in a shopping fast because I wasn't satisfied with my spending habits and frequency of incoming items. 

We all have our own journey, and perhaps your "simple consumption" definition and practice is different than mine. I guess the most important in all this, to me at least, is to find a balance that works, feeling like I have enough, and redirecting my energy to other things. How about you? Did your consumption habits change or are you hoping to make them change thanks to simple living?


  1. Yes, yes and yes. I agree with everything. I get annoyed now whenever I stumble upon unused items in my home, and that annoyance keeps me from buying more things that I don't really need. When I'm in a bad mood and I find myself wanting to buy something to cheer myself up, I also find myself thinking "but that won't actually help, though" (which, by the way, usually pisses me off even more). I have even stopped hoarding makeup, and I'm slowly buy surely throwing out or giving away the makeup that isn't in regular rotation. My weakness is still clothes though, because they always get used! Although I am running out of space in my closet, so there's always that... :)

    Seriously though, I can relate to all of this. I'm still not where I want to be (it's a journey after all), but I'm getting there. I've turned into that annoying friend you'd hate to take shopping because I would come up with all sorts of reasons why you shouldn't buy the thing.

    1. It is annoying to stumble upon something unsused at home isn't it? I feel the same - in a why did I buy this already? kind of way. There are always weak spots I guess, I've had a higher rotation of beauty products lately as I'm trying several natural/organic options that work for me. I can relate to the closet space thing, a good way to stop buying new items :)

      I agree that it's an ongoing journey, now I see purchase msitakes as a learning opportunity, a step of the way rather than a "failure". And I'm definitely that friend who'd dissuade people to buy stuff as well :)

  2. I can relate to some parts of what you write here. I still love fashion, engineering - as a craft. Dont think I will ever outgrow admiring beautifully made things or innovative designs. And hence may never be annoyed tagging along when others go shopping/attend tech showcases. Thats my prediction anyways.

    I went through a phase where the cheaper purchases were replaced by fewer expensive purchases. I think I spent the same amount of money in both the phases.

    And then was an incessant need to declutter. I think it's as stressful as clutter. I get a high from letting things go. I grew tired of the mental space it was taking. Constantly scanning the house for things to let go, is very tiring. It was a phase too.

    And then some peace. I think that is what i am experiencing. I dont know if it will last. And what's coming next for me. And so it goes.

    1. That's interesting, for I went through rather similar phases too! The decluttering high was an interesting one - simplifying, feeling proud of having all these bags of stuff to donate. But in the following months, or the next season, having to purchase new items because I might have gone too far :)

      I'm glad to hear you are at a rather peaceful period. I wonder if that kind of minset - related to material items I mean - can be permanent. Time will tell!

  3. "Some would say they are picky customers, I prefer the word mindful." -- yes.

    For me as well it has been a year since I did my shopping fast and I was reflecting on it recently. I still shop the same as I did during the fast, the 'fast' is simply 'the way I shop' now. I incorporated it into my life. And in the end I attribute it to mindfulness.

    I think about why I want something [or not] and resources and time and effort and money. And it is a habit. so it doesn't use much time. I try to check in with the reality of the situation and my thoughts and reactions to it and then buy or not according to my... values I guess I would call it. or maybe my heart's voice. which looks hokey as I read it but I am not sure what other words to use.

    I do know that It seems full of ease right now and I am grateful for it.

    1. You're right that it becomes a habit! Just like going for a run on the weekend, or not sweetening coffee and tea, it becomes integrated in the daily life, and no longer requires second thought which is great. Now that you mention it, I think it's the same for me: I pretty much shop the same way I used to during my shopping fast. Mindfulness probably has a part to play in it indeed :)

  4. i think the blissful zone of being content with already having enough and being able to make mindful consumption choices is such a rewarding feeling. it's not about a rigid 'system of minimalism' per se, it's about having a home and wardrobe and life that just works organically.

    1. It is a very rewarding feeling isn't it? Even though all of this is an ongoing journey, reaching that phase when you know yourself well enough, have an adequate and fulfilling set of items that works well with some mindful purchases here and there feels like an achievement indeed. As you say, more than a miimalist system, it's about having something that works, so that we can keep material items out of our heads and do something else with our mental space :)

  5. I hope I’m at last approaching that stage where you can organically shop only for what you need or for the occasional item that just ‘sparks joy’. I’ve spent about a year now, carefully planning my every (wardrobe) purchase with Into Mind’s method. Getting to know my style, building up a collection of mixable basics and meanwhile learning about simplicity, meditating etc., seems to have helped me develop a new attitude towards spending which I now hope to ‘consolidate’ by doing a shopping fast.
    Luckily, by now I’m pretty well attuned to the signs that I’m heading into dangerous territory – which is either overshopping or overthinking & obsessing. I get physical symptoms that I can’t imagine I didn’t feel before – accelerating heart beat, tense shoulders & I become literally hot-headed. I know now that when I feel that way, I should take a step back and listen to reason. Also, I try to avoid these situations in the first place by unsubscribing from newsletters and avoiding unnecessary store visits. I’m quite happy to have reached the stage where I know my preferences and my pitfalls, and that I can place (and let go of) my strong emotions about purchasing or not purchasing specific items, even if they are adequate. I know I’ll live if I don’t buy something or if I choose wrong (which will happen because who can predict the future?!).

    1. That's an interesting point here: mindfulness doesn't mean there is no tempation and no pitfall, but it helps realizing the signs of when it's happening in order to stop in time, understand the trigger and learn from it. Hopefully in the long term those temptations and pitfalls get fewer as well.